Australian Brews News
Radio Brews News Season 2 Episode 3
Transcript of Interview with Keith Villa, Blue Moon Brewery, and David Coors.
Recorded 21 November 2013
Start of Audio (Interview and transcript commence at 17:52 of the podcast)
Matt Kirkegaard: [00:00] Keith Villa and David Coors, welcome to Radio Brews News, and welcome to Australia!
Keith Villa: [00:04] Thank you very much.
Matt: [00:05] So we might start with you, Keith. Just tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. You were the founder of the Blue Moon Brewery …
Keith: [00:12] Correct, yes.
Matt: [00:12] … which is based in Denver.
Keith: [00:13] Denver, Colorado, yeah. I started it in 1995 out of the Coors Field, which is the baseball stadium for the Colorado Rockies, our major league baseball team. We’re located in right field of the stadium, and our brewery is very small. It’s a 10-barrel brew house, which makes about 310 gallons per batch; again, very small, it’s 20 kegs if you want to take it down to the keg size. We use it for producing Blue Moon beer for the local area as well as developing new recipes down there, because it’s the perfect place to come up with new recipes and test those recipes with all the thirsty baseball fans.
Matt: [00:48] Now, when Blue Moon started, was it owned by Coors at that stage or was it independent and it was subsumed eventually?
Keith: [00:54] Yes, we got complete funding from Coors Brewing Company to be an operating unit. So we opened up, and we’ve got independence to develop the beers that we like and the beers that we think our fans would like. So we’ve got plenty of independence, and we’ve got the luxury of using the Coors network to distribute our beer, to use the laboratories to analyse our ingredients and make sure that the ingredients are the best quality we can get.
[01:30] We’re in the best situation ever. We’ve got a craft brewery, we’ve got the luxury of having a large brewery to use their laboratories, their distribution network, all of their logistics. So it’s really a fantastic situation that we’re in. And it’s a lot of fun, because we can develop a beer that our fans like and get it out to all those thirsty Blue Moon fans on the east coast, the west coast, and even now here in Australia, exporting from the Coors facilities.
Matt: [02:04] Coors must have been fairly early to the craft beer—and, craft beer, depending on when you trace it back, goes back to the early 1980s, but in terms of the big breweries’ involvement, Blue Moon seems to have started fairly early on in that process, going back to the ‘90s [inaudible 02:17]?
Keith: [02:18] 1995 was when we started, but in fact, at the Coors Brewery they were making some craft-style beers well before Blue Moon in 1995. So they made a beer called Killian’s Red, which was a forerunner of amber ales, amber lagers. That appeared in about 1981. Another beer, which was very rich and flavourful, was called Herman Joseph. Herman Joseph’s lager; this one debuted in about 1980, and again, really a nice lager, richer, and not as sweet as Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
[03:04] So it was well before its time—because, as I talked to the brewers who used to be there back in those days, they told me that they would brew this and it was a rich, all-malt, craft-style lager, and they had to convince people to buy it because it had so much flavour. Back then people weren’t used to having so much flavour in a lager beer, and it never really took off to become super popular because it was ahead of its time.
[03:28] Same with Blue Moon Belgian White—I launched that in 1995 when the Belgian beers, which today are very popular all around the world, were unheard of. In 1995 people didn’t know much about Belgian ales, and even knew less about where on the map they could find the country of Belgium.
Matt: [03:49] Tell us a little bit about yourself. You started as a molecular biologist and …
Keith: [03:54] Yes. [laughs]
Matt: [03:54]… intending to go to medical school.
Keith: [03:56] Yeah, yes.
Matt: [03:57] You took a …
Keith: [03:58] A detour [laughs].
Matt: [03:58] … diversion into brewing.
Keith: [04:00] Yes, that’s right.
Matt: [04:00] Tell us a little bit about how that happened.
Keith: [04:01] Sure, yeah. I’m a native of Colorado, I was born literally down the street from the Coors Brewery. There’s a hospital called Lutheran Hospital—that’s where I was born. I grew up in Arvada, which is a sub-division, I guess, of Denver, a suburb, and I graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Today it’s probably most famous for how liberal it is—they recently legalised marijuana. So [laughs] a lot of tourists love to go there because of that!
[04:30] But yeah, I graduated with a degree in molecular biology, and three months before I graduated, I literally was planning to go to medical school, I had taken my medical college admission tests, I had done my interviews to get into medical school. And about three months before graduation, Coors wanted to find somebody to do beer research, fermentation research, brewing research. And so they put this advertisement in up in the laboratories of the molecular biology building.
[04:56] And I happened to be working in there as an undergrad—I had co-authored a couple of articles. I checked that out—and I was a home-brewer—and I thought, “This really looks fascinating.” So I went to the brewery and talked to them, along with probably 100 other students, and they called me the next day and said I was the most qualified. They said if I wanted to join them I can start as soon as possible; in fact, they asked if I could start the day after I graduated from school!
