The Man Behind The Orange Peel: Keith Villa

Q&A with Blue Moon’s Head Brewmaster Arturo Hilario El Observador Keith Villa never intended to be in the beer business, or for that matter become a brewmaster. He was...
Photo Courtesy: Blue Moon Brewing Company

Q&A with Blue Moon’s Head Brewmaster

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

Keith Villa never intended to be in the beer business, or for that matter become a brewmaster. He was interested in his studies of science and pursued it in college. Yet when Villa, a Mexican-American, had an opportunity to obtain his Ph.D at the University of Brussels in Belgium (a rare honor amongst brewmasters) he took it and flourished. Today, his beer is known around the world by it’s Belgian-style and slice of Valencia orange. Now his Blue Moon’s come in a variety of colors and styles. In the following interview with Villa, and he describes how he wound up with a great beer and the history behind it.

What was your schooling like that made you interested in sciences? Any particular moment when you felt it would be involved in your future and career?

I have always had an interest in science and a love for beer. I was on the path to becoming a pediatrician when I decided to change course and move to Belgium to work towards a Ph.D in brewing. I wanted to be a beer doctor instead of a people doctor. Once I started studying at the University of Brussels I became incredibly passionate about brewing Belgian-style beer and I knew that I wanted to make a long-term career out of this passion.

Tell me in your words your path to University of Brussels. What did you get your Ph.D. In specifically? How was your experience there?

My interest in science, love for beer, and passion for creativity lead me to pursue my Ph.D. in Brewing from the University of Brussels in Belgium. Belgium is one of the only universities in the world that offers a Ph.D. in Brewing, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from some of the best brewers from around the globe. My experience in Belgium and at the University of Brussels was very influential. I returned motivated to put my own creative twist on the brewing process that resulted in our first brew, Blue Moon Belgian White.

Why did you decide to create a Belgian-style? Where there any popular types of Belgian-style brews in the US at the time?

My time at University of Brussels was very inspiring. When I began brewing Blue Moon at the corner of 22nd & Blake in downtown Denver, Colorado, at the beginning of the ’95 baseball season, there weren’t many unique Belgian-style brews on the market. Beer drinkers were mainly used to enjoying lagers and weren’t accustomed to the cloudiness of Belgian-style beers. I was excited to create and share my own version of Belgian-style beer with American drinkers. While it took a while, the US has come around and appreciates both Belgian-style and other creative brews now.

Now one thing I wish I knew the basics of is how you created the flavor through yeast. How many versions/iterations did you go through before you found the perfect mix for Blue Moon?

It took me about a year to develop Blue Moon Belgian White. I greatly enjoy the creative process, and took my time putting my own unique twist on the traditional Belgian-style Wit. I tested a number of different combinations of the best ingredients I could find before landing on the final recipe for Blue Moon Belgian White.

What’s the story behind the orange?

When we first started distributing Blue Moon Belgian White across the country, we noticed something: lemons. All curiously hanging off the sides of Blue Moon Belgian White, which is common practice for traditional Belgian Wits that are tart. But Blue Moon Belgian White is not tart; it’s slightly sweet. So after a little thinking, I suggested garnishing our Belgian White with an orange slice to heighten the citrus aroma and taste from the Valencia orange peel used to brew the beer. In the early days of Blue Moon, I used to go bar to bar with bags of oranges to entice bar owners to garnish Blue Moon with an orange slice. Needless to say, it caught on and Belgian White was the first American beer that called for an orange. Nowadays, orange garnishes are staples at bars across the country.

Tell me about your experience with the Horchata Ale. Why did you become interested in the agua fresca as a beer?

I rediscovered Horchata on a recent trip to Mexico and became enchanted by its creamy, refreshing taste and its connection to my heritage, as I’m a third-generation Mexican-American. Following my trip, I set out to create a brew inspired by my experience and came up with today’s Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata Ale. The beer is a twist on the traditional Horchata, brewed with natural long-grain rice for a creamy texture that complements the flavors of cinnamon.

What was the feedback from that? From people that grew up with it or have had it before? How about those that come from no experience with Horchata?

People have been loving it! From those who grew up drinking Horchata to those who are experiencing it for the first time, the reception has been very positive. It’s a great year-round beer. People enjoy the cinnamon taste in the winter, as it is reminiscent of the holidays, but they also like to drink Cinnamon Horchata in the summertime because it’s so refreshing.

Any other plans to incorporate other world flavors to create different Blue Moon types?

Creativity and the creativity process are at the very heart of Blue Moon. The creative process doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when you’re open to the inspiration around you, and I am constantly looking around during my travels and experiences for new opportunities to create exciting new recipes for the future. 

Do you have a personal favorite type of Blue Moon?

It typically depends what I’m in the mood for and what food I am pairing the beer with. While I love all the beers I’ve created, I do have a special place in my heart for Blue Moon Belgian White, since it was the first beer I created.

Arts & CultureFeatured