Life

A Beer-Brewing Legend Shares Some Insight About His Career And His Craft

Vince Mancini

Talking to a professional brewmaster, there’s always one obvious question that stands above all others: “How do I get a job like yours?” Sadly for us humanities majors, Blue Moon brewmaster John Legnard has degrees in biology and microbiology. At one point he was planning to use them in a career as a veterinarian, but somewhere along the line he and a college roommate discovered that they could “make better beer cheaper” than what they were able to get in stores.

So Legnard started brewing, and despite the nerdly pedigree, the job he eventually landed with Coors came about in the lowest of low-tech ways: he answered a newspaper want ad. That led him to the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver, where they brewed beers only available at the baseball stadium. One of the brews Legnard helped create in the early 90s was a Belgian wit, which he originally called “Bellyslide Belgian Wit,” sticking with the baseball theme. The wit was a hit, and according to a legend probably cooked up by the marketing department, someone remarked that a beer that good “only comes along once in a Blue Moon.”

Since then, Blue Moon Belgian White has been distributed all over the world and Blue Moon spun off into its own separate brewery, with flagship brewpub/restaurant in Denver’s RiNo Art District. That’s where I met Legnard to chat. It’s a cool space, with giant circular drain pipes that have been turned into booths by a local designer and gleaming silver brew kettles in the middle, giving the whole thing a hipster spaceship vibe. (Legnard has been here so long that he can pose in front of a framed painting of himself, recognizable by the circle beard. I asked if he has to keep that for trademarking purposes and he said no, adding that he’d only shaved it off once, for his wedding.)

Like the original Sandlot Brewery, the Blue Moon brewpub serves lots of beers you can’t get anywhere else. There’s a spiced abbey ale, a blood orange pale ale, a mango wheat, a blackberry barleywine, a Mexican lager, a chile golden ale, and plenty of barrel-aged brews, sours, and beer/wine hybrids. In short, enough to keep an entire staff of brewers entertained enough to keep experimenting (John mentions one brewer, in particular, whose passion for hot pepper-inspired brews has to be frequently reigned in). My favorite of their specialty offerings was an “iced coffee blonde,” which tastes and smells like coffee despite looking like a regular, light and clear blonde ale. It was paired with a caramel pudding at a tasting dinner (probably the standout pairing of the evening) and it makes a great… and there’s really no way to say this without sounding like an alcoholic but it’s true… breakfast beer.

It also typifies what has become Blue Moon’s brand identity — the populist counter-programming to craft brew’s snobby purism. Blue Moon still makes beers as likely to be drunk by women at a baseball game as by bearded dudes surrounded by woodwork. Legnard recalls a beer-centric episode of Monster Garage he appeared on alongside the master brewer from Stone in San Diego, and it’s almost like the place where two roads diverged in the forest. Stone went on to release hop bombs with names like “Arrogant Bastard” and Legnard presides over a slate of fruit and wine hybrids.

In fact, before I finished writing this article, I saw this Stone truck on the road:

Vince Mancini

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Blue Moon’s famous orange slice (mostly because I don’t like things poking me in the eye or the nose while I’m trying to drink), and I grew up knowing that my dad, as both a good hippie and a union man, had boycotted Coors in the 60s and 70s (supposedly Coors and the AFL-CIO made nice in the late 80s, and Joseph Coors, the hippies’ bete noir, died in 2003). But Blue Moon began as a Coors product and is still owned by Miller-Coors, so it’s not as if Legnard “sold out.” And I gotta say, if it’s a battle between the IPA boys and Blue Moon, I’m team Blue Moon. One beer style dominating isn’t good for anyone (I prefer a medium-to-dark German lager), and anyone who tells you hoppy beer is “manlier” is an idiot.

Now that we’re clear on that, here’s my conversation with Legnard.

Vince Mancini

Tell me about starting out. When did you first get into brewing as a career.

I first got into brewing in college. One of my college roommates asked me to go to a home brewing class with him. What was interesting is his big play there was “We can make more flavorful beer cheaper than what we could buy at the store.” Basically, it meant we’d brew beer on the weekends instead of doing anything else. A lot of fun. I had great success as a home brewer. Won some competitions. About my junior or senior year, I found a guy who was opening a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. He said … He was one of the judges at a homebrew competition. He asked, “Would you be interested in working with me?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’ve got to raise some money first.” I was like, “I’ve saved up some money,” so I gave him all the money I had to go to vet school and to buy an engagement ring — this girl didn’t work out — to this guy to start a brewery.