[5:28] So I had to go back that evening to my dormitory and ask myself if I wanted to work with sick people or beer. [laughs] And I said, “Well, I will go there, work with beer for one year, and if I don’t like it, I’m headed straight to medical school.” So I was there for a year, I loved it, I stayed another year, and then I said I was gonna quit, go to a CU and get my PhD in that type of research ‘cause it was a lot of fun. So I told them and they said, “Well, hold on. What if we send you to Belgium to get your PhD in brewing?” And I thought, “Man, that is awesome—I’m there!”
[6:00] So they sent me to Belgium. I was there for four years, got my Doctorate in Brewing Science—so it’s biochemistry with brewing specialisation—I graduated magna cum laude, and came back to Golden. At that time, they didn’t quite know what to do with me, because here I was fresh from Europe, I was intimately familiar with Belgian ales, how they made them, German ales—because I had gone all over Europe studying beers and how they made their beers. So I was very familiar with all that. I fell in love with the Belgian ales; I just loved recreating them and trying to put little special unique twists on them and make them even better, in my opinion.
[6:43] In 1994, that’s when Peter Coors got the idea of having an operating unit dedicated to craft beer. So we got the funding, I was paired up with a gentleman from marketing, who put together the business plan, and I put together the recipes, the specifications, the operations plan, and we went to work to create this new operating unit for Coors.
[7:12] The one thing we did not have was a name for the brewery. So we racked our brains literally trying to find out a great name for this brewery, and finally our administrative assistant came up to us, and she said, “You know, you guys have wonderful beers. The recipes are delicious, you’ve got the logistics and the support of this big brewery,” she said, “You have the opportunity of a lifetime!” She said, “Something like this doesn’t come around except for once in a blue moon.” She said, “Why don’t you call it ‘Blue Moon Brewing Company’?”
[7:42] We thought that’s a fantastic name. And we were on a shoestring budget back then, a very, very tight budget, so to reward her, we gave her a t-shirt! [laughs] We used that name, and we thought it would be hugely successful, but what we found was that it was very difficult in the early years, because people didn’t know what Belgian beer was, and when they saw Blue Moon Belgian White, they saw this cloudy liquid and they immediately thought that there was a problem.
[8:18] They thought it was contaminated or infected, and I had to convince them that, no, this is unfiltered wheat ale, and what they were seeing was protein from the wheat, they were seeing the fibre from the oats that we brew with, and they were seeing brewer’s yeast, which is rich in vitamin B.
[8:38] I went around the US convincing people that this is a great liquid. I educated people, I did Brewmaster Beer Dinners before they were in vogue. I mean, today you can go to any restaurant and have a Brewmaster Beer Dinner. Back in 1995 that was unheard-of, people thought that was strange and very, very bizarre. But I kept at it and travelled the country from ’95 to ’97, and during that time I found that people were serving our beer—in the few bars that did serve us—they would serve it without an orange, they would serve it really with a lemon.
[9:00] I thought, “That’s not appropriate,” because our beer is brewed with three grains: barley malt, wheat malt, and oats, and It’s spiced in the brew kettle with hops—just a little bit of hops—but, more importantly, spiced with coriander and orange peel. I did that to make the beer as fruity as possible. It’s dry, it’s not sweet, but the fruitiness makes you perceive that it’s sweet. It’s very, very thirst-quenching, very, very flavourful, and certainly a craft beer.
[9:29] So as I saw people garnishing our beer with a lemon, I put out a note to our salespeople to say, “Please have our retailers start serving it with a slice of orange, a wheel, if you will.” I heard back right away, loud and clear, that nobody had oranges. This was 1997.
Matt: [9:48] I believe you delivered bags of oranges and cutting boards and knives to the venues.
Keith: [9:50] We did. [laughs] We had to. We didn’t have the resources to just get out there and give everybody oranges and tell everybody what to do. I mean, we were a teeny-tiny brewery, we really had no clout, no power to do anything, so we had to always do things creatively and as low-budget as possible.
[10:13] So, for the orange garnish, in order to get people to have that, I would travel from bar to bar that served Blue Moon. I would take a bag of oranges, a cutting board and a knife, and literally meet with the bartender and the staff on a Monday morning, since that was their typical time of the day and day of the week for downtime to plan for the week and get everything ready for promotions and everything.
[10:38] So I’d meet with them and say, “You know, with Blue Moon, can you please help us out? Can you garnish it with an orange like this?” and I would show them how to slice the orange into a wheel and how to garnish the glass. They said, “Sure, we could do that.” And so they would do it for a week, and I would come back the next week and say, “How’s it going?” And they would say, “It’s going great, you know, people love this little gimmick.” I said, “Okay, here’s another bag of oranges … a free bag, just use ‘em.”
[11:01] They would do that, and I would do that for about four or five weeks, and at the end of that time I would just stop, cold turkey, just stop. And they would not have oranges. The customers then, who had grown used to having an orange on their Blue Moon, like this, they would then have a glass without the orange, and they would tell the retailer, they would say, “Hey, where’s my orange garnish?” And of course the retailer would then call us on the phone and say, “Where’s my free bag of oranges? I need it.”
