Beer, Wine & Spirits

Blue Moon Brewing hops on IPA bandwagon

One might say the stars and planets have aligned for Blue Moon Brewing Co.

"There is a blue moon on July 31, and it happens to be a Friday night so we figured what better time to celebrate our 20th anniversary than an actual blue moon in the year 2015?" said Keith Villa, the company's founder and head brewmaster. The celebrations will take place in 750 bars nationwide.

Blue Moon has come a long way from where it was when Villa founded the company on Sept. 14, 1995. The brand, part of MillerCoors' craft beer division Tenth and Blake, is one of the best-selling beer brands in the United States. But it initially wasn't easy to persuade consumers to give an unfiltered Belgian-style wheat beer a try.

"The No. 1 craft beer brand in the U.S. when I launched Blue Moon was George Killian's Irish Red Ale, which is a very caramelly, malty beer," he said. "Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 were all things like Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada, and a bunch of red beers, or amber beers."

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While early craft drinkers were looking for more flavor in their beer, their palates were not yet ready for some of the innovation that is being embraced in today's marketplace, he said.

"People weren't ready for unfiltered beers or a lot of hops or a lot of different styles," he said. "As the market evolved, Blue Moon helped to expand people's horizons."

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The craft beer segment has grown to a double-digit share of the total beer marketplace, and beer drinkers have embraced the strong flavor of hops, with hoppy India pale ales becoming firmly entrenched as the most popular craft beer style.

The shift hasn't been lost on Villa, who brewed a number of IPAs as special releases in the past.

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While customers often asked for a year-round IPA, it wasn't until he became intrigued by the white IPA style that he decided a permanent IPA offering would be worth a look. A white IPA combines the wheat base of Belgian-style beer with the hoppiness of an IPA.

"I thought we should be doing that because we pioneered that white style, and so we got to work and started creating a white IPA," he said.

Setting the benchmark IPA

The company left no flavor combination unexplored when it came time to create its white IPA recipe.

"We brought in all the top IPAs that we could find across the country, everything from sessions to the imperials, and everything in between, and we tasted all of those," he said. "We whittled them down to the top five, and we said, 'OK, this is our benchmark.' "

Villa then took the original Blue Moon Belgian White recipe and dialed down the coriander and orange peel so it was just barely perceptible, but enough to be an "official Belgian White ale" and used that as the base for the Blue Moon White IPA.

"We've had so many people come up to us and say, 'Wow, I'm not an IPA drinker, I don't like them, but, I love this IPA,' " said Villa. "At the same time, the opposite end of the spectrum, we get the IPA drinkers who come up and they say, 'Wow! I didn't think Blue Moon could make something like this.' "

A turning point for craft beer?

While Villa is taking time these days to reflect on his 20-year journey in the beer business, he's also assessing the current landscape. With a record 3,400 breweries in operation and more than 2,000 in planning, he sees the increased competition for shelf space and tap handles proving difficult to sustain at the current pace.

"I think that the net result is there probably comes a point where we will see another downturn," he said. But Villa said all that competition will benefit the industry in the long run.

"There's so much choice and so many different styles available that you can have the really great local beers, great regional beers, great national craft brands," he said. "It raises the bar for us every day, as brewers, to get better and better."