I went home in December and I told my parents. I said, “I’m not going to go to vet school and I gave all my money to this guy. We’re going to start a brewery.” My mom literally said, “Is that even legal?” That was her first reaction. It was 1991. It wasn’t a thing really, then. We worked from the ground up. It was a lot like this project, just not quite as big. Started jackhammering floors, building walls, tearing stuff out. Simple brewing systems, all hands on. A lot of hard work. Stirring the mash with a canoe paddle. I quickly learned the wooden ones didn’t last very long. You had to go with the high-end whitewater specialties.

How long between when you were homebrewing and working with your friend to when you started with what became Blue Moon?

In late 1994… It was about three years from the time I started until I started looking, or at least I found another job. It was literally a “Help Wanted” ad in the newspaper. It was real ambiguous. It was like, “Denver brewery needs brewmaster. Start up 10 to 30 barrels. Educated and experienced brewers only apply”, or something like that. It was really weird. I was like, “That sounds good.” I sent off a resume and my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now, lived in Denver. It may have been part of the motivation to leave Fort Collins, because Fort Collins is a great, great town. That was spring of ’95 when I started at what is the Sandlot Brewery, which was the birthplace of Blue Moon and where we made the first commercially available batches of what was then Bellyslide Belgian White. That was a baseball stadium, 50,000 people coming and drinking your beer at every baseball game. It went from an unknown beer to one of our biggest sellers.

Shortly after that, I think some pretty smart people realized, “We’re going to launch this and do more with it.” As Coors Brewing Company, they were really forward thinking. They put a ten barrel micro brew-pub in a baseball stadium in 1994. People don’t realize — that’s how long Coors and Miller-Coors has been in the small brewery realm. Really, they left us alone. They let us do whatever we wanted. A lot of good things happen if you don’t tell people what to do. If you let them be brewers and let them make beer, things go pretty well.

And you said you had a background in biology?

Yeah. I have a degree in microbiology and biology. That was going to go to vet school. It helps. There’s a lot of microbiology, there’s a lot of science in beer, there’s a lot of chemistry, there’s a lot of math, and there’s a lot of mechanical stuff. People don’t realize how much hands-on… My job now is when it breaks, I’ve got to fix it so the brewers that work for me can continue to do their job. I put out fires all day. I deal with everything from broken CO2 sensors to a pump that doesn’t work. Everything in between.

So are you just doing projects here and then trying to scale it across however big it’s going to go?

What our mission is and what we try to do at the new Blue Moon Brewing Company in RiNo is we’re the R&D facility. We research and develop all new flavors, all new beers, all new ingredients. Anything that we think might be a hit, we will try it and brew it here and people can come in and sample it. That’s the beauty of this place. We can go from a two-barrel pilot system, put it on tap, and within a week, we know if it’s a seller or not. We can then turn around and scale that up, and have 40 kegs of a really good sellable product for distribution or for sale over the bar. We have somewhere north of 12,000 people a month in the bar here. That’s a really good number.

So do you just assume that’s an accurate sample size of the general population?

I guarantee it’s not accurate because there’s no science behind it. It’s Blue Moon fans or beer drinkers in general. And we’re in Denver. There’s always going to be some kind of skew. We’re not indicative of a nation, but we’re certainly indicative of beer drinkers in Denver or in Colorado. People come here knowing Blue Moon Belgian White, and I think they’re shocked and pleasantly surprised that we have 23 other beers on tap sometimes. It’s not just Belgian White. There’s everything from fruit beers, sour beers, west coast IPA, a Mexican chocolate. We’ve got Mexican lager and literally the bandwidth… The number of beers we make is pretty impressive.

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When you have one variety that’s so much more known than the other ones, does that constrain things that you might do or what you might be able to sell, just based on name recognition?

Name recognition and style parameters. We don’t brew only beers that are complementary or next to or fit with Belgian White. We will brew anything from traditional German lagers to double grapefruit IPAs. I think there’s room for all of those somewhere in the Blue Moon portfolio and what we do as a bigger nationwide. That’s probably a smaller percentage of what we brew, but one of the best examples I have is we had a beer in spring and summer of 2016 when we first opened this place, Mango Wheat [now available nationwide]. Really popular, seemed like it was going to be a hit, brewed it here, put it on tap. It went from unknown to number 2. It was a very similar trajectory from what I saw in 1995 with Belgian White. What’s interesting is Belgian White sales didn’t drop, Mango Wheat sales went through the roof. We have the ability to … When you buy a beer from us, we track. Was it a 4-ounce sample? Was it a 10-ounce pour? Was it a 16-ounce pint? Did you go buy a growler, 32 or 64 ounces and take it home?

It hit all the cylinders. It hit… We had samples upon samples that were sold. Most of those people then said, “Oh, I like that beer. I’ll buy a pint.” When they found out it wasn’t available anywhere but here, they then bought a growler. That was the ammunition and the backing we needed to get, that we were going to go wide with this beer. That was one of the first ones we brewed here that we then released nationwide. I think it gave everyone a real sense of, “Wow, this is cool. This is something that’s proven and easy to sell.” We weren’t really guessing it was going to do well.

