Few people get to be at the forefront of something special. Keith Villa has been there twice.
“They said I was one of the major disruptors in the alcohol world,” Villa says, reading from a past interview now framed on his office wall. “They said, ‘He was instrumental in bringing non-craft beer drinkers to craft.’”
The beer they’re referencing: Blue Moon, the ubiquitous Belgian-style white ale Villa developed for Coors Brewing 25 years ago. And if Villa’s current venture hangs on for another 25 years, he’ll have to build another office just to hang the interviews. Only this time, the c-word they’ll be using won’t be craft; it’ll be cannabis.
Villa is Colorado through and through. He grew up in Wheat Ridge and went to Arvada’s Pomona High School. There he met Jodi Nelson, his future wife. Both went on to CU-Boulder. Medicine was Villa’s plan, but a Coors job-posting calling for a brewing scientist caught his eye. Villa was homebrewing, and Jodi’s father, Donavon Nelson, was a life-long employee of the Golden-based company. Destiny, as they say, is hard to avoid.
Coors sent Villa to Belgium, where he earned his Ph.D. at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, completing his transformation from “people doctor” to “beer doctor.” When he came back, Coors charged him with crafting a new beer the company could package alongside George Killian’s Irish Red, “the number one selling microbrew,” Villa recounts.
The beer Villa came up with: Blue Moon Belgian White. The year was 1995, and though Coors’ initial push was impressive, the ale floundered. But Villa resolved to make Blue Moon a success and launched an educational campaign to get bartenders on board. Villa knew the beer needed a garnish, a slice of orange to compliment the beer’s bright citrus. But bars didn’t have oranges on hand, just lemons and limes. So, Villa bought them oranges. Then came the vessel, a curvaceous weizenbier glass that made Blue Moon’s hazy orange liquid all the more desirable. It took time, and it took effort, but by the time the 21st century rolled around, Blue Moon was a hit.
“I started getting emails from brewers thanking me for creating Blue Moon because it gave them the idea to become a brewer,” Villa says, adding that Blue Moon “laid the groundwork and showed craft brewers that if you make a gateway beer, your sales are going to go up.”
And what do you do when you’ve had a hit? You see who’s up next. Villa retired from Coors in 2018 and started two new breweries, both significantly smaller but loaded with potential: CERIA Brewing and Donavan Brewing, the latter named after Jodi’s father. Both are owned and operated by the Villas — daughter Catherine is also part of the team — and one informs the other.
It starts with Donavan. Brewing on a three-barrel system, Villa uses Donavan as his test kitchen. A Vienna-style lager here, a cinnamon horchata ale there. He’s even brewed a beer patterned after the mojito cocktail.
“We literally could brew anything we want under the Donavan label,” Villa explains. And if it’s good, he’ll sell it to a handful of accounts around town. With Donavan, growth is not the goal. “We just want it to be a way for us to test recipes.”
The Villas have a special recipe for their nationwide venture: CERIA Brewing’s non-alcoholic beers infused with Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
“We’re a little bit ahead of the curve with cannabis and cannabis beer,” Villa says. “Enough to the point that I was able to write a book.”
That book, Brewing with Cannabis: Using THC and CBD in Beer, is now available from Brewers Publications.
“We’ve created a pathway, a gateway, for craft brewers,” Villa says. “Even people who aren’t in the beer business that may be in it in two years. Maybe they see [cannabis beer] as a gold rush, a once in a lifetime opportunity to jump in.”
The first beer Villa released under the CERIA label: Grainwave, a Belgian-style white ale brewed with blood orange peel and coriander. Were you expecting something else?
“When I look back at Blue Moon — I launched that in 25 countries outside of the U.S., and it’s available almost everywhere,” Villa recounts. “I see that brand and say, ‘Wow, some kid from Colorado, who graduated from CU, did that!’”
Now the kid from Colorado is on a new cutting edge, this one in the burgeoning market of legalized drinkables.
“I hope CERIA grows to become a real big brand,” Villa says. “And then we can just go on to the next venture.”
Next week: More from Villa on CERIA Brewing, why beer can be a vehicle to bring cannabis to the masses, and an excerpt from Brewing with Cannabis.