One of the best selling beers in America almost never made it.
Heineken is snapping up craft breweries! Anheuser-Busch InBev is controlling the hop fields and homebrew supplies! Constellation Brands is sleazing its way onto our tap lists! Reading today’s beer news, it’s easy to think international mega-breweries could shape the beer market to their will and force any beer of their choosing into becoming a worldwide sensation with their costly advertising campaigns, massive distribution channels and (some would say) questionable ethics.
Then there’s Blue Moon, the best-selling craft (or “craft”—the Brewer's Association definition requires a brewery be independently owned and MillerCoors owns Blue Moon) beer in the world. Cloudy, citrusy, and refreshing, even corporate-bashing beer geek elitists will reluctantly admit it’s pretty good. The way it became one of the most significant beers in American history, though, tracks back to one man with one cheeky idea.
“It was so exciting. Something that used to be illegal was now legal,” Keith Villa tells me about brewing in his dorm room in 1983, five years after President Jimmy Carter had signed H.R. 1337, which legalized homebrewing. Villa was studying to become a pediatrician when Coors Brewing, on the hunt for fermentation researchers, put up a flyer in the University of Colorado’s biology lab.
Villa answered the ad and spent two years with Coors. Then, at his bosses’ behest, he headed to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel to pursue a PhD in brewing. It was there that Villa became enamored with the beers of Pierre Celis, a former milkman from the town of Hoegaarden who revived the Belgian witbier style in the 1960s.
“I fell in love with that Belgian white style and thought, ‘I want to bring this back to the States, but with my own little thumbprint,’” Villa explains. Wheat, pale malts, and oats were a prerequisite and most witbiers also utilized coriander and Curacao orange peel, which created tartness but not much citrusy aroma. Villa’s tweak was to use the sweeter, more aromatic Valencia orange peel from California’s Central Valley. He also wanted a little more alcohol heft in the traditionally light and quaffable style. In 1995, he started perfecting his beer, provisionally dubbed Bellyslide Belgian White, at the new SandLot Brewery within Denver's Coors Field—the baseball stadium where the Rockies played.
Microbrewed beer was just beginning to blow up in America. In fact, Coors already had the best-selling “microbrew” of the time, George Killian’s Irish Red. (Back in an era when simply not being a fizzy yellow “lite” lager was enough to earn microbrew status amongst consumers.) Coors also had Zima, a crystal clear alcopop that briefly took the country by storm when it launched in 1993. Not wanting Villa’s beer to get in the way of those red-hot products, Coors gave him funding with the explicit stipulation he not brew his beers at Coors’ main Golden, Colorado brewery.
“I couldn’t think of a name for our brewery, though,” says Villa. “Finally, my administrative assistant said, ‘You know, you got backing from Coors, you got this great beer, the craft beer movement is just starting. An opportunity like this only comes around once in a blue moon.’”
That’s how Blue Moon Belgian White was born, but the beer was not an immediate hit. In fact, it seemed more likely to be an immediate flop. Among Blue Moon’s issues was its appearance: It was much cloudier than beers of the day, and first-time drinkers tended to wonder if there was something wrong with it. Villa made the rounds among distributors, sales people and retailers, trying to educate them on the Belgian white style. Still, sales remained poor.
Internally, there was displeasure as well. “The Coors folks, the senior leaders, tried to kill off Blue Moon,” Villa reveals. “They didn’t understand what it was, they didn’t like its cloudiness, they didn’t like the Belgian aspect. It was just a thorn in their side. But every time they would try to kill it, I’d figure out a way to keep it alive.”
What ultimately saved Blue Moon was a slice of fruit.
“In Belgium, they don’t serve white ales with a garnish,” says Villa. “But I had seen it with Mexican beers. You know, Corona with a little lime. I thought, ‘Why don’t people put an orange with Blue Moon? It just made sense!” Villa reasoned that in addition to complementing the beer’s flavor profile, an orange slice would make a pint of Blue Moon stand out at a bar.