When you’re tasting, how much of a sample size do you use? I find a lot, especially with microbrews, I’ll have one sip and I’m like, “Oh, that’s pretty good”, and then three sips later, I’m like, “Well, I’m tired of that and I’m never going to drink it again.”

If you’re never going to drink it again, that’s a problem.

Yeah.

If we get somebody that drinks three or four ounces, that’s our typical sampler, and then go, “Wow, I’m going to order one of those” and then finishes a pint or two pints, that’s probably indicative of, “It’s going to be good.” We have plenty of beers here that are really really good in four ounces. You’re probably not going to drink three or two pints of that. That’s just not going to happen. They’re novelties and they’re interesting and they’re different and there’s a time and a place for them because sometimes, you want that variety.

I see more sample beers go out of here than you would believe because they want a wide range of beer. They want something really really different, and we give them all the different stuff.

How much of your responsibility involves maintaining the consistency of the flagship [Blue Moon Belgian White]?

We do some flagship work. What it entails is if we’ve got orange that seasonally has changed, we will brew with it here first and see if we need to up the dosage, increase the color, if there’s a mix that we want to do more or less. We’ll do that kind of work for a bigger audience, for sure.

Vince Mancini

Right. How do you… Is it just straight an art? Do you just have an idea of what the original Belgian White tasted like that you’re trying to match? I imagine you can’t really save a batch of something from 20 years ago to compare.

You can’t save it, but what we have is flavor maps or flavor profiles. We have a trained group of tasters that will literally be able to pick up minute differences. They taste the same beer week after week after week. You’ll know that you want a score of 9 on orange, you want a score of 6 on wheaty and creamy, you want a score of… So you can gauge and make it a numerical equation for what you’re tasting and then you can compare that from one batch to the next. If the two overlay, you go, “Orange is a 6 now. We need to up the orange.” We’re always looking for that consistency and quality and the same product. It’s not easy. Making the same beer over and over again is very very difficult.

I try to imagine how they maintain something consistent when all the ingredients are constantly changing.

Yeah, that’s the art and the science behind it. Good brewers are a combination of those two things. When we view any of these new products and develop it, we’re never brewing off a recipe sheet. The recipe’s in my head or in a concept. “I like this, but change it to this.” We as brewers have to make it taste good. That’s the fun part of the job, is we get a new ingredient in, you give it the old rub it in your hand and smell it … You’re like, “That’s pretty good.” That generally means you get a little bit. If you smell it and you go, “Whoa, that is–“, that gets a little bit. If you’re like, “I can smell it, it’s subtle, it’s there,” but then you have to mix in more. We’re always juggling how much and where to have it. That’s the beauty of some place like this. We can add it in the brew kettle. We can add it in the fermentor. We can do different things to make those ingredients more prevalent. Some things you can’t put in the brew kettle. A lot of fruits and stuff in the brew kettle, you get jelly.

That’s like when you’re boiling it?

Yeah, you’re boiling it.

And then so instead, you’re adding it afterwards but it’s more steeped than cooked?

Well, we don’t do steeping for the fruits. We do a lot of cold side additions to the fermentor. Mango Wheat is a fruit puree fully injected in the fermentor. Yeast gets to taste it. It’s basically infused in the beer for three weeks. That’s why it’s got that really good aroma. It’s been infused in the beer. It’s not added at the end. It’s always in the mix. It’s part of it.

It seems like you guys do a lot of those styles that are mixing fruit and beer. Is that more sellable than… I don’t know what to call them, subtler things?

For Belgian White, the fruit wheat combination seems to be a winner, so why would you do anything to alter that? Part of the deal is you don’t want to be the guy that screws it up. You want something that’s close enough to Blue Moon but different enough that Blue Moon drinkers are going to go, “Oh, Blue Moon makes this. I’ll try that because I like this.”

We’ve released dozens of different styles of beer over the last 23 plus years. Some of them are really great beers but either the timing’s not right or it’s time for a change, we rotate things in and out. We do that seasonally right now, and that seems to be a good formula. People want a little variety, but they also want the standard or the same old, or at least consistent.

Talk about the relationship between Blue Moon and Coors. I think for a lot of people trying to understand how the drinks business works… There’s always the brand you like that you see on the shelves, and then there’s the conglomerate that owns it. As a consumer you’re not really sure how much input the larger company has in the smaller thing.

