It was January 2018, and after nearly 32 years, master brewer Keith Villa decided it was time to retire from what’s now called Molson Coors Brewing Company. At 55, he’d reached the age where he could leave with a full pension and benefits. “Besides,” he says, “I’d done everything I wanted to do in alcohol.”

It’s a typical understatement from the man who transformed the American brewing landscape and whose resumé only serves to highlight his modesty. In 1999, the mega-macrobrewery, then Coors Brewing Company, tasked Villa with reformulating what’s now called Coors Banquet, one of its flagships inspired by the first beer Adolph Coors made upon opening his namesake Golden brewery in 1873. Villa also helped the global conglomerate launch several groundbreaking products, including Batch 19, a pre-Prohibition-style lager; Aspen Edge, an early low-carb beer; and Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale, one of the first nationally available pumpkin beers. But it was Villa’s invention of the original Blue Moon Belgian White in 1995 that was truly visionary.

Today, there are nearly 10,000 breweries in the United States, but 28 years ago, there were fewer than 900. The domestic market was dominated by the still-independent Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors companies. This triumvirate was flooding the country in a clear gold ocean of mostly homogenous (and, some would say, mostly flavorless) mass-produced pale lager. Meanwhile, at Coors, Villa took a traditional Belgian wheat brew and tempered the tartness with coriander and orange peel to create a hazy, flavorful, and faintly fruity beer that helped open drinkers’ minds to possibilities beyond Coors Light. It became the highest-selling nonlager in the country. More important, it helped instigate the craft beer revolution and changed the way Americans drink, and think about, beer.

Most people would call that a career. Not Villa: Just because he said he was done with alcohol didn’t mean he was finished with beer. Before his retirement, he’d already been working at home on another trailblazing brew, an idea, he believed, that would once again alter the beverage landscape. Mere weeks after leaving Coors, Villa and his wife, Jodi, started Ceria Brewing Company in Arvada. The brewery was built around alcohol-free beer, which delivered its buzz through a novel ingredient: marijuana.

The ensuing six years have been an obstacle course of state and federal legal snafus, distribution woes, and market confusion for Villa’s upstart. But the master brewer remains undeterred in his belief that American drinkers are once again ready for something new, whether they know it or not.

Villa didn’t start investigating the properties of cannabis until after it became legal recreationally in Colorado in 2012. While growing up in Denver, he says, he avoided illicit drugs altogether. “When I was younger, if you were caught with cannabis and you were a person of color, that’d be the end of your life,” says Villa, who’s Hispanic. “I had a friend who was arrested for possession, and it was a mark that followed them the rest of their life.”

Instead, the young Villa gravitated toward the more socially acceptable beer. (Back then, the drinking age was 18.) But he wasn’t content with the watered-down domestic brands. As a molecular, cellular, and developmental biology student at the University of Colorado Boulder with ambitions to attend medical school, he started homebrewing his own ales. He sought out flavor, which in the time before craft breweries were ubiquitous was mainly the domain of European imports such as Beck’s, St. Pauli Girl, and Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter. Villa loved both tasting different beers and homebrewing and soon garnered a reputation as a bit of a beer geek.

Brewing was still just a hobby on the way to med school—until one day Villa spotted a flyer in CU’s molecular biology building soliciting applications for a research position at Coors Brewing Company. He interviewed and was accepted from a group of more than 75 hopefuls. He started right after he graduated in 1986. He was 23.

Despite the sudden switch in career tracks, Villa was still bound for grad school. Instead of medical school, though, Coors sent him to Belgium, to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, for a doctorate in science with a concentration in brewing. While in Brussels, he developed a taste for the native abbey-style ales, saisons, dubbels, and witbiers; he studied their histories and the way they were paired with food. He brought that appreciation back to Denver in the early 1990s.

Upon Villa’s return, Coors put the newly minted Ph.D. on the team in charge of opening the Sandlot Brewery, a taproom and brewhouse in the bowels of the then just opened Coors Field. Given a free hand to experiment on small batches meant exclusively for Rockies fans, Villa wanted to re-create a Belgian wheat. But he knew right away that the traditional style’s strong, yeast-forward flavor and aroma would likely be too much for Americans used to ice-cold Coors Light at the ballpark. So Villa added Valencia orange peel and coriander to accentuate the sweetness. “I was aiming for first-sip likeability,” Villa says. “For people who’ve never had a craft beer, you give them an IPA, and they’ll go ‘Bleh.’ So you take baby steps. It’s like training wheels. First, they learn to like this, and then they’ll try a fruit beer, then maybe a hoppier German Pilsner, and then you go back to the IPA.”

Of course, tipplers were still trepid to try Villa’s gateway beer. Bellyslide Belgian Wit, as it was first called, was far from an instant success; it took years for the brew to catch on at the ballgame. (In 1997, Villa says, he started a campaign to garnish the drink with a slice of orange to further sweeten the deal and grab people’s attention.) Coors had also started bottling Villa’s Americanized Belgian for the beer-curious masses along with a new moniker, which, legend has it, came from an unidentified drinker who said “a beer this good only comes along once in a blue moon.”

By Villa’s retirement in 2018, Blue Moon was available in roughly 20 countries and was the number one “craft” brand—with annual sales of more than $300 million—in the United States.