[11:31] We would say, “That was an introductory thing, now you have to go buy your own oranges.” And they were forced to because of their customers. The customers demanded it. We had really gone out with that guerrilla marketing campaign and convinced customers that Blue Moon is an awesome drink by itself, but it’s spectacular when you put that orange slice garnish on it, because it brings out the orange aroma that it’s brewed with: it’s brewed with orange peel and coriander.
Matt: [11:51] I might come back to the orange. I might throw it to David for a second.
David Coors: [11:53] Yep.
Matt: [11:53] Keith just told us a little bit about how consumers had become used to beers being very clear and pale, and not particularly strongly flavoured, and I guess Coors is famous for the light-flavoured lager, that I think is sometimes unfair. There’s a joke that is often unfairly attributed to Coors and canoes over here.
David: [12:15] [chuckles] I’ve heard of this one. I was just thinking about it.
Matt: [12:18] How much is the craft brewing movement almost a reaction against those mainstream lagers that brewers like Coors made famous?
David: [12:28] I think the lighter lagers were really a consumer trend. So before Coors Light was there, you had Coors Banquet, our original Coors recipe that’s a full-flavoured 5% ABV lager, and that was our main flagship brand. Coors Light came around on the heels of Miller Light launching in the States, and it was a consumer trend. The consumers were asking for it, and so it was one of those deals where if you want to stay in business you got to appeal to the consumers. And so Coors has been on this wonderful trajectory for 40 some years of continued growth, and still doing not very well in the States and is number two in the States.
[13:05] Craft movement is great, in my opinion, because it’s getting people really engaged into beer, and excited about beer, and talking about it. So it’s become occasion-based. People want a Coors on a hot summer day. You guys have wonderful beaches and wonderful sports fans, and so it fits perfectly for that. If you’re having dinner or just want to have a couple of pints with a mate after work, a full-flavoured craft beer may be better for that occasion. So essentially, there’s a good need base for both, but the swell of craft beer is great. It’s exciting.
Matt: [13:35] Tell us a little bit about the Coors Brewery. You’re the fifth generation of the Coors family to be working in the brewery?
David: [13:42] Yeah.
Matt: [13:45] Our own Cooper’s Brewery, which is a famous, 150-year-old brewery, are up to their fifth generation. So tell us a little bit about the history of the brewery.
David: [13:52] It started in 1873 by my great-great-grandfather, and he stowed away from Germany. He was a brewing apprentice at the age of 16, and had heard great things about America. And so he left his family and stowed away, and ended up in New York and worked his way across America. He worked in a brewery in Illinois for a while, and I heard a story where the owner of the brewery was trying to get him to marry his daughter. [laughs] And so my great-great-grandfather, Adolph, said, “Okay, I’m out of here,” and he kept moving west.
[13:52] He knew that water was key to making good beer, because back then they didn’t have filtration techniques and modification techniques of water, additives. And so he found Golden, Colorado and this amazing natural spring water, and started brewing beer there. So back then, when it was such a necessity of good quality water, he started a brewery with a partner, and soon thereafter bought his partner out, and, I guess, the rest is somewhat history.
[14:50] It started out as a small regional craft brewery, expanded to 13 states, wouldn’t move east of the Mississippi because we were … always have been unpasteurised, and would have had to ship by cold rail and trucks. As soon as technology expanded to better filtration and cold trucks and rail, we expanded across the nation. So it’s got, kind of, that old craft story, but 50 years ago.
Matt: [15:20] The Coors story really mirrors a lot about the US brewing tradition, where the very German influence … the German migrations really influenced the brewing style. Anheuser-Busch has a very similar story. How has the German tradition influenced modern brewing, 150 years after or 130 years after you first started brewing?
David: [15:47] Europe is kind of the Mecca or origin of beer, whether it’s the Czech Republic or Germany, known for beer. I think these days you see people following different origins, so the German Purity Law, a lot of craft breweries and small breweries focus on that. Keith focused on Belgian breweries. I think there’s a lot of movement in America around very hoppy beers and West Coast, I guess, pale ales or IPAs. I mean you’ve got all these wonderful styles that are inspired from origins. But Germans, for some reason, really seem to have a stronghold in the US [indecipherable 16:24] years.
Matt: [16:24] Keith, going back to you. We’re drinking the Blue Moon Belgian witbier. You’ve talked about the orange. How much of the slice of orange on the glass is theatre and presentation and marketing, and how much of it is actually enhancing the flavour of what we’re tasting?
Keith: [16:47] My original reason for coming up with that orange slice garnish was purely functional. It allows the orange and fruity aromas of the beer to be magnified. So it’s a functional garnish, really to bring out and amplify those nice notes that are in the beer.