I think really one of the key things is people are often misinformed or they’re under the misconception that Blue Moon was purchased by Coors. It wasn’t. It was designed and built from inside the Coors Brewing Company from people that worked for Coors who are beer aficionados and beer fans. They were looking for, “What else can I make that will sell?” That’s bottom line. It’s business. They want beer that can sell. When we developed and Keith Villa, the founder, did a really good job of developing a brand and a beer that appealed to a lot of people. He had a really difficult time in the mid-90’s selling a cloudy wheat beer with an orange in it to the masses. Once people tried it and tasted it, it sold itself. We didn’t have marketing, we didn’t have any advertising. It was very low key and it built organically and naturally. A lot of people didn’t know where it was made because they were like, “Oh, Blue Moon.” They didn’t even think who made it or why. They just liked it.

I always tell people, if you like a beer, it doesn’t really matter who made it as long as it’s good and of good quality, drink it. I don’t care if it’s big, small, medium, whatever. Plenty of small brewers make crappy beer. Plenty of small brewers make great beer. If you like it, don’t let somebody else tell you it’s bad is what I would say.

For someone who’s a professional brewer, how do you think your palate is different than someone who just likes beer?

There’s great beer tasters out there, and then there’s great beer drinkers out there. My job requires me to … I wouldn’t say it takes the fun out of drinking beer. I can analyze and taste things in beer that the general public and people would be like, “I don’t know. It’s beer.” Subtle things like, “Wow, this is slightly sweeter than what I thought”, or, “This is different. What’s the interesting hop there?” The twist, I’m always dissecting beers in my head as I’m drinking them because a lot of times, we’re asked to build a beer based on an idea. I have to be able to go from the glass of beer to the recipe, and from the recipe I have to make sure that it tastes like what someone else thought it was going to taste like. That’s a really big part of what I do.

Reverse engineering.

Yeah, I reverse engineer a lot of stuff. Classic example, we were always … Late ’90’s, early 2000’s, we were looking for something for the holiday season. After the pumpkin is gone, what do you do before spring? It’s such a varied time in people’s lives. In some places, it’s cold, it’s dark, it’s nasty. In the south, it’s a little nicer. There was no one size fits all, but I remember specifically that one of the fun things we were looking at … What does Christmas mean to you? Somebody said frankincense, candy canes, snow, nutmeg, chestnuts roasting on the fire. We brewed a frankincense beer. We brewed a candy cane beer. We brewed a roasted chestnut beer. Each one of those was very, very different but when you try them, you’re like, “Whoa that is roasted chestnuts” and later we found out you can’t use tree nuts because we don’t brew with deadly known allergens.

It seems like craft beer has gotten … We in media would say “it’s having a moment.” It seems like it’s big, but also big in a very narrow way. It’s big in the way that IPA has become synonymous with craft beer. Do you think you have to fight against people’s expectations in any way?

I think we’re lucky because we are Blue Moon. People know it and I think we’re one of the beers that people that get into beer tries first.

Yeah, it’s very gateway.

It’s gateway and it’s something that a lot of people look at fondly and I would hope that they would go, “Wow, Blue Moon is different.” It started out organically, it’s small. It was small at one point. It’s gotten a lot bigger now, but when you come here, you get the feeling like, wow, this is a neighborhood craft brewery that makes a lot of really different and good beers. It’s just part of a bigger company.

To the average person who wants to figure out how to get a job drinking beer for a living, what would be your advice?

You have to be passionate about beer to start with. You can go get a job doing anything, anywhere but if you don’t have a good passion for it, then it’s a lot like hard work. I can give you the perfect example. We had a guy who works for us now who is solo brewing beers, who 18 months ago, 2 years ago, started here as a bar back because he was a beer fan and he’s like, “I want to work in a brewery. I will do whatever it takes.” He literally came in, started barbacking. He volunteered, he said, “Oh you need some help kegging beer?” That’s where you start. Come on in, scrub the floor, kegging beer.

He just literally passed a general brewing certificate class that he’s been studying six months for. He solo brews on a pilot brew now. Solo brews on the big system. That’s the trajectory. You can’t expect to come in and be a head brewer if you’ve home brewed. You can’t expect to come in and be a brewer if you don’t know how the kegging works or the cleaning part works. Cleaning is key. If you’re willing to go work in a brewery, be a guy that’s going to clean and do all the crap. You’re probably going to get a job.

Do you have a favorite and least favorite beer trend?

I don’t know about least favorite. Some are just… I worry about the trend is setting the tone for somebody to think that’s how all beer is. Hazy IPAs, that’s not how all beers are. Any of these… the cookie beers, the stouts that have donuts in them, they’re gimmicky and I’m sure they taste great and I’m sure people love them, but you should — as a brewer and as a brewery — know how to make good beer. If you’re making good beer and then you do that stuff… fine. If you’re doing that stuff to cover up mistakes or errors, then you’re really not doing anybody any favors. Brew good beer and start from that.

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