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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/27/2010

Beer: Mooning over MillerCoors

By Greg Kitsock

It’s a misconception that an unbridgeable chasm divides the brewers of large international companies from their counterparts at small regional operations. Some brewers lug their own sacks of malt and hops, some have Teamsters do the grunt work, but all take an equal pride in their beer.

Keith Villa, who heads MillerCoors’s Blue Moon Brewing division, has a stride long enough to straddle both worlds. Twenty-five years ago, he was a University of Colorado senior contemplating medical school when a Coors recruiter lured him away to a career in brewing research. Today, he formulates and promotes specialty beers for the country’s second largest beermaker.

“I’ve made a peanut butter beer, I’ve made a beer-wine hybrid,” he says of his more exotic efforts. Undoubtedly his most successful is Blue Moon Belgian White, introduced in 1995 as Belly Slide Belgian Wit at the SandLot Brewery (a brewpub within the confines of Coors Field) in Denver. Blue Moon has since topped the million-barrel mark in sales, making it (so Villa claims) “the number one craft brand in volume” in the United States.

“Sam Adams is a lot bigger,” he explains, “but they brew a lot more styles.”

The original Blue Moon, however, has spawned its own family of beers. I’ve seen Villa’s winter seasonal, Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale, disparagingly referred to as “abbey light,” but that’s the whole point. Villa refers to his beer as a “single,” a lighter beer that Trappist monks might brew for their own consumption (the term “paterbier” is also used), while selling the stronger “doubles” and “triples” commercially.

Villa, who spent four years in Belgium studying brewing biochemistry at the University of Brussels, says he patterned his beer after a single brewed at the Abbaye of Notre-Dame de Scourmont, which makes the Chimay line.

Chimay single, however, is described as golden-hued, while Winter Abbey Ale is a deep ruddy copper. Villa incorporates caramel, Munich and chocolate malts, and Belgian dark candi sugar into the recipe. He reformulated the recipe this year to include some malted wheat, which keeps the beer light on the palate and (in Villa’s opinion) enhances the other flavor elements.

Winter Abbey is a clean, malt-accented ale, not all that different from Belgian-style pale ales like Palm or New Belgium Fat Tire, with hints of candy apple and a smooth, toffee-like finish. At 5.6 percent alcohol by volume, it’s only slightly stronger than a typical American beer.

“People think it should be stronger,” admits Villa, “but over the next 30 or so years, I think we’ll see many craft brewers migrating to balance.”

Winter Abbey Ale was formerly known as Winter Moon, but MillerCoors decided to rename the brand to give customers a better idea of what sort of beer the bottle contained. The other Blue Moon seasonals will receive a similar rebranding. Next up, the spring seasonal, formerly dubbed Rising Moon, will reappear the first week in February (obviously, the sales and marketing people don’t believe in letting the grass grow under their feet!) as Blue Moon Spring Blonde Ale. That one will also undergo a major reformulation, with lemon and orange peel replacing the lime flavoring.

With the craft segment growing explosively (Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick just reported “triple-digit growth” in 2010 for the mid-Atlantic region), MillerCoors has plenty of irons in the fire. Blue Moon Brewing is part of a specialty division called 10th and Blake, which also incorporates the Leinenkugel family of brands, the pre-Prohibition lager Batch 19 and imports Peroni and Pilsner Urquell.

Still another subdivision is AC Golden Brewing Co., which was conceived as an incubator for small specialty brands. So far AC Golden has released three labels, all for the Colorado market. The most interesting is Colorado Native Lager, an amber lager that seeks to tap into the locavore movement by using 99.9 percent Colorado-grown ingredients. However, the Rocky Mountain State has only a handful of small hop growers, so some of the Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops have to be imported from out of state. According to Villa, AC Golden president Glenn Knippenberg has been offering hop rhizomes to the company's Facebook correspondents so they can augment local production in their backyards.

The vines will take a few years to reach peak production, and obviously any cones that reach the brewery will be of variable quality since the amateur growers don’t have the means to preserve and pelletize them. But it’s an interesting way of cultivating brand loyalty -- allowing drinkers to hoist a glass and brag, “I helped make this!”

By Greg Kitsock  | December 27, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Blue Moon Brewing, Greg Kitsock, craft beer  
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