Japan Today chats with head brewer Keith Villa about Blue Moon craft beers in Japan.
How did you get involved in the craft beer industry?
Originally, I wanted to become a doctor, specifically a pediatrician. In my senior year of university (University of Colorado in Boulder), Coors brewing company put an advertisement out looking for someone to do brewing research. I went along with about a hundred other students and the next day they called and said that I was the most qualified. I went back to my dorm and asked myself if I wanted to work with sick people or beer and I thought, well I’ll try beer for a year and if I don’t like it, then I’ll go to medical school. After a year, I really loved doing this research with beer and yeast and so I told them I was going to quit and go to school at University of Colorado in Boulder and get my Ph.D there. Then they said, “Well hold on, what if we send you to Belgium to get your Ph.D in brewing?” And I said, sure.
You studied Brewing in Belgium for a few years. Was there a big difference in techniques there than in the U.S.? And how did it influence your outlook and approach to brewing?
Yes, because back in 1988 to 1992 when I was in Belgium, brewing with spices and herbs was almost unheard of in the United States. When you talked about beer, it was the clear, Pilsner beer…and a spiced beer just sounded strange back then. But in Belgium, that was normal—brewing with any kind of spices or fruits was something that they’d been doing for 300 years at least, so that was the first hurdle to get over—that you really could brew good beer with spices and fruits. The other thing was food friendliness. Belgian beers were always made to be food friendly, like wines. And American beers, they were not designed to be food friendly, per say; they were designed to be refreshing and thirst quenching. People thought it was strange to pair beer with food, in a culinary way. So those were the real distinct differences that I found between American brewing and Belgian brewing.
Tell us how Blue Moon came into being?
I started testing at our little brewery in Denver under Coors Field -- the stadium of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. We would try our beers out on the baseball fans, and found that Belgian white beer was very, very liked by the customers. They didn’t know what it was, but they loved it. The recipe is based on what I tasted in Belgium but with some changes. I put in oats to make it and I used Valencia orange peels instead of the Curacao orange peels that the Belgians use. The premium Valenica orange peel gives a much better smell and citrus flavor. This was at that time really risky. Coors were expecting some sort of Pilsner beer. It was almost unheard of to produce a Belgian style.
But we did it — just based on the recipe and the flavor profile. People loved it. Blue Moon was born. The name came from our administrative assistant; she said, you know an opportunity like this only comes around once in a blue moon ... why don’t you call it Blue Moon Brewing Company. And so, I thought, wow, that’s great! Since we were on a shoestring budget, we didn’t have much to reward her ... so we gave her a T-shirt for naming the company.
Was it a surprise the beer gained popularity, particularly in establishments that previously did not sell Craft beer? And do you feel in this respect that Blue Moon is somewhat of a cross-over beer?
In the early days, it wasn’t successful. It was really hard because people didn’t understand what Belgian beer was, and they didn’t understand the whole Blue Moon / cloudy beer thing. It was tough to educate people. Nowadays, we’ve reached the point where people understand what we’re about and we are successful and it is a cross-over beer for people who like regular Pilsner beers, but for those people who want just a little more flavor — but in a balanced way, they can come to Blue Moon and try us without having to deal with a stronger craft beer, like a real bitter taste, or something very strong etc.
Do you feel Blue Moon will do well in Japan?
I’m almost positive it will, because I think that the flavor profile is something that appeals to the Japanese palate. Their food is so well balanced with little nuances of flavor here and there, they take so much care and time into putting together the right flavor profile. Much like we do at our brewery. We put everything together to create the flavor of Blue Moon - again using natural ingredients. I think that the Japanese people really love when something natural comes together, the fact that it pairs with the food here, and just the appearance of it—it’s unique.
How does your marketing approach differ here than in, say, the U.S.?
In the U.S., we are more established. We the number one craft brand, people know about Blue Moon and it's the “go-to-beer” for a lot of people. We actually ran our first television commercial in the U.S. about two years ago. And so now we have commercials — not a lot of them, but we do have some commercials. Here in Japan, a lot of people may not know about Blue Moon, so what we’ll do is try the same strategy we did with Blue Moon in the States, when we first stated—that is, just go to the restaurants that serve specialty beer and specialty foods. Restaurants where the chefs really care about the food, then grow it from there. We don’t want to flood the market with Blue Moon, because if people don’t know about it - they probably won’t buy it. So we’ll just put it into the right accounts here and let it grow organically. We will be patient.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your business today?
I guess one big challenge we face it that people think that we’re big now and may not stay true to our roots. But as the founder of Blue Moon, I try to make sure that we stay true to all those early ideas that kept us together. It’s easy to stray from the things that made you successful.
What is the best part of doing what you do?
Just experimenting with new ingredients, making new beers - that is really fun. And the other fun part is talking to people about Blue Moon and our beers. So, to me, those two are right at the top. I love experimenting with new ingredients — just like any chef in a kitchen would. And I love talking to people about our brewery and our history.
If you never got into brewing, what would you be doing now?
I’d say, “Open your mouth and say ‘Ah.’”
What is your favorite food/restaurant in Japan?
I love sushi, so any restaurant that serves sushi.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I golf, ride Harley-Davidsons, go mountain biking and I snowboard. I like to stay active, because if I don’t—I drink so much beer that I would be about 300 pounds.© Japan Today