In the history of American beer, there are certain brands that have shaped the modern craft beer scene, and broadened beer categories. These beers are interesting, but still approachable, and include imports like Guinness Draught, as well as locally brewed classics like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Blue Moon Belgian White. All three are easy to find, and affordable, and in the case of Blue Moon it represented something unprecedented in American beer when it was introduced in the mid-nineties. Blue Moon began life at the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field as a beer modeled after the wheat beers from Belgium and the Netherlands that were brewed with coriander and the zest of bitter oranges. Instead of the traditional Curacao oranges however, head brewer Keith Villa opted to use Valencia Oranges since he believed them to be slightly sweeter, and better suited to the American palette. Originally called Bellyslide Wit, a chance remark that a beer this good is brewed “once in a blue moon” lead to a name change, and a production shift to the Coors Brewery at nearby Golden, Colorado. At the Coors Brewery, the beer was produced on a larger scale, and distributed across the country. Bright orange and cloudy, with notes of dried citrus and spice, Blue Moon was unlike anything that American beer drinkers were accustomed to at the time. Competitors introduced their own Belgian-style beers, but Blue Moon stayed dominant and remained the definitive example of this beer style.
Over two decades later, craft beer culture went through significant changes, with brands no longer being seen the same way that they were years ago. The Coors company recognized a need to return Blue Moon to its roots as a beer first made in small batches in a brewpub based in a baseball stadium. This lead to the creation of Blue Moon RiNo in 2016. RiNo refers to the River North Arts District, an area in Denver known for art galleries, architecture firms, and other interesting attractions. In some ways, the development of RiNo in Denver parallels the history of Wynwood in Miami; both are former industrial districts revitalized by art and now the hubs of craft beer in their respective cities. Wynwood is known for beer companies like J. Wakefield Brewing, Veza Sur, and more. In RiNo, there are taprooms for popular Colorado craft beer companies like Great Divide Brewing, Left Hand Brewing, and Odell Brewing. These brands are all highly regarded among beer drinkers, but none are as well known as Blue Moon, which is distributed across the world.
A visit to Blue Moon RiNo should ideally begin with their iconic wheat beer served with the trademark orange slice garnish. In the early history of this beer, bars began serving it during the summertime with a slice of lemon or lime on the rim, similar to how Mexican lagers like Corona are typically served. The Blue Moon marketing team suggested that slices of Valencia oranges be used instead, since this complemented the notes of citrus already present in the beer.
Other insights into the history of the brand are shared during Blue Moon RiNo brewery tours that are done almost everyday. Much of this history is told with the aid of posters and old labels for historic bottlings that adorn the hallways. The relevance of Blue Moon RiNo within the larger brand is also explained. New beers are dreamed up and brewed here for the first time. Based on feedback from drinkers, the beer is then brewed in bigger batches at the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado and distributed across the state, and eventually the rest of the country.
Some of the most popular products to emerge from Blue Moon RiNo include Blue Moon Pacific Apricot Wheat, and Blue Moon Summer Honey Wheat. Both of these are seasonally brewed, and included in mixed twelve packs. The most successful of these seasonal beers has been Blue Moon Mango Wheat, which started as a summer beer but is now made throughout the year.
Several expansions to the Blue Moon line were also developed at River North. These include Blue Moon LightSky, which is a low calorie beer with less than four grams of carbs. There is also Moon Haze, a juicy pale ale brewed in collaboration with Terrapin Brewing Company in Maine. Moon Haze is brewed with entire oranges, while Light Sky is brewed with tangerine peel, so both remain familiar for Blue Moon drinkers accustomed to dominant orange notes while still being entirely dissimilar in other regards. LightSky is reminiscent of club soda with a splash of Angostura Orange Bitters. Moon Haze has notes of tangy tangerine juice, grapefruit zest, and the slightest hint of candied orange peel. The added oranges perfectly compliment the hops blend, which includes varieties chosen for distinct tropical citrus notes.
A broad range of other beers on tap incorporate citrus in interesting ways. Calamansi Gose is a warm fermented wheat beer in a style typically made with wild strains of yeast leading to a sour, vinegar-like taste. The sourness is further accentuated with the addition of a tart citrus fruit known as Calamansi, or Philippine lime. Just like Blue Moon Belgian White, this is a wheat beer with citrus, but it manages to be completely different, and almost like a tart reimagining of the classic Blue Moon first brewed at the Sandlot Brewery. In Orange Blossom Honey Kolsch, subtle citrus notes interact with light hints of clove and cinnamon in a beer with a character reminiscent of a spiced cookie. Blue Moon Blood Orange Pale Ale is similar, but brighter and more fruit forward. Their most hop forward beer is Tangerillo Juicy IPA, an India Pale Ale dry hopped with tangerines and pomelos leading to intense notes of candied grapefruit peel, lemongrass, and pine resin.
There are also several experimental beers that are not on tap, and only available to visitors who take a tour of Blue Moon RiNo followed by a private tasting. These include barley wines aged in Bourbon barrels, lagers brewed with lemon peels, and more. The most successful of these will be brewed again in larger batches, and may one day be bottled and sold across the country. Just like the original Blue Moon first brewed at the Sandlot Brewery in 1995 changed American craft beer, beer made at Blue Moon RiNo may one day shape the future of American beer.