An interview with Keith Villa, creator of Colorado's first cannabis beer
Cannabis, Meet Beer: An inside look at the background behind creation of Colorado's first cannabis beer.
Developing a legal cannabis beverage can be a daunting challenge considering the required investment in time and money, complicated by state-by-state regulations controlling sales. But that didn’t stop Keith Villa, Ph.D., co-founder, CERIA Brewing, Arvada, CO, as he set out to create the state’s first THC-infused beer.
Villa, who holds a Ph.D. in brewing science and fermentation biochemistry, first made waves as the creator of Blue Moon during his 32-year career at MillerCoors. So when news about CERIA was announced in late March 2018, it quickly went viral. In December 2018, Grainwave, a dealcoholized Belgian-style white ale, became available at Colorado dispensaries. The company is now ramping up production to meet demand.
Rose Shilling, managing editor of Food Engineering magazine, reached out to get the inside scoop.
Rose Shilling: Why launch a cannabis beer company?
Keith Villa: When cannabis became legal in Colorado I started creating recipes in my own home on my own time, to determine whether this newly legalized substance could complement the social consumption of beer. I learned that cannabis could be an alternative to alcohol when used responsibly. It was a lifetime opportunity for both me and my wife Jodi, our CEO and co-founder, to create an entirely new beverage using the beer-making skills I have perfected for the past 32 years.
RS: What has been the reaction to Grainwave so far?
KV: We’ve been embraced by the dispensary community because we offer them a product to help increase their profitability, one that is bringing them new customers—not just the regular cannabis consumer, but what we call the mainstream “canna curious” consumer—those who want to try a microdosed cannabis beer and have never before visited a dispensary.
RS: What are the unique challenges of promoting a dealcoholized, low-calorie beer?
KV: Nonalcoholic beers have been much maligned because of their poor taste profile. In our educational material, we explain that CERIA starts life as a great-tasting beer that, through a sophisticated process, is dealcoholized without affecting taste. The nonalcoholic beverage is then infused with a THC extract. Eliminating alcohol also reduces the calorie count to 64 ounces per 10 oz. aluminum bottle.
RS: How does it taste?
KV: The result is a great-tasting brew with the aroma and taste of beer, and the pleasurable effects of microdosed cannabis. The consumer won’t be able to taste the cannabis, but they will feel it. It tastes like any well-made Belgian white ale, including hints of coriander and orange peel. After they taste it, people are surprised a THC-infused beer really does drink like beer, without a cannabis taste.
RS: Was it challenging to no longer have access to MillerCoors’ modern brewing facilities?
KV: I miss having corporate support, but we’re doing fine. For a craft brewer like myself, the pilot brewery I built in Arvada, Colorado, is a state-of-the-art facility that allows me to develop any type of beer recipe in small batches that I can later scale up at O’Fallon’s, our contract brewer.
O’Fallon Brewery was founded in St. Louis in 2000 and has been a purveyor of fine craft beer since that time. The brewery has been producing dealcoholized beer using the same method required by CERIA for the past two years.
So, when it comes down to it, I have everything I had at Coors to make great-tasting beer, except access to their great employee cafeteria and the many friends and co-workers I interacted with daily in Golden.
RS: How do you ensure quality?
KV: O’Fallon follows my Grainwave recipe precisely, then I supervise it closely to ensure quality. Keef Bottling is our infusion and bottling partner in Colorado and provides distribution to their network of legal dispensaries. Keef runs tests to make sure the THC content is within specifications, and evaluates the finished product to ensure it’s within the recipe profile. They also submit the required samples to a state-monitored analysis lab.
RS: What goals did you keep in mind throughout product development?
KV: First is quality and consistency. To be successful, we knew CERIA had to provide the same consistent experience from bottle to bottle. We spent untold hours on ensuring that raw materials were of the highest quality, the aluminum bottle was well-made and recyclable, and the label could be read from behind the counter.
Labeling was critical, since the customer isn’t allowed to handle the packaging without budtender assistance. For that reason, the CERIA package is a subtle blend of the two worlds the brand inhabits, establishing both its beer credentials and its fitting place in the cannabis consumer’s world. The midnight blue color and traditional typeface convey a trustworthy tone, and the golden yellow color is a recognized beer cue in packaging. These are balanced by the modern interpretation of Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest, upon whose head sits a cannabis leaf and hops crown. Beer style and THC level information are housed together against a complementary lighter blue to draw the eye for easy consumer shopping.
RS: Are you concerned about the regulatory uncertainty of recreational cannabis in the U.S.?
KV: The trend in the U.S. is toward legalization. That horse is out of the barn. We don’t foresee any tightening of regulations, especially with the legalization of cannabis throughout Canada, and Mexico talking about the same. We look forward to the day when the U.S. federal government will lift its restrictions and cannabis companies can use the federal banking system like any other legal business in the U.S. The additional tax revenue for cities and governments has been a windfall in many cases. In Colorado, for instance, it’s used for school construction and repairs. We don’t see this additional tax revenue ever being taken away.
We believe eventually the laws may be expanded to allow on-site consumption venues. Legally, as it stands now, products can only be consumed at home or at a private venue, and never in public. As laws change and consumption increases, we believe there will be entrepreneurs who develop opportunities to consume on-site in a safe, comfortable, café-like setting.
Eventually, CERIA will expand its beer styles. We’re planning light, medium and heavier-style beers with varying levels of THC. The consumer will be able to select the level of sensation they desire for the particular moment.
RS: Where do you see the company in five years?
KV: Now that I have polished off my crystal ball, I can clearly see that within five years we’ll have expanded to all legalized states. Hopefully, cannabis consumption will be federally legalized and we can go national. We already have our eyes set on Canada. If Mexico decides to go legal, we’ll take a run at that market.