Talking Shop with Keith Villa

From previous chances to personally interact with brewers, I’ve come to realize that the beer industry is filled with incredibly engaging personalities. They love to share stories about their craft, have in-depth conversations about beer and generally spread the gospel of craft beer.

After attending the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Blue Moon Brewing Company’s (BMBC) burger and beer pairing dinner on Tuesday night, I came away convinced that Keith Villa is one of the most interesting people in the beer industry. Say what you want about the craft vs. crafty debate, but it’s clear to anyone who has talked with or spent time listening to Villa that he’s someone who really loves beer and sharing his beer knowledge with others.

I know you’re thinking – why was the founder and head brewmaster of Blue Moon doing a beer dinner at Red Robin? One reason is Red Robin’s recent transformation that includes a larger focus on craft beer. That the dinner was at the Arvada Red Robin restaurant also helped, as Villa is a native Arvadan and still lives in the area. But the biggest reason why you could find Villa at a casual dining restaurant on a Tuesday night is simple – Villa loves talking about beer.

Keith Villa

Hanging with Keith Villa

Villa was joined by two members of Red Robin’s Culinary Team – Scott Weaver, director of culinary, and Donna Ruch, master mixologist – who walked diners through the three course pairing menu. The first course, the Valencia Grove Amber Ale and Red Robin’s Three-For-All was a nice starter, but the most interesting part was hearing Villa’s thoughts on how beer serves as a palate cleanser. The carbonation, according to Villa, acts as a tongue scrubber between bites of food that makes each subsequent bite taste like a whole new experience. It was particularly helpful to learn this during the first course, as it was something to consider throughout dinner and will be something I think about at future pairing events or even dinners at home.

It was the main course, however, where the team broke down the pairing process to a whole new level. Villa and Weaver talked about how the white pepper in the Short Straw, a blend of Farmhouse Ale and Flanders Red, and the cumin in Red Robin’s signature seasoning would really bring out each other’s flavors during the course. I’ve tried many overall course/beer pairings and had things described in very general terms like “the maltiness works well with the vanilla,” but I’ve never had a brewer or chef breakdown a pairing in such specific detail.

And they were right – knowing exactly what to look for can change your view to the entire course and the pairing process overall. Again like the palate scrubber Villa previously discussed, it’s something to consider outside of this specific event. When cooking at home, pick a beer with a certain additive (white pepper, cloves, etc.) and try to create a dish with one specific spice that compliments or contrasts with that brewing ingredient – you’ll be amazed at how it can improve the whole experience.

In between explaining the beer samples, Villa found the time to share some interesting bits of Blue Moon history:

  • When they first tested the Peanut Butter Ale that now has a religious following at GABF, the overwhelming reaction from beer drinkers was “that wasn’t as disgusting as I thought it would be.”
  • At one point, Villa was listing out different ingredients that the team has added to brews over the years and casually mentioned that they once brewed with chicken! I’ll forever kick myself for not asking what on earth you would brew with chicken, but I’d love to know how that turned out.
  • Nearly all Blue Moon beers are kosher with the exception of their bacon beers. If you’re a kosher beer drinker, you can confirm this yourself by looking for the circle U logo on the label.

All in all, Villa and the team at Red Robin put on a great dinner. For $30 per person, there was ample food, some great beer samples not readily available at Argonaut, including a double IPA called Pine in the Neck that is brewed with Juniper berries and a test Gingerbread Ale, two take-home Blue Moon snifter glasses and two hours with the Colorado’s own doctor of beer.

About Peter MacKellar

A native Coloradan who thinks our fine state offers the best beer and snow anywhere in the U.S., Peter recently moved back to Denver after spending a few years in New York City.