When presented the opