Skip to main content
the ladder

Christopher Drost/The Globe and Mail

Keith Villa, 54, is head brewmaster and founder of Blue Moon Brewing Co. of Denver. In Canada, the product is sold as Belgian Moon.

The one thing I've learned is that no matter how well planned some things are, you almost always run into last-minute changes that end up for the better. My original career plan was to be a pediatrician, but I ended up going to the University of Brussels to get my PhD in brewing and became a beer doctor rather than a people doctor. I think I'm much happier because of that. I defended my thesis in 1995 and graduated magna cum laude. The same year, I started Blue Moon Brewing Company.

I have fun every day. My typical workday has evolved over the past 21 years. In the beginning, like any business, you are really digging in on the day-to-day things that have to be done. As the business grows, and becomes more successful, you hand over those duties and focus on the vision and future of the company. My day-to-day activities now focus on Blue Moon, what beers we will develop and what markets we will enter.

My leadership style is fun. At the end of the day, we have to have fun. Yes, there is a lot of hard work but at the end of the day, I ask myself, did we have fun? Did we make choices we feel good about and are we leaving the office on a good note? The last thing I want is for people to leave the office stressed out about what to do the next day. In the craft beer world in the States, we are probably No. 2 to No. 3 and have a crew of four brewers. What separates us [from our competitors] is that we get along really well together. So we'll actually sit down and have a beer with each other, discuss what needs to be discussed, which has been the key to our success over the past 21 years.

When I started in 1995, the industry was completely different. The drinker really wasn't as educated as the drinker today. The drinker back then wasn't familiar with Belgian styles of beer or creative brewing. There wasn't a lot of competition, because the drinker didn't know they wanted new types of beer. So, it was difficult to get the consumer to try a new type of beer. For example, we had a peanut-butter beer, a wine-beer hybrid and a beer brewed with chicken that was ahead of its time. Chicken beer may still be ahead of its time.

The primary [key to success] is to get your beers to all the right outlets so that consumers can find them and taste them, which is one of the huge benefits we have in pairing up with Six Pints [Specialty Beer Co., a division of Molson Coors] in Canada. There is a serious amount of competition in the marketplace now. In the U.S. alone, there are about 4,500 breweries. Competition is fierce, so from a brewer's perspective, it's raised the bar. Now is the best time ever to be a beer drinker and at the end of the day, it's all about the beer.

It's a very collegial feeling in the industry, where people help each other for the good of beer. On an almost daily basis, I get asked questions by people who want to get into the brewing industry. I tell them to do it, since it's fun and rewarding but it's more than just about beer, it's about relationships. You need to be a good salesperson as well as a good beer maker. You also need to know things about food. It's like wine: Anyone who likes to pair wine with food could pair beer with food. It's also a people business. You need to make a lot of friends and enjoy life. Beer is my life and I've enjoyed it a bunch.

The best advice I got is to be a rebel and come up with really innovative ideas and stick with them. In today's world, whatever industry you are in, people want to come up with a product that is very unique and compelling to consumers. The same applies to the beer world.

My favourite beer is the one in my hand. But if I'm not drinking my own beer, I try local beers.

As told to Leah Eichler. This interview has been edited and condensed.