Keith Villa

Member Stories

Keith Villa

Keith Villa, is a Harley® rider, H.O.G.® member, and founder and brewmaster for the Blue Moon Brewing Company. He’s also the only person you’re ever likely to meet with a Ph.D. in brewing from the University of Brussels in Belgium (it’s why they call him “The Beer Doctor”).

Keith is the focus of “Spotlight” in the 022 issue of H.O.G.® magazine. Here’s a second serving of his thoughts on riding, beer culture, and the intersection of creativity and the open road.

How long have you been riding?

I started riding mini-bikes when I was a kid, but my brother is the one who started riding Harleys. About 10 or 15 years ago he got an Ultra Classic, and he loved it. Then he got another Harley, and I started riding them. I loved the looks and the sound and the culture of Harley, so I decided to get one myself.

What are you riding these days?

The current Harley I have is a 2003 100TH Anniversary edition that I bought from a collector in Denver. It only had 400 miles on it! So I’ve babied this one a bunch. It’s up to about 750 miles now.

Does that mean you don’t get a lot of chances to ride?

I ride my brother’s Harleys a lot; he doesn’t mind me putting too many miles on them. This one, my 2003, I’m going to ride it up to Milwaukee for the 110TH. I want to show it off up there, because it looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor. It’s just in beautiful condition. And that’s when I’m going to start putting some miles on it, and going on some long cruises.

I’m also looking for a 2008 105TH Anniversary Screamin’ Eagle® Road King . And once I find one of those, my next bike after that will be a 2013 CVO™ Road King. So I’m playing catch-up right now! And then that should be a nice little collection to start doing some serious riding down here in the Southwest.

Do you get to ride much when you travel?

What I do usually is rent a Road King and just tour around and see the city. My last big trip was to Honolulu, and I had a half-day to kill, so I rented a Road King and went around the island of Oahu. Started in the city, went up north to the North Shore, stopped for lunch, went along the perimeter of the island, all the way around, ended up back in the city. I saw the whole island, really nice by Road King!

Will this be the first H-D Anniversary celebration you’ve been to?

Yes. I’ve loved Harleys for a long time, but I’ve never had the chance, due to my travel schedule, to go to the Anniversary Celebration or to Sturgis. I’m always on the road doing talks for our distributors, or our sales force, or making appearances around the country – and in the international markets where we sell Blue Moon beer.

Being in the beer business, you must have been to Milwaukee before …

I’ve been to Milwaukee several times, to the Miller Brewery there, and the Harley-Davidson Museum. When it first opened, I got my dog tags that said I’m an inaugural member.

It’s an amazing coincidence that Miller High Life was born the same year as Harley-Davidson, both born in 1903. So every time I go back to Milwaukee, the first thing I think of is that strong connection between Harley-Davidson and Miller.

How did you get started brewing beer?

I was a homebrewer [in college], and I was applying to medical school to become a pediatrician. But about three weeks before graduation, at my undergraduate school, University of Colorado-Boulder, Coors put this big advertisement up in the library, which said they were looking for a person to do beer research. And I thought that sounded really neat since I was a home brewer. So I went and checked it out, and there were about 100 other students who went and looked at this job opportunity. But the next day Coors called and said I was the most qualified, and that they’d like to have me the day after I graduate.

So I had to ask myself, “Do I want to work with sick people or beer?” I decided I’d try beer for one year, and if I don’t like it I’ll go to medical school. But I liked it. And after two years, I really loved it, but I told them I was going to quit to go get my Ph.D. in yeast research. And they said, “What if we send you to Belgium to get your Ph.D. in brewing? And I said sure! And so I got my Ph.D. in brewing from the University of Brussels in Belgium.

When I came back, the first big project they had me do was to create an operating unit of Coors that was dedicated to craft beer. In those days they called it microbrewing.

How unusual is it to have a Ph.D. in brewing?

It’s very unusual. There are only a handful of people around the world who have a Ph.D. in brewing from Belgium. And again just about a handful of people in the U.S. with any kind of Ph.D. who do brewing. So it’s pretty rare.

What are some of the more unusual creations you’ve introduced over the years?

Well, I’ve experimented with a lot of different beers. Some of the most unusual are … I created a peanut butter beer in 1996, that people were just not ready for. The reason I did that was, in 1996 we had a beer that was brewed with raspberries. And I wanted to make a black and tan the Blue Moon way, which was always taking a classic style and putting a twist on it. So rather than making a black and tan with a stout and a regular ale, why not take our raspberry crème beer and pair it up with a peanut butter beer? I thought it would go over really well at our little test brewery in Denver, but what I found out was that people thought it wasn’t very good. I tested it in our pub and asked people what they thought about it, and the main response I got back from 99 percent of the people was, “Wow, that’s just about as disgusting as I thought it was going to be!”

So I put that recipe on the shelf and rolled it out about 10 years later. Surprisingly, the market had changed enough that people loved it! So now we brew it every year for the Great American Beer Festival. When we serve it at our booth, we have a line about 75 or 100 people long just waiting for us to tap the peanut butter beer. Some other strange ones are … I’ve brewed with aphrodisiacs, to make aphrodisiac beer. I’ve brewed with chicken to make a chicken beer. Pretty much any fruit, herb, or spice that’s out there I’ve brewed with it.

We also get people who are wine drinkers, who want something really strange in that respect. So I created a line of wine-beer hybrids. They’re made with 100 percent wheat – which is unique because I think these are the first beers in the world to be made with 100 percent wheat. They don’t use any barley malt. And barley malt is what makes beer taste like beer. But wheat has a real clean flavor. That’s the reason I chose wheat. I put grapes into the fermentation tank, and then I ferment the whole mixture. And the net result is a beer-wine hybrid that smells and tastes like wine, with just a hint of beer. And these ones are really unique. We’ve tested them in California, and a few cities, and people seem to like them.

What is it about the beer that captivated you?

I think it’s just the fact that it’s been around a long time. It’s been around western civilization a good 5,000 years. You can actually find evidence of brewing by the Samarians, the Egyptians, the Romans … almost all western civilizations that have recorded history have recorded beer recipes. There’s a lot of history there. So it’s just fascinating to be a part of this continuing group of people that have carried on this tradition of brewing. And I think that’s the same thing that’s gotten into Harleys, this group of people.

There have just been these motorcycle purists who’ve been into Harleys since the start, and they’ve carried on that tradition for so long, and it’s nice to be part of that. In Japan, I’ve told people I ride Harleys, and the first thing they say is, “Harley-Davidson!?” Because to them it’s such a cool thing. Same thing in Italy. I told a couple folks I ride Harleys, and people say “Harley-Davidson!?” It’s one of those things, it’s pure Americana – a pure expression of freedom. People love it.

I think beer and Harleys go together very well – though not at the same time! Don’t drink and ride. But they just stand for personal freedom and personal expression. That’s what turns me on to both beer and motorcycles.

What is it about riding that appeals to you?

What I’ve found is … once you get on a motorcycle and get on the road, it’s like you’re forced to focus on the task at hand, and it just clears your mind of all the worries, all the responsibilities, duties … everything kind of falls by the wayside and the mind gets cleared. That’s usually how I go about creating new beers. I’ll jump on a motorcycle, head up to the top of Lookout Mountain, clear my mind, and then get back down and start working on making a new beer.