Keith Villa, co-founder and brewmaster of Ceria Brewing Co., has a knack for seeing potential.
As the creator of Blue Moon, he saw the possibility of building a craft beer market in the U.S. more than two decades ago. And through Ceria Brewing, he developed Colorado’s first cannabis-infused non-alcoholic beer, an accomplishment preserved through a four-pack at the Colorado History Museum.
Villa recounted his journey from craft beer to cannabis beer during the second keynote presentation of Cannabis Products Exchange, held virtually April 28.
“It really was fun to be the creator and the face of the (Blue Moon) brand,” he says. “It gave me a lot of experience to use in the next phase of my career.”
After graduating with an undergraduate degree in molecular biology from the University of Colorado in 1986 and starting at Coors, Villa went on to Brussels to earn a PhD in brewing science and fermentation biochemistry from the University of Belgium.
During his studies, Villa developed a deep appreciation for Belgian beer. He knew other beer lovers in the U.S. would, too.
“I felt that there was a big potential market for craft beer — in particular Belgian beer — in the United States because I had lived in Belgium and experienced firsthand what a beer culture could be,” he says.
With funding from Coors, Villa developed Blue Moon, a cloudy Belgian-style white ale brewed with orange peel and coriander. Launched in 1995, Villa says it wasn’t easy to get people on board with a European-style craft beer at first.
Two years later, Villa introduced the signature orange garnish, which helped consumers build an emotional connection with the beer. In 1998, he introduced the iconic tall Blue Moon glass, borrowed from the traditions of German wheat beer.
By 2001, Blue Moon had become a success, with the brand selling “every drop they could make,” Villa says. It’s now available in 20 countries.
Villa retired from Coors in 2018 after 32 years with the company, but he and his wife, Jodi, had no intention of “retiring to the beach,” Villa says.
“For us, it was really about staying active and doing something that we felt was rewarding,” he says.
Though the Villas wanted to stay in the beer industry, they looked to cannabis as markets outside of Colorado began to open up. Their research into cannabis provided a contradicting picture, Villa says.
“We found that the plant itself was cast in a very negative light from the time it was banned in the 1930s up to the modern era,” Villa says. “It’s been painted as a bad plant that has terrible qualities that are addictive, life-ruining, life-threatening. As we dug into the literature, we found it was almost the opposite — that this was a plant that had a lot of helpful, restorative, curative powers to it.”
Villa launched Ceria Brewing (rhymes with “area”) in 2018, named for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and inspired by a French acronym from the campus where he earned his PhD.
Ceria’s first introduction was Grainwave, Belgian-style white ale, unfiltered and spiced with blood orange peel and coriander. It features 5 mg THC to mimic the experience of consuming a Belgian white, Villa says.
Ceria also offers Indiewave, a West Coast-style IPA brewed with Citra hops and double dry-hopped with Amarillo and Cascade hops for an assertive, citrusy orange hop character. This beer features 10 mg THC — along with 10 mg CBD to mellow the effect of the THC — to recreate the buzz of a traditional IPA.
Neither beer contains alcohol, thanks to a proprietary vacuum distillation process. Mixing cannabis and alcohol is also prohibited federally and at the state level in Colorado, Villa notes. He adds brewers should be careful when making non-alcoholic beer.
“You’ve got to keep it safe,” Villa says. “A lot of craft brewers didn’t realize that when you remove alcohol from beer you remove the single most important item that protects beer from the growth of pathogenic bacteria.”
In addition to pasteurization, cannabis beer brewers also have the challenge of making cannabis oils water-compatible. Taste is also a concern, but fortunately, the bitterness of hops blends with the bitterness of its cousin cannabis (hops and cannabis both belong to the Cannabaceae family).
“The individual cannabinoids have a naturally inherent bitterness, which in the beer world works really well because you can compensate by decreasing the hops and decreasing bitterness to help balance out the bitter profile,” Villa says.
The result is beverages that smell, taste, and feel like traditional beers, which Villa hopes consumers will enjoy in a variety of social settings — without the need for smoke.
“Socially acceptable is the name of our game,” he says. “We want to make products that people can take and enjoy with family, friends and socialize with.”