When brewers hear the name of one of their beers called out at the annual Great American Beer Festival awards ceremony, their phones usually blow up shortly thereafter with congratulatory texts and calls from friends, relatives and colleagues. John Legnard has had that experience nearly fifty times over the course of his 25-year brewing career in Colorado.
But the most recent win — for Moon Haze, a hazy pale ale — was especially satisfying. The beer beat out 136 competitors in the Hazy/Juicy Pale Ale category to take gold on October 16.
“I got so many instant text messages. There were people from all over the country, both coasts, who said, ‘You just set some people’s worlds on fire,” Legnard says.
That’s because the brewery behind Moon Haze is Blue Moon Brewing Company's pub in RiNo, and the company behind Blue Moon is MolsonCoors — and corporate-owned breweries aren’t supposed to win a medal in a category that was pioneered by small, sometimes quirky, independent specialists, like Trillium and Treehouse in Massachusetts, WeldWerks in Greeley, Monkish Brewing in Los Angeles, Bearded Iris in Tennessee or Great Notion in Portland, Oregon.
“I’ve won an awful lot of GABF medals,” says Legnard, who is the brewmaster and general manager of Blue Moon RiNo. “But that was probably one of the most rewarding because it was unexpected. But also because it's in a hot category — one of the categories that makes people stand up and take notice.”
In truth, no one should have been surprised. Although Blue Moon is one of MillerCoors’s top-selling brands nationwide and overseas, the original recipe was first brewed in 1995 at the Sandlot, a tiny brewing operation in the basement of Coors Field — and almost every new version of the beer was tested there. Since then, the Sandlot has gone on to claim at least 45 GABF medals, while Blue Moon has won twelve.
Legnard was on hand for most of them. Most of the time, he says, the secret to success at GABF is brewing “to style,” so that the beer matches the judging guidelines. “You might have made the best beer out there, but if it doesn’t fit style guidelines in the category you entered, it’s going to get thrown out somewhere along the way. GABF is still the best competition for blind judging that there is. You go multiple rounds [in the big categories], which means the winner was the best beer on the table three or four different times."
But the Juicy or Hazy category — although it has guidelines — is a bit of a moving target, in part because it's new (just three years old) and in part because hazy pale ales and IPAs themselves are intrinsically difficult to put into neat boxes of flavor, aroma and appearance. Ironically, Legnard says he wasn’t aiming for style guidelines when he entered Moon Haze into the competition (one of just five entries for Blue Moon). “I really just said, ‘This is a really good beer, let’s go with it,’" the brewer adds. "Sometimes you have to go with your gut.”
The name of the beer was created last year when Blue Moon collaborated with another Coors-owned brand, Terrapin Brewing, on a hazy pale ale. Since then, however, the beer has been continually revamped, from major overhauls to minor tweaks. “We know what is selling, and our staff constantly keeps us updated on what people are saying,” Legnard explains. He credits his brewing team for taking constant feedback and tinkering, including senior brewer Emilie Stewart Maskwa, who actually made the beer, and associate brewer Brian Leppla, who keeps tabs on beer and brewery trends all over the Denver area.
The final version was brewed and dry-hopped with a healthy dose of Azacca, El Dorado and Laurel hops, along with powder made from whole dehydrated oranges. It came in at 5.7 percent ABV, and Legnard says there is a very good chance “it will see the light of day,” if Coors can get the recipe right on its massive systems to brew it on a nationwide scale.
But finding it even in Denver is tough; the beer sold out within days after winning the award, but a fresh batch should be on tap as soon as next week, and Legnard says you might as well give it a shot — even if Blue Moon isn't an independently owned brewery. "We are just four or five people making really good beer in a great brewery," he points out. "It's okay to come here and try them and to judge the beer itself — not who owns us."
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