“Craft” is in quotation marks because Blue Moon’s—and by extension, Villa’s— relationship with the craft beer industry is complicated. While Blue Moon Brewing Company has always been an operating unit of one of the largest brewers on the planet, it has never declared as much on its packaging or in its advertising. To some smaller, independent brewers, this places Blue Moon in the dock alongside other macrobrewers that have quietly bought up and re-released so-called “crafty” beers to siphon market share and street cred from the craft reservoir. In 2015, a California beer enthusiast sued MillerCoors for misleading consumers. The class-action suit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge because, although Blue Moon didn’t flaunt its corporate connections, neither did it claim to be “craft,” a term that the court decided had no legal definition anyway.

Regardless of where in the cooler you find Blue Moon or who chooses to read the small print on the back of the bottle, it’s hard to argue that the beer’s novelty and nationwide availability during the craft revolution didn’t have an impact. Whether or not craft brewers want to begrudgingly admit it, Blue Moon was a trailblazer. In his aptly titled Beer Bible, which has more than 121,000 copies in print, aficionado Jeff Alworth lists Blue Moon as a “category-defining” brewer, along with craft-beer patron saints Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and Boston Beer Company.

Man (Keith Villa) from the side
Keith Villa. Photo by James Stukenberg

Villa clearly believes Blue Moon had at least something to do with expanding the tastes of American beer drinkers. And not long after Amendment 64 legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, in November 2012, he began to think he could broaden their palates again—this time with alcohol-free beer infused with THC.

He set up a five-gallon homebrew system and started experimenting. His interest in infusing beer with cannabis was part master brewer’s challenge and part chemist’s curiosity. The entrepreneur inside Villa also saw a business opportunity.

But the more Villa learned about marijuana, the more interested he became in helping dispel the stigma that the plant had accrued over decades of being lumped in with the likes of heroin, LSD, and MDMA as a Schedule I narcotic. “As I dug into the history, the reasons [marijuana] was made illegal didn’t make any sense,” Villa says. “This plant had been blamed for many of society’s ills, but it was never this dangerous thing. It’s natural. We wanted to focus on bringing cannabis to people in a socially acceptable format. People don’t want to be around smoke. But almost everyone has had a beer. It’s the beverage of moderation, unlike wine or spirits, which are only fit for certain occasions. Drinking a beer is social.”

The first roadblocks Villa faced on his path toward a weed-infused brew were scientific. It is illegal to commercially combine marijuana and alcohol, so he didn’t have to worry about blending those chemicals together. But because cannabinoids are hydrophobic, they don’t readily mix with water. Like a chef trying to whip up a salad dressing, Villa experimented with different emulsifying agents, such as vegetable gum, to ensure the oily CBD and THC extracts would become part of a cohesive liquid. Another issue he had to contend with was that the emulsion agents would stick to the lining of aluminum cans, reducing the potency of the weed-infused beer to almost zero. Villa played with different kinds of can liners and glass bottles before deciding to try a nonstick emulsion agent, which worked.

Another challenge for Villa: figuring out the all-important buzz. What dosage of which strain would approximate the intoxication delivered by a 12-ounce alcoholic beer? Villa eventually landed on five milligrams of THC to equal a five percent ABV brew. And then there was the not-new problem of how to make beer that didn’t contain any alcohol actually taste like beer. While brewers have made strides in nonalcoholic and alcohol-free brewing in recent years, in 2012, most NA beers still didn’t taste quite right. Villa eventually invented, and patented, his own process for creating alcohol-free beer and arrived at what he believed were two better-than-passable styles: an IPA and, of course, a Belgian white.

By 2018, Villa and Jodi were finally ready to launch Ceria, which is the French acronym for the campus of his alma mater in Brussels and also an homage to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. They released Grainwave Belgian-Style White Ale, infused with five milligrams of THC, in dispensaries in Colorado and California. A year later, they put out Indiewave IPA with both THC and, for “a mellower experience,” CBD in dispensaries in the two states.

But after the initial buzz wore off, Ceria encountered the same challenges other cannabis companies have experienced, including the lack of safe banking options, federal tax codes that don’t recognize cannabis as a legitimate business, and the specter of stunted growth due to the differences in laws between states. Perhaps more important, Villa discovered that, this time around, the American market wasn’t quite ready for his new beer. “As far as consumption methods go, 78 percent of people are purchasing smokeables and 57 percent are purchasing edibles,” says Lisa Buffo, founder and CEO of the Denver-based Cannabis Marketing Association.

“Beverages are less than two percent of the market. Flower is by far the leader and will remain so for some time.”

In July 2022, after the pandemic-induced economic slowdown forced many consumers to start cutting their budgets, Villa decided to discontinue production of Ceria’s weed-infused beers altogether. It was a fortuitous move: Today, the brewery is thriving, riding the recent low-to-no ABV drinking wave as sales of its award-winning alcohol-free beers steadily increase across 20 states, including Colorado.

But Villa still dreams of bringing cannabis-laced beer to the masses. Like many people inside and outside of the industry, he is waiting for the federal legalization and/or decriminalization of marijuana that seemed imminent when President Joe Biden was elected.

In the meantime, ever the mad beer scientist, Villa is experimenting at home with improvements to his cannabis beers, including working to shorten the onset time of the effects of the THC to the almost-immediate buzz of drinking a beer, exploring the other benefits of cannabinoids such as increased energy or pain relief, and even concocting additional styles and flavors of beer. “We’re in a holding pattern for now,” Villa says. “But we’re ready at the flip of a switch to get right back in.”