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Before it was the Wild West of Weed, Colorado was a beer mecca. It still is. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper opened Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988 after abandoning his first field, geology. Hickenlooper started Wynkoop in what was then Denver’s seedy downtown, but its success and the 1995 arrival of Coors Field helped turn the area into both a foodie and brewery destination. The first batch of Blue Moon was brewed at Coors Field, and, 14 years later, it was among the beers served at the White House Beer Summit.
We sat down with Blue Moon Brewmaster John Legnard at South By Southwest two weeks ago to talk all things beer, including the label’s new White IPA, which will be released nationally tomorrow, April 1. Think of it as a hoppier, crisper Blue Moon without the orange slice. We chatted and drank (and chatted and drank) in an Austin backyard on a lazy Friday afternoon. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.
You’ve been doing this for a while.
I went to Colorado State, and I had a class on industrial fermentations. A lot of my colleagues were doing antibiotics or some kind of cancer-curing drug, pretty high-tech stuff. I made beer. So I brought beer to my senior project and handed out a bottle of beer to everybody in class. They were all like, ‘Wow that’s really cool.’ I think that’s when it clicked for me that making beer was fun. It was something people really enjoyed. It’s a common denominator for a lot of people.
How does somebody get a full-time job making beer?
The best thing is to just go out there and talk to people. You might not know what you want to do, but make sure you’re willing to do just about anything to get a job. I tell people that all the time. I get a lot of people like, ‘Oh, I want to get into brewing, how do I start brewing beer?’ Start as a guy cleaning up, sweeping the floors in a brewery. Start as a guy working in the tasting room. I think a lot of people get in that way. Brewing beer is not as glamorous as people think. It’s basically a lot of cleaning. You’re essentially a janitor for the yeast. Yeast has to be clean, yeast has to be happy, yeast has to be well-fed. You’re a yeast rancher, that’s what I tell people.
It’s a tight-knit community.
It’s a pretty good, connected family. I think the first hundred breweries that opened in Colorado, I went to every single one of them within four, five, six weeks of them opening up. The Great American Beer Festival is in Denver. People from all over the world come to Denver. If you’re a beer fan, you should come to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival at least once in your life. Because it is…well…
It’s nuts. It’s packed. Everybody’s walking around with pretzels around their necks…
I always tell people, it’s a combination of Oktoberfest in Germany, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Halloween.
When you started doing this in the ’80s—in your house, by yourself—you couldn’t go online and just Google a recipe, nor what equipment you needed. How did you figure it out?
There was a book called The Joy of Homebrewing. And that was the homebrewers’ bible. You got a copy of that and you read it and you learned how to make beer. I also had magazines I subscribed to. I was a member of the Homebrewers’ Association. So you got a magazine once a month or once a quarter and it had tips in it. But right away, you had to send in a check for ingredients. There was a lot of trial and error, which was kind of cool.
Any early disasters?
One of the things I learned early on was that the quality of your beer really did matter. We made some not so great batches of beer. It might have been ok, but once people started liking really good beer, they figured out pretty quickly if it wasn’t a good batch.
Disasters? Not really any disasters. I’d say failed experiments. We still do experimental beers weekly for Blue Moon. Everything we do is a calculated guess. We’ve brewed with everything from bacon to peanuts, chocolate, fruits, spices, you name it. We’re brewing beers that have no fixed recipe. We come up with a concept, and then it’s my job to make the concept drinkable. You’ve got to put it in a glass and be able to serve it to somebody. If I get some new ingredient and I open the box, and before I open the bag that’s in the box, I can smell it? Then we definitely don’t use as much. But if we give it a big sniff and go Ahhhh, then there’s more in a batch. Where we add it and how we do it, that’s all part of the secret.
At this point, you can basically go into any liquor store in the country and buy Blue Moon. How do you stay creative but still please the masses? At Great American Beer Fest, you taste some beers there and you think, “You’ll never find this in a bar.”
People discovered Blue Moon kind of organically on their own in the late-’90s/early-2000s. They were being a little more adventurous. Like, ‘Oh what’s this beer with an orange?’ They were used to drinking light American lagers, but when they tried Blue Moon Belgian White, it satisfied their sense of curiosity, and their sense of, ‘Wow, this is really good beer. Beer can taste different.’ And different was hard to sell back then. What I think Blue Moon did was it gave people license to try something new. I think it expanded a ton of people’s horizons on what beer is.
That’s why we now have White IPA. A 45-IBU-hopped beer, unfiltered, in a can, 20 years ago? Never gonna sell. You have to release things at the right time, in the right mindset, when people are gonna buy it. We’ve released tons of different experimental beers—seasonal beers, one offs, beers at the baseball stadium—and they may or may not be hits. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad beer, it just means it’s not quite time for that beer. It’s only been 20 years since the beginning of Blue Moon, and really, since craft beer has become commonplace. I mean, I told my parents I was going to make beer for a living, and that I’d given all the money I’d saved to a guy who started a brewery. My mom was like, ‘Is that even legal?’ I picture somebody having the same conversation with somebody who’s going into marijuana growing today.
They’re at the forefront.
I remember the first time there was an article in Time magazine or some national publication that said, ‘Oh, there’s this new industry out there and it’s small local beers.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, they’re catching on.’ Now I think it’s in common usage in everybody’s vocabulary.
What comes next after IPAs? Is IPA the last frontier?
I think that the frontier for beer is almost endless. I like sour beers. I think sour beers are one of those things that people may get into at some point. Stouts, porters, dark beers—they’re a whole ‘nother category.
What’s the secret to being a brewmaster?
I would never say ‘never’ to something being put in beer. We’ve experimented with a ton of different stuff. I’ve made almost 4,000 batches of beer. It’s one of those things where, some days are great, some days are good, but there’s no such thing as a bad day in a brewery. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, you’ve probably made something that’s gonna make somebody happy. It might not be the bestselling beer out there, but as long as somebody likes it, you made somebody’s day. That’s what makes me happy.