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Blue Moon Brewer Keith Villa: Most Influential Beer Man You've Never Heard Of?

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Try making beer with bacon and chocolate. Or Cap'n Crunch Crunch Berries. Yes, from the kid's cereal. Talk about a strange brew.

Keith Villa
Keith Villa

Keith Villa has done this -- and a lot more. You name it and Mr. Villa has brewed with it. But he's not some fly-by -night home brewer out for a little fun in the garage. He is the founder of Blue Moon Brewing, where nearly two decades ago he created an American adaptation of Belgian white ale that has emerged as one of the fastest-growing U.S. beers.

Mr. Villa just might be the most influential beer man you've never heard of . But this part scientist, part artist and all-around brewing geek is coming out of the shadows. He is appearing for the first time in Blue Moon ads as the brand's owner, MillerCoors, pours more energy behind the man and his creations.

One more thing about Mr. Villa: He's a doctor. Of beer. No joke: He is one of only a handful of people in the U.S. with a Ph.D. in brewing, which he earned after four years of study at the University of Brussels and a dissertation on complex biochemical reactions.

But even those credentials did not stop his corporate overseers from trying to end Blue Moon almost before it started. "There was a lot of pressure to kill us off," Mr. Villa said, recalling the mid-1990s, when Blue Moon was a division of Coors Brewing Co., which later merged with Miller Brewing. "The senior leadership, we were a thorn in their side. They said, 'This Blue Moon thing is not working, let's get rid of it.' " But "it inspired me to work that much harder, to prove they were wrong, that there was something in Blue Moon, because I honestly believed that someday people would appreciate Belgium beers."

Mr. Villa got into the beer business on a bit of a lark. While studying molecular biology at the University of Colorado and readying for medical school, he noticed a job posting for a fermentation researcher at Coors. "I asked myself if I wanted to work with sick people or beer, and I thought, 'I'll try beer,' " he said. He engrossed himself in the science of beer making, then headed off to the University of Brussels. He learned from the best, including how to pair Belgian brews with creations of the chefs, butchers and chocolate makers also on campus.

He returned to Coors in the early 1990s and got what seemed like a dream assignment: to create a microbrewery at Coors Field in Denver. Sandlot Brewery was born. Mr. Villa had his own take on the Belgian wheat beers he encountered overseas. He used barley malt, wheat and coriander, like most Belgians. But instead of mixing in the traditional tart Curacao orange peel, he used a Valencia, which gave it a subtle sweetness, and added oats to give it a creamier texture.

The brew is unfiltered, which makes it cloudy. (That's why it's called a Belgian "white.") He branded it Blue Moon on the advice of an administrative assistant, who said beers like this only come around "once in a blue moon." But in America, where the craft-brew scene was still in its infancy, drinkers did not get it. This murky brew scared them away.

So Mr. Villa traveled the country, going bar by bar to explain his creation, even touting the health benefits of the fiber in the oats and Vitamin B in brewer's yeast. "I would tell them, 'I'm a beer doctor, I know these things,' " he recalled, laughing.

In 1997, a breakthrough came -- in the form of a garnish. While wheat beers were usually served with a lemon, Mr. Villa began hanging an orange on the glass. He gave bags of oranges to bartenders, even including free cutting boards and knives.

Blue Moon began growing slowly, and Coors -- which tried to kill the project five times -- was eventually satisfied. It hit critical mass in 2000 and kept growing, including last year, when shipments shot up 19%, making it the 18th largest U.S. beer, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. The brand is now a major priority for MillerCoors, and as a result, Mr. Villa is taking on a greater role, creating more seasonal offerings and making a cameo in the latest round of Blue Moon TV spots, which tout the brew as "artfully crafted."

What kept him going in the early years? Mr. Villa is motivated by the underdog -- he loves the Wright brothers. And he finds inspiration in everything from avant-garde chefs to artists such as Picasso and French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. "With the beers I'm making, they are things that people never made before, so science will only get you so far."

Specialty releases include Peanut Butter Ale and Caramel Apple Spiced Ale, which consumers picked in a recent contest as the next Blue Moon seasonal over Blackberry Tart Ale and Dark Chocolate Bacon Porter. He is especially proud of Vintage Blonde Ale, which is made from Chardonnay grapes and is the only beer with wheat as its only grain (no barley malt). Winemaking is one of his hobbies. Every fall, he fills plastic swimming pools with grapes and has a stomping party.

His lab is the tiny Sandlot Brewery. I recently joined him there and we sampled brews straight from aging tanks crowded into a small basement lined with a drain running across a floor sticky from beer. We saved the bacon brew for near the end. Although it smells like Denny's, it is surprisingly drinkable. "I wish it would've won," he said, referring to the contest.

Chances are, he is just a little bit ahead of his time.

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