In the early hours of a crisp May afternoon, Keith Villa rushes into the brewery and retreats with brewmaster John Legnard to the bowels of its 10-barrel brewhouse.
The place opened in 1995 and serves as an incubator for new products. Attached to the brewery is a taproom, and today, like many days, it’s filled with baseball fans. Most are Colorado Rockies fans, and they serve as taste-testers for some of those new and often seasonal beers. Not all beers will pass the test.
“One of the first beers we tried to test was a peanut butter ale,” Legnard says. “It didn’t go as well as it could have. We might have been ahead of the game on that one. People were afraid to try it.”
But then Legnard and his colleagues knocked it out of the park with their taproom testers, pouring what’s become their signature brew – Blue Moon Belgian White. “It wasn’t even called Blue Moon back then,” Legnard says. “It was called Bellyslide Belgian White.”
As Villa shares samples of Blue Moon’s latest concoctions – now brewed under the MillerCoors umbrella – large crowds gather outside for a game between the Rockies and the New York Yankees. Don’t bother looking for Milwaukee Brewers jerseys because this is The SandLot, a tiny facility inside Coors Field, lifeblood of Denver’s lower downtown area and home to Blue Moon Brewing Co.
Eighteen years ago, Villa created a beer and a brand for Coors that’s since become a driving force behind the overall financial health of MillerCoors, though it didn’t always look like that would be the case.
“[Coors] tried to kill us off numerous times,” says Villa, who was studying molecular biology at the University of Colorado when he came across a job for a fermentation researcher at Coors. He decided to forgo a career in medicine and eventually earned a doctorate in brewing from the University of Brussels.
Fifteen miles west of The SandLot sits Golden, Colo., a community of slightly less than 20,000 people nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Before Miller and Coors became MillerCoors, Golden housed Coors’ lone brewery, which claims to be the world’s largest. It sits just a few blocks off a main thoroughfare leading into town, where a sign hanging over the road reads: “Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden. Where the West Lives.”
This is certainly not Milwaukee. Not in location, not in dialect. But today, five years after the MillerCoors merger, Milwaukee and Denver share something that transcends both. They share beer.
Back in the Midwest, on Milwaukee’s West Side, the sweet smell of wort permeates the air surrounding the MillerCoors brewery on a sticky spring afternoon. Inside, production lines hum around the clock as vast quantities of beer – Miller Lite, High Life, Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy and even Coors Light – are poured into bottles, cans and kegs.
This is a glimpse into the new life of Miller, the last major brewery standing in Milwaukee. But thanks to that MillerCoors merger, it no longer belongs to Milwaukee alone. These days, the city shares Miller with the three Cs – Coors, Colorado and Wisconsin’s southern neighbor, Chicago, home of MillerCoors headquarters.
When Miller Brewing Co. and Coors Brewing Co. joined forces in 2008, the local trepidation set in immediately. Fears arose that Miller would go the way of other once-prominent Cream City brewers such as Schlitz and Pabst. They disappeared from the city’s landscape, their former breweries in Downtown Milwaukee transformed over the years into offices, retail shops and hotel space. Worries deepened when MillerCoors picked Chicago, not Milwaukee, to house the joint venture’s HQ.
But the intervening five years have softened the initial scare, and MillerCoors remains a vital – even thriving – part of the local economy.
“We’re brewing more beer here in Milwaukee than we did at the onset of the joint venture,” MillerCoors Chief Executive Officer Tom Long says on the sun-drenched patio at the Frederick Miller Pub. It’s an employee watering hole in the company’s main office building along Highland Boulevard that overlooks the Milwaukee brewery.
Long is a former president of Coca-Cola Co.’s northwest Europe division. He has an MBA from Harvard and served as president of Miller Brewing prior to the merger. Now, he can confidently say that Miller-
Coors has ended up as a formidable competitor to its main and heated rival, the North American brewing industry’s St. Louis-based behemoth, Anheuser-Busch Cos. And Miller-Coors’ annual net income is up, too.
But the joint venture has come with challenges – the rise in craft beer, the struggle to sell Miller Lite, even the ability to brew Coors Light outside of Colorado. And there’s still that question of just how strong a commitment MillerCoors has when it comes to Milwaukee.