[17:04] Secondarily, it is … and I didn’t plan on it, but it is a visual indicator of Blue Moon. So when you put it on there in the bar, in a bar situation like here … bars are crowded with lots of competitors, and when you see a glass with that orange garnish, it really makes our beer stick out. So because of that, it gives that visual appeal. You see this beautiful, golden, cloudy beer with an orange garnish on the side, and immediately a lot of people have their interest piqued, and say, “What is that? Can I try that?” So yeah, that’s the secondary aspect of that orange garnish.
[17:43] First, again, is functional, to bring out the aromas. Second is the visual appeal. And third, what we found out quite unexpectedly, is that consumers really form a bond with Blue Moon, because they have their own ritual with that garnish. If you talk to our fans, it turns out that they do the same thing with that garnish time and time again. Some people will take the garnish off and put it in the beer and drink the beer. Others will just take it off and set it aside, time and time again. Others still will take the garnish off and squeeze the juice into the beer. And it doesn’t matter how many times they’ve consumed our beers, but their little ritual is the same, time and time again.
[18:22] So what it does is it really creates a bond with our brand of Blue Moon. So it’s something that’s really, really fun to see. So something that I developed in 1997 as just a functional garnish turned into such a magnet for our brand.
Matt: [18:38] I believe that, whereas Curacao orange peel is a traditional Belgian variety, you opted for Valencia orange peel?
Keith: [18:45] Correct. Our beer is much different. It was inspired by the Belgian beers. As I lived over there and had the beers, I thought they were fantastic. But I thought, “You know, I’d like to brew a Belgian White that my friends in the United States would really like, something that they wouldn’t have to get used to, something they would like right away, something that was really great for pairing with food, and something that could be drunk on its own.”
[19:11] So I looked at the recipes for Belgian witbiers that have been brewed for hundreds of years, and found that, yes, they used Curacao orange peel. In the States we say Curacao orange peel. The Curacao, if you see it and smell it, it doesn’t smell orangey, but in taste it’s kind of citrus and bitter, and the Belgians have used it for hundreds of years in their witbiers, mainly for that taste aspect. And I thought, “You know, I want a beer with some fruitiness to it, some nice, refreshing orange character, so I’m going to use Valencia orange peel.” That’s the first and major distinction between our beer and Belgian witbiers.
[19:50] The second is that I wanted our beer to have a nice, creamy mouth feel to it, something with some body—not too much—just a little bit of a creamy-mouth feel, so I put oats in our beer. Belgian brewers used the oats in their witbiers hundreds of years ago, but stopped brewing them with oats about 50 to 100 years ago, because oats are very difficult to brew with. Oats have fibre in them, and it’s good for us to eat oats because of that fibre, but when you brew with oats, that fibre can gum up the valves and the filtration of the brew house. And so brewers in Belgium stopped using oats in their witbiers.
[20:31] I definitely said, “We’re going to use oats.” And we did, and it results in a nice, creamy mouth feel. So that’s the second major difference between Blue Moon and the witbiers of Belgium.
Matt: [20:45] I believe Pierre Celis, when he started, he used oats, but once it was taken over by SABMiller, I think they might have dropped out the oats, which changed the body of the beer a little.
Keith: [20:50] Yes, it made it lighter. Again, that is lighter in … almost, to an extent, kind of watery. The brewers over there did that because really, it makes it easier to brew the beer. It’s difficult to brew with oats, but we’re very proud of using the oats, and it gives that nice, creamy, signature mouth feel to Blue Moon. So that’s the second big distinction.
[21:12] The third and final, big distinction is that the typical Belgian witbiers are around 4-4.2% ABV. I wanted a little bit more, to make our beers more food-friendly and more flavourful. So I dialled it up to 5.4. So we’re more than a degree higher in alcohol, and what it does is it does make our beers more food-friendly, a little more flavourful, where we’re right on the edge, but we still have that session ability for a craft beer.
[21:41] So we’ve got the flavour and the body, but still, you can drink two or three, maybe even four or five of our beers. But they’re not designed to be thirst-quenching like a Coors beer. These are designed to be craft beers. They are craft beers, flavourful.
Matt: [21:59] I guess that’s the question that I can flick to both of you, both from a management and from a brewing perspective. You mentioned that you wanted beers that people didn’t have to grow to like, that they didn’t have to acquire the taste of, which is why you use the Valencia orange. There must be a fine balance between making beers … popularising beer styles and dumbing them down. I guess that’s something that big breweries are often accused of in the beer geek world—of dumbing beers down.
[22:36] But, at the same time, brewing is a business, and a big brewery needs to stay in business and needs to grow. Is Coors a public company or is it family-owned company?
David: [22:47] It’s a public company [indecipherable 22:46]. We’re still family-owned and a lot of family involvement.
Matt: [22:52] I guess from a brewer’s point of view, how do you walk that tight rope between popularising beer styles and making them approachable and not too challenging, but at the same time maintaining the brewer’s art?
