Blue Moon comes to life at Denver brewpub

When John Legnard, the long-tenured brewmaster at Blue Moon Brewing Company, saw his flagship brand show up in Molson Coors’ first Super Bowl commercial in three decades, he was beside himself.

“I said, ‘Holy s---, we’re in the Super Bowl,” he marveled.

Like the rest of the world, Legnard didn’t know Blue Moon would prevail in the big game commercial.

For many brands, landing on sports’ biggest stage is a landmark achievement, heralding that a brand has arrived. For others, it’s a way to flex their muscles in an ever-competitive landscape. But for Blue Moon, which has become the top-selling craft beer brand in the United States, it was a symbol of something else.

“We’re here. We’ve always been here,” Legnard says. “We’ve got a story to tell, and we want people to know about Blue Moon.”

Blue Moon – Blue Moon Brewing Company, that is – was established in 1995, producing beer at a small brewery inside Denver’s Coors Field. The Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field, a homegrown Coors project, wowed baseball fans with its lineup of craft beer – Belly Slide Wit, Right Field Red and Slugger Stout – that represented a marked departure from the light lagers most often poured from ballpark taps.

Soon Blue Moon Belgian White Belgian Wheat-Style Ale, which grew out of Belly Slide Wit, earned drinkers’ respect and a national foothold, underpinning Blue Moon’s need for a home beyond the ballpark brewery.

The Blue Moon experience

More than a decade after proving itself on a national stage, Blue Moon in 2016 opened a 13,000-square-foot, 400-seat taproom and brewery in Denver’s River North district, known locally as RiNo. Part of the Five Points neighborhood frequented by Jack Kerouac and pals, RiNo was shedding its gritty façade, becoming a mecca for creative types: artists, musicians and craft breweries.

In RiNo, Blue Moon has made a name for itself, exhibiting the type of skill and creativity envied by other craft breweries, including some of the top brewers in the world.

The seasoned brewers at the RiNo taproom produce about 100 different beers a year, including national mainstays Belgian White, LightSky, Mango Wheat and Moon Haze IPA. In 2022, the brewery made 128 different beers combining to sell nearly 3,000 barrels a year, Legnard says.

It’s at RiNo where the brewery has set down roots, drawing in neighbors, tourists and craft beer fans to experience Blue Moon and say hello in person.

“I think what sets us apart is the authenticity,” says Emilie Stewart Maskwa, a senior brewer who has been brewing for Molson Coors since 2009 and at the RiNo taproom since its inception. “It’s critical to understanding the brand. We’re giving the public a chance to see Blue Moon in person and see what the culture is like here.”

The goal was to impress, but humbly. To show off Blue Moon with a welcoming, unassuming vibe. The RiNo taproom does just that, says Tristan Chan, a fixture of Denver’s craft scene and the founder of craft beer publication

“If you were to put all of your resources into building a showcase of not just beer but the full beer experience, I feel like that’s what Blue Moon is,” Chan says. “Everything I’ve had there is a classic style executed extremely well, or something fun and inventive that’s on the cutting edge of style.”

Visitors entering the converted warehouse on Chestnut Place, lined these days by pickup trucks and other construction vehicles, are greeted by a massive blue orb – an artist’s rendering of a moon – hanging from the ceiling above the bar’s 24 active taps. Visitors — about 150,000 of them a year — can take their seats in full view of the brewhouse, where five full-time brewers flex their creative muscles, churning out classics like Belgian White to innovations like Lemondrop Pilsner, Mexican Chocolate Ale and Orange Blossom Honey Kolsch. Some of Maskwa’s favorite beers to brew are Czech lagers.

“I like to drink them, so I like to make them,” she says.

Belgian White is taproom’s top-seller, followed by Mango Wheat, Orange Blossom Honey Kolsch and Luna Azul Baja Lager, a Mexican lager. Curiously, beers infused with hot peppers are popular as well, Maskwa says.

Airy, spacious and bright, the taproom shows off the spirit of Blue Moon in a way that splashy displays and even Super Bowl ads can’t.

Murals of Blue Moon’s signature curved glass and Valencia oranges adorn the walls; there’s space for musicians to perform and a merch section tucked into a corner. The expansive food menu goes far beyond standard pub grub like burgers and savory sides with chicken-fried bison and bourbon-and-maple glazed pork chops. (“The food’s as good as the beer,” Legnard quips.)

Innovation station

Legnard gives his brewers a long leash, encouraging them to develop a wide variety of styles on the 2-barrel pilot system tucked behind a wall of glass in full view of customers. Equipped with 14 fermentation vessels, state-of-the-art equipment and a copper koelschip for spontaneous fermentation, they aim high with every batch.

“Our goal in life is to brew the next great beer,” he says.

That’s what happened with two recent innovations, LightSky Citrus Wheat and Moon Haze IPA, each of which were developed at RiNo and now grace beer shelves nationwide.

With LightSky, Legnard says, the beer was developed to solve a problem.

“We saw people buying a beer and a burger and going on their way,” he says. “We thought, how do we get people to buy two beers at lunch? Lower the alcohol and keep it the same price.”

Sales were through the roof, and Blue Moon soon had a hit on its hands with LightSky Citrus Wheat, a light and refreshing 4% alcohol-by-volume ale that was Nielsen’s top new beer innovation of 2020.

That same year, Maskwa led a group of women brewers during the annual Pink Boots Brew Day, and using a special hop blend, they reformulated a recipe for a hazy IPA. Blue Moon’s brewers were impressed. So much so that they submitted the beer, which they dubbed Moon Haze, to the Great American Beer Festival in the juicy or hazy pale ale category.

The beer beat out 136 competitors in its category to win gold, sending the Blue Moon team into shock. For Maskwa, it was a shock of a different kind. The next summer, Moon Haze went national.

It wasn’t just Blue Moon’s brewers who liked LightSky and Moon Haze. It was customers – 70% of whom are local – who kept buying rounds, giving valuable feedback to bartenders.

“That’s one of the most important things about the taproom: We can take instant customer feedback at the bar, look at data and see what people want,” Legnard says. And sometimes, that results in a home run.

At home in Denver

RiNo isn’t Blue Moon’s only physical outpost. It has taprooms in Norfolk, Va., Las Vegas and two in Panama City, Panama. But it’s the only one in Blue Moon’s hometown, located less than 2 miles from the ballpark where it was founded.

Maskwa, who runs the pilot brewhouse, says the taproom offers drinkers a chance to see, taste and feel Blue Moon in a way that’s unique to nationally distributed beers.

“The experience of giving the consumer a little bit of ownership of what happens here is really cool for us and them,” she says.

As RiNo has evolved into a neighborhood complete with luxury stores, trendy condos and chain restaurants, Blue Moon stands out as having helped it develop, says Chan, who sat on a committee promoting tourism in the area. Its local lineage has helped it remain a Denver destination, he says.

“Blue Moon has the benefit of being local, and while it is a Molson Coors’ entity, Coors started down the road. I think a lot of locals recognize that Coors is a homegrown product,” he says.

But it wouldn’t be the same without the experience, the food and, of course, the beer, Legnard says.

“People come here expecting one thing, and we kind of blow them away,” he says. “This might be somebody’s only visit to us. We need to make sure we make a good first impression.”

And if they’re lucky, they might just be sipping on the next big thing.