In 1997 Villa asked Coors’ corporate communications department to release a memo instructing bartenders to garnish each Blue Moon pint with an orange slice. The problem was, back in the soda gun and canned fruit juice days of the 1990s, bars didn’t stock fresh oranges. Villa decided to address the issue directly. “On my first meeting with bars, I’d deliver a free bag of oranges, a cutting board, a knife. I’d show them how to cut the orange so it’d look like a moon,” Villa explains. “I’d come back a week later to see how it’s going. ‘It’s selling great.’ OK, then here’s another sack of oranges.”
Even with its new, brand-identifying garnish, Blue Moon sales remained flat through 1999. But Villa could feel the tipping point coming. He decided to scrap the other Blue Moon products he had launched with—Nut Brown Ale, Honey Blonde Ale, Raspberry Cream Ale, and Abbey Ale—to focus completely on his Belgian White (and distributing oranges).
As Andy England, Coors’ then-chief marketing officer, would later speculate, the orange slice eventually worked because it forced bartenders to share the brand’s story, something marketers call “retail theater.”
“So it’s not that people say, ‘Hey, check out my Blue Moon,’” he explained in The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, “but it’s that people see it and ask the bartender or (another) drinker, ‘Hey, what is that?’”
Indeed, Villa’s bet paid off and, by 2001, sales had begun growing rapidly. By 2003 Coors’ annual report was now touting Blue Moon’s third straight year of 25 percent-plus growth. Now a word-of-mouth success, it wasn’t until 2009 that the brand even aired its first television commercials. Today Blue Moon is the 11th best-selling beer in America—just ahead of Yuengling—and generates more than $250 million in yearly revenue.
All because of a silly orange slice.
Blue Moon is not without controversy and naysayers though. Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch has called Blue Moon a “Milli Vanilli” beer, likening it to the fraudulent pop stars who didn’t really sing. In 1999, the Confederation des Brasseries de Belgique sued Blue Moon for implying it was Belgian; and an American has sued Blue Moon many times, claiming the brewery is trying to dupe consumers into believing it’s a small, craft-level operation. (“They [the specialty products] will not say ‘Coors.’ We want them disassociated from the Coors family,” CEO Pete Coors had bluntly told All About Beer’s Stan Hieronymus in 1995.)
Meanwhile, there’s a portion of the beer cognoscenti that asserts Allagash White, another (frankly better) wit beer that was also launched in 1995, rightfully deserves Blue Moon’s wild success. Likewise, the aforementioned Celis had already left Hoegaarden and began brewing his own stateside wit in Austin, Texas in 1992. Finally, Anheuser-Busch (Villa calls them “our big competitor in St. Louis”) launched its own Blue Moon rip-off, Shock Top, in 2006.
Villa gets pissed off when people denigrate his beer. “People online say, ‘Oh, it’s just part of Coors.’ Hey, come to our little brewery and spend time with us and you can determine if we’re a craft brewery or not!” And, while the Brewers Association may never recognize it as craft beer due to its corporate ownership and massive production levels, Blue Moon Brewing has won brewery of the year awards at both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival as recently as 2008 and 2010 respectively—well into the American craft beer boom. The brand continues to thrive. For many folks even today, it’s their foray into the entire craft beer scene.
“There are millions of craft drinkers like me who have Blue Moon to thank for getting super-flavorful, high-quality beer into almost every bar in the country,” said beer writer Michael Kiser when he interviewed Villa on his Good Beer Hunting podcast.
Even though their flagship is still generically called “Blue Moon” by bar customers, Blue Moon has actually expanded to some two-dozen beers, including such offerings as Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata Ale and Blue Moon Cappuccino Oatmeal Stout. Last summer, Blue Moon—now a part of the merged MillerCoors—opened a state-of-the-art brewery in Denver’s hip RiNo District. There, Villa can experiment and try to come up with new beers—though he doubts he’ll ever create something as big as his beloved Belgian white.
“It’s really hard to believe where this has taken me. I enter a bar, look over, and see the Blue Moon neon. I go up to the bar and see the Blue Moon tap handle. All around the bar I see people drinking Blue Moon. ‘Did I really create all this?’ In my own small way I changed the course of beer history in America.”
Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is the author of The Guide for a Single Man and The Guide for a Single Woman. His writing on beer has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The Daily Beast, PUNCH and more.