Keith: [23:05] Yes, sometimes we have been accused of dumbing down beers, and my response to that is quite simple. I never dumb down a beer. What I do is I take a style, I get inspired by it, and I put my own inviting twist on it. So, again, if you take Blue Moon Belgian White and compare it to a Belgian wit, again, you go through those three differences, and I would argue that that’s not dumbing it down. Ours is beefed up in alcohol. We’re 5.4 versus 4.2 for a typical wit. We use Valencia orange peel, which I personally love, versus Curacao, which has no orange taste.
[23:38] We’ve got our orange garnish. We’ve got oats, which are very difficult to brew with. Craft brewers usually avoid using oats because they’re difficult. So if that’s dumbing something down … [chuckles] I would say it’s quite the opposite. And then I point to the fact that we’ve won numerous medals at the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup, local beer competitions. So I think—not just I think our beers are great, but judges, independent beer judges agree that our beers really are worthy of medals, and so of that I’m very proud. Again, if making a great beer that sells well, that wins medals, that people love, if that’s dumbing down a beer, then I’m all for it.
Matt: [24:23] I guess following on from that, we’ve seen a whole range of trends coming, with beer and wine hybrids, and barrel aging. These are things that you’ve been doing at SandLot Brewery since the late ‘90s. You made a chardonnay beer before it was even a trend, I understand.
Keith: [24:45] Yes. We’ve been brewing beers that are now called extreme beers, exemplified by craft brewers all across the US and around the world. Beers are coming out that are being called extreme. We were doing this in the ‘90s before there was a term for these beers.
[25:01] But, yeah, we were brewing with everything from grapes—that is not just table grapes, but true wine grapes. We started that in the 1990s, well before anybody else was doing that, mainly because I’ve been making wine at home for years. I’m a home winemaker. My wife and I have these little kiddie swimming pools that our kids use to bathe in and everything in the summertime. But at the end of the summer, I would confiscate their pools and turn them into primary fermentation tanks.
[25:34] So what I would do is fill them up with 500 pounds of wine grapes. We’d have three little pools. We’d invite the friends over, and we would drink wine, have cheese and bread. And then towards the end of the evening, I would invite everybody down into our walk-out basement, and we would wash our feet with a nice solution of sanitiser, then step into the grapes, and start stomping. [chuckles] It would take about 45 minutes to an hour to stomp all these grapes, and we have a lot of fun. We’ve been doing that for about 26, 27 years, and it’s really a lot of fun.
[26:10] But back in the early days, I wanted to create a hybrid of wine and beer, because I thought: I love wine. I love beer. I even love spirits, but wine and beer I thought were really great, and I always wanted to make a hybrid of the two, something that was like wine, but with hints of beer. And I did that in the ‘90s, and what I found is that people did not like it. They were not ready for it, just like they weren’t ready for Belgian White back then. It took a lot of hard work to educate people and say, “This is what we’re all about.”
[26:38] But unfortunately, they didn’t like the wine beers to a huge extent, so I put the recipe in my archives. And then 10 years later, in 2006, I rolled out the recipe again, for the Great American Beer Festival, and found that we won a medal. We won a silver medal that year, just on brewing that beer, entering it, and the judges loved it. We served it that year at the GABF in the States, and found that all these thirsty craft beer fans fell in love with that beer.
[27:06] So we started producing it every year in the summertime, and then finally officially named it Vintage Blonde Ale about two years ago, and found that people really liked that. It changed their perceptions of what a beer could be, an extreme beer. They were open to any kind of beer brewed with any ingredient.
[27:30] So we then evolved that Vintage Blonde Ale into what we call our Vintage Collection. So the Vintage Collection consists of these beers made with wine grapes from the Central Coast of California. We have, so far, two reds. We have a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot beer, then we have two whites. We have a Chardonnay and we have a Sauvignon Blanc.
[27:54] But the very unique thing about these beers is that they’re brewed with 100% wheat, and that is a very difficult thing to do. If you ask craft brewers around the world to make a wheat beer, and you ask specifically what’s the most wheat you could put in a beer, many of them will tell you about 60% or 65%, and a few will say 70% is the max, and you can’t go any higher because you’ll have problems in your brew house. But what I figured out is a way to brew our beers with 100% wheat.
Matt: [28:25] How do you do that? Do you use rice husks or something to allow for the filtering?
Keith: [28:29] That’s part of it, but if I told you our secret I’d have to kill you.
Matt: [28:32] You’d have to kill me.
Keith: [28:35] Yes. But, yeah, we figured out a way to brew with 100% wheat. And the reason for that is because wheat is a clean-tasting grain, it tastes very slightly like beer. Barley malt really tastes like beer. You make a beer out of barley malt because it tastes like beer. It makes beer taste like beer. I wanted a clean grain, so that when I put the grapes in, the flavour of the grapes would shine through. And it did exactly that. So our Vintage Collection Ales are brewed with wine grapes, and the benefit of using 100% wheat allows the grape character to shine through.
[29:09] Our Chardonnay beer has won numerous medals because it really smells and tastes like Chardonnay wine, with just a hint of beer. It’s got that ripe, red apple character. Our Sauvignon Blanc beer has that traditional, what wine experts call ‘cat pee’. [chuckles] It’s a strange descriptor, but even here, your wines here, your Sauvignon Blancs that you’re so famous for, have that note in them, which is expected in a Sauvignon Blanc. And our beer, our Sauvignon Blanc beer has it. So I’m very proud of those because they’ve won numerous medals, and they’re just really good beers to have with food.
Matt: [29:47] I love Charlie Bamforth’s line about you go out into a field of grapes or a vineyard, and you get a bucket of grapes and stand on them, and you get wine. You go out into barley field and stand on it, and you just get sore feet. What’s harder to make, wine or beer?
Keith: [30:06] I think the tougher one … I have a PhD in brewing, so for me, it’s quite easy to make beer. [laughs] It’s tough for me to make wine, mainly because you’re at the mercy of nature. If there is a wet season and the grapes are poor quality, you will not make very good wine. There’s not a lot you could do to remedy that. But if you have a hot, dry summer, it really concentrates the sugars and you end up with a fantastic wine. So you, literally, are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
[30:43] With beer, you can end up with barley malt and hops that are okay. I mean, obviously it’s tough to make a good beer out of inferior malt, but you can use a good malt and make a really good beer through science. And that’s where, really … your question earlier to David about the Germans—the Germans did so much research in the early days with beer, and figured out a lot of scientific methods to improve beer and make it better and better. And that’s why you go back to what they did, you read what they did, and you can make a fantastic beer using reasonably good malt and good hops.
[31:23] It’s just the nature of the beast. You can treat the water to make any style of beer, make a great IPA, India Pale Ale, or an Imperial Stout. Or you can make a light lager, American-style, which, by the way, is the hardest style in the world to make, because if you make one little mistake in a light lager, it shines through like a flare going off in the night sky. It’s like the emperor’s clothes. If you’re naked, you better have a great body, because everyone’s going to see every imperfection on you.
[31:55] So light beer is the most difficult style to make in the world. I think brewers around the world agree. Although some craft brewers may not at first, but when they learn how difficult brewing is—because many craft brewers last year might have been a banker or a real estate agent, and this year they’re a brewer—and when they learn all the intricacies of brewing, they finally learn that light lager is the most difficult style in the world to brew.
[32:22] The easiest is the hoppiest beer, IPA. You keep putting in hops after hops after hops, and hops will cover the sins of the brewer. That’s one of the sayings we have, “Hops will cover the sins of the brewer.” You can infect the beer, you can do whatever you want, and all those hops and all that bitterness will cover up a lot of the defects.
David: [32:42] One of my great uncles, Uncle Bill’s favourite saying, or my favourite saying of his is that, “Barley is to beer as grapes are to wine.” I think it’s a pretty profound statement, and Coors over the years has had a very intimate relationship with its barley growers in the Rocky Mountain Region. Keith probably knows more than me, or doesn’t know more than me, but that program that they have of optimising the barley as much as possible is pretty interesting.
Matt: [33:11] David, tell us a little bit about … the brewing world is very complicated. You’ve got Coors brewery, which is Molson Coors in Canada, MillerCoors in the United States, and there’s SABMiller over here. So technically, with your beers arriving in Australia, you’re almost competing with yourself in the States. How does that work?
David: [33:33] SABMiller is a great partner for us in the US. It was a wonderful joint venture for both of us, because Anheuser-Busch was so much bigger than us that we needed to compete effectively or else they would’ve put us out of business. And we also, as a family, one of our family’s goals has been to be sure that weren’t bought out. So whether it was the merger with Molson or the joint venture with SABMiller in the US, it was a way for us to stay involved as a family.
[34:04] So they’re a great partner of ours in the US, and then it is a bit interesting coming over here and seeing our “competitors.” But the global beer industry is somewhat incestuous. It’s probably not the most PC term, but …
Matt: [34:20] I know what you mean.
David: [34:21] You know what I mean. And so I think it’s all fair in love and war, right?
Matt: [34:28] Exactly. Something I was intrigued about when I was in Denver a couple of years ago, and I was at Coors Stadium, SandLot Brewery in the basement, and yet you could still buy New Belgium’s Fat Tire Amber Ale at the stadium. How does that work? Because over here, we don’t have the separation, the three-layer, the three-tier system, and if you go to The Gabba, where the cricket’s being played today, you’ll only get Foster’s beers, or CUB can buy the complete rights. Is that something that you’ve allowed at Coors Stadium, or is it something that is just under the laws …?
David: [35:08] It’s a good question, and my experience of it is … I remember being younger and asking my dad, “Why is there a Budweiser sign and why are they selling Budweiser in a Coors field?” And his point was pretty interesting to me, and he said, “If we’re going to beat them, let’s beat them toe-to-toe,” kind of a deal, it’s “I’m not going to lock them out. Let’s play a fair game and let the consumers decide what they want to drink.” I think that, to me, has been a lesson over the years, of his approach. I think the Coors kind of approach is a bit more of a friendly, fair, honest approach which I’ve taken to.
Matt: [35:48] It was a fantastic experience, and I think I was saying to you before that I’d spent three days in Denver at the Great American Beer Festival, and I’ve described it. I wrote an article for the All About Beer Magazine. I described it as trying to take a sip from a fire hose. You just couldn’t do it. And having three or four hours at Coors Field was literally … considering I’d travelled for the American Beer Festival, three hours at Coors Field was fantastic, and being able try your own beers, and other beers, and watch baseball was an amazing experience.
[36:21] It’s really interesting to hear that that’s a perspective. That it’s not mandated that you have to allow others and that you just do, because, I guess … Keith, that must be very gratifying for you, that the confidence in your beers, that the company’s willing to back them against competitors’ products in the stadium.
Keith: [36:38] Yeah, that’s right. It comes down to the fact that we let our beers speak for themselves. If they’ve heard something about our beers that may be troubling to them, I say, “Please come over to our brewery. Try our beers.” I’ll let them speak for themselves. Our beers have won numerous medals. Our beers are also kosher. If you look at Blue Moon in the States, you’ll see the kosher symbol, which is another sign of quality. We use only the best quality materials and ingredients to make our beers. Our beers are very well thought out. Again, I’m a beer doctor. I can do these things.
David: [37:16] One other thing, Keith, though … is Keith’s been very helpful to the craft community over the years, and he’s helped a lot of them, kind of, with their growing pains. I think that again is a testament to the company that was Coors Brewing Company, that’s Miller Coors, is it’s friendly, inviting the brewing industry … as a whole, not competition all the time.
Keith: [37:40] It really harkens back to the west. The Coors Brewing Company is in the west. When Adolph started that brewery, it was the Wild West, and it was kind of the law of the west, which was you help your neighbour, you don’t take what’s not yours. I mean, there’s these unwritten rules that people abided by in the Old West, to allow what little civilisation was there to function. Because you had a sheriff and everything, but still, out in the wilderness where there wasn’t a sheriff, you had the unwritten rules of the west.
[38:12] I think, really, we still think that way, our culture is that you help help your neighbours if they’re in trouble, you don’t take what’s yours … just these basic rules of civilisation and helping your neighbour when they’re in trouble. Yeah, I’ve helped numerous craft brewers if they’ve had problems. Of course, once they become large and successful I back off.
Matt: [38:35] David—and I’m conscious of how much time I’ve taken, but just very quickly a couple of last questions. The craft beer market in the States has exploded. I think there are now over 2,500 craft breweries in production, of all sizes, and I read a statistic recently that there’s almost 1,000 in planning. There’s been talk about a craft beer bubble. Where do you see the craft beer market or where do you see the beer market going over the next two to three years?
David: [39:07] It’s a good question, and I’m trying to figure out which angle to answer it from. I think you have concerns of shelf space, limited shelf space at retail, and how much new [indecipherable 39:17].
Matt: [39:20] The law of physics, we can’t get around that.
David: [39:19] Yes, tap handles, distributors, and what they’re able to manage, and even working capital. If you have—instead of 1,000 skews you have 3,000 skews, you have a lot more increased working capital. So economics come into play. Consumers’ palates shift. We’re seeing them shift more quickly now than ever. Will the American premium light beers continue to be the leaders of the industry? I think they’ll retract a little bit, but the consumers are this … No matter what, you’ve had a few IPAs. At some point, you want a light, refreshing lager to kind of cleanse your palate a little bit.
[40:00] I don’t know when that bubble is going to be, if there is going to be one. I don’t want people to go out of business. We’re creating more jobs with a bunch of craft breweries opening up, and Americans … and the global craft industry is getting excited about beer again, which is great. So it’s a tricky question.
Matt: [40:18] Chuck Hahn, who got his start at the Coors Brewery back in the ‘80s, I believe, before he immigrated to Australia, has a saying where he says that, “The thing about craft breweries is they make fantastic beer and they go out of business.” I guess that’s something that he found when he started the Hahn Brewery back in the late ‘80s, and he’s brewing now. Do you see that craft beer is on a cycle or do you think that it’s here to stay?
David: [40:46] No, I think it’s here to stay. I think the question is market share. How big can it get? And once it stops growing and has growing pains, like Premium White have had recently, where you get to a certain scale on mass, and the consumer’s stomach is only so big, crafts consumers’ palates are only so big. So it’ll reach that point. And then I think you’ll have this … a bit more of a battle. I think you’ll have a lot of successful, big regional breweries, and then you’ll have a lot of the smaller breweries. But the ones stuck in the middle may struggle quite a bit.
Matt: [41:18] What do you see as beer’s competition? Australian brewers talk about share of throat when they’re competing against ciders, for example, hard ciders, as you call it, pre-mixed spirits, wine. Do you have the same battle in the States for competing products, not just competing brews?
David: [41:37] Yeah. Our focus right now in the States—one is we have some cider in our portfolio in the States with SABMiller and at MillerCoors, and growing exponentially, and Crispin Cider is a great cider. They got a lot of great portfolio. Cider is going to continue to grow. I think it’s a great, refreshing beer that used to be the industry’s leader back in, what, 1800s. It was leading the industry as far as the alcoholic beverage of choice.
[42:02] We’re focused on spirits right now. Spirits are advertising and their advertising dollars have sky rocketed over the past 10 years and made it a bit more challenging, because the young millennials are seeing these really cool, hip ads, and that’s been our biggest competitor. The industry has to come together rather than in-fighting between themselves.
Matt: [42:21] Keith, a couple of last questions to you. Blue Moon is about to launch in Australia, which is why you’re here. It’s going to be brewed in the States. Is it going to be coming out of Golden or … you brew at a couple of facilities, not just at SandLot? You’ve got the Golden Brewery …
Keith: [42:39] Yeah, again, we use the Molson Coors and MillerCoors network to produce our beers. We choose the best brewery to scale up our beers. All the beers are produced initially at our little brewery in Denver, Colorado, and then when we find a recipe that really works, like Blue Moon Belgian White, then we choose the breweries and the network that are the best at making this the way that we designed it. And then they come from North America all the way here.
Matt: [43:03] Are you going to cold ship it, because travel is obviously the enemy of good beer?
Keith: [43:10] Our beers, yeah, they are delicate, the spices are delicate, and we want to make sure that the beer is the best quality beer, so that the Australian drinker has the best experience with our beers. Yeah, it’s really about quality. That’s the thing that separates our beers from the competition, is we have really high quality standards.
Matt: [43:29] You talked about doing Brew Master Dinners. What is your perfect pairings for the Blue Moon witbier, or Blue Moon White?
Keith: [43:40] Blue Moon Belgian White—back in the States we do have a lot of different beers that we’ve created, families of beers under the Blue Moon Brewing Company label. But here in Australia, we’re going to start with Blue Moon Belgian White, which is … it’s really our franchise beer. It’s the one that put us on the map and made us famous. This beer is really versatile. It’s a beer that we treat like wine, almost like a Chardonnay. It’s very, very versatile. You can pair our beer up with pork, chicken, fish, virtually any white meat. And you can also pair it up with ethnic cuisine like Thai food, spicy Mexican food. It goes really well with those.
[44:22] The nice part about our beers is also—I was influenced in Belgium to always make beers that are food-friendly. So all the beers that Blue Moon Brewing Company comes up with are food-friendly. You can pair of our beers with food. You can actually cook with our beers. You can reduce them to make sauces, and drizzle it over things. So Blue Moon Belgian White is really food-friendly. You can reduce it and add oil and vinegar and herbs, and you can make a fantastic salad dressing. You can pair it up with a main course of fish, seafood, pork, chicken, Mexican, Thai.
[45:03] And then you can also use it in dessert. You can pair it up with fruit desserts, specifically anything with orange, anything with vanilla. It goes very well. You can reduce the beer, add sugar and a couple of spices like cinnamon, maybe nutmeg, and then drizzle it over French vanilla ice cream. I mean, you can literally create a five-course dinner with one beer.
Matt: [45:28] You’re describing a Swiss army knife of beers, I think. If you had to narrow it down to one perfect pairing, what would it be?
Keith: [45:34] With Blue Moon Belgian White? Well, in the States, I’m just an American guy that likes just a nice delicious hamburger, and this goes well with … in the summer time, I like to grill a good burger and have a Belgian White. It’s just goes well with that, and I put a nice cheese on it.
Matt: [45:57] Do you put a slice of pineapple on your burgers in the States?
Keith: [45:58] Not me. That’s an abomination to a burger.
Matt: [46:03] It’s called a Hawaiian burger over here. So I’m not sure whether it’s one of those things that just happened, but I thought you were about to say some with a bit of pineapple on it but …
David: [46:14] At the beer dinner in Sydney, we had dessert. It was a crème brulee that was made with … it was the best Blue Moon crème I’ve ever had. They even took coriander seeds and caramelised them and sprinkled them on top. It was unbelievable!
Matt: [46:28] I’d suggest giving it a try—there’s a spice in Australia called lemon myrtle, and it’s a little bit like coriander. It’s got a little lemony, coriander flavour to it. The white chocolate with lemon … a lemon myrtle white chocolate served with this style of beer is superb. So if you get the chance to try it out, that’s my recommendation.
David: [45:55] That’s a good tip.
Keith: [47:01] That’s the great thing about travel and expanding our brand out here in Australia, is talking to people like you and learning these little tidbits, taking them back home and making Blue Moon even better.
Matt: [47:05] Let’s see if we can get some lemon myrtle for you to experiment. I’ve taken up plenty of your time. Keith and David, thank you very much. Welcome to Australia, and enjoy the rest of your trip.
Keith: [47:06] Thank you.
David: [47:06] Thank you for your time.
Keith: [47:09] Cheers. Appreciate it.