Forty years ago, people described Coors’s flagship Banquet Beer as having a ‘mystique’ to it. Loyal fans would prod, coax, and bribe their westward traveling friends to lug cases of the beer back to the East Coast. The ‘Coors mystique’ may seem long out-of-date now but the Colorado brewery is slowly building a new mysterious brand.
The buzz in the beer industry is all about the explosive growth of craft beer. In the last three years, the category has boomed with 31-percent growth. While the news is a well-deserved reward for craft brewers, the accolades have obscured some of the more significant repercussions of their accomplishments. In response to the American palate’s sweeping shift away from lifeless beers, most corporate breweries have buried their heads in Olympic-size fermentation tanks or released their own ill-conceived, faux-craft brands. The approaches have seen little success, save for one.
The worst kept secret among hardened beer geeks is that Blue Moon Belgian White is brewed by the Coors Brewing Company (now Molson Coors), but word has not yet leaked out to the general drinking public. What people may not know is that the wildly popular Blue Moon is probably America’s best-selling craft beer brand. You may ask, ‘but what about Sam Adams Boston Lager, the quintessential craft beer?’ Despite Boston Beer’s recent successes, I’d wager that more orange-accented pints of Colorado’s sleeper wheat beer pour from American taps then do glasses of the American patriot’s namesake lager. (Both breweries declined to release actual production numbers).
Like a flush hipster who toils to keep his conservative parental benefactors a secret, Blue Moon is in no rush to take you home to meet momma and poppa Coors. Coors employees created the brand in 1995 at the company’s own brewpub, the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field. Now produced under the Blue Moon Brewing Company label and brewed in three locations, Coors has enjoyed steady growth with the brand, fueled in part by its intentional disassociation from the brand. And the Coors people willingly admit this. “It’s not that we hide the fact that it’s brewed by Coors,” says Blue Moon’s Brand Director, Ken Hehir. “We’re just not openly advertising that fact.”
And here starts the craft beer lover’s political problem. Should it matter that Blue Moon is brewed by America’s third largest brewery, one that produces more than 23-million barrels of beer per year? Countless dedicated craft beer drinkers have seen a Blue Moon tap handle, ordered and enjoyed the brand, only to later discover the Coors connection. While they certainly have an understandable objection about truth in labeling (a complaint they can also lodge with many contract-brewed craft brands), it doesn’t change the fact they probably liked the beer when they tasted it blind to beer politics. In the end, shouldn’t the question always be, is the beer any good?
While popularity is certainly no indication of quality, an honest review of Blue Moon shows it to be an entirely respectable wheat beer. Brewed with malted white wheat, oats, coriander, and orange peel, the unfiltered beer is a pleasant mix of floral, citrus, light wheat and yeast flavors that are well suited for summertime enjoyment.
In dismissing Blue Moon as another big brewery poseur brand, contrarian beer lovers miss two larger points. First, in reporting the achievements of American craft brewers, the Brewers Association doesn’t include Blue Moon and its double-digit growth volume. While Blue Moon may not qualify for membership in the ‘craft beer’ club, it’s certainly a charter member of the ‘better beer’ segment. When added to the tally sheet, the Blue Moon brand’s explosive growth is perhaps the best evidence of a sea change in the American palate.
The second point is perhaps the least appreciated. In contrast to the sometimes-juvenile efforts of America’s two largest breweries, Coors has long treated the Blue Moon brand in a remarkably innovative manner: with respect. Blue Moon’s artistic point-of-sale materials, refusal to run television ads, and its dedication to the ritual of serving the luminous wheat beer in proper, shapely glassware speaks to the gentle, considered treatment of this brand. In comparison, one need only look at the absurd tap handles for Anheuser-Busch’s own line of seasonal draft beers to get the sneaking suspicion the brewing giant is trying to make craft beer look like a bunch of clowns.
In the new era of craft beer, the Coors mystique has clearly returned with good reason. Only this time, beer lovers don’t have to get their traveling friends to make beer runs for them.
Article appeared in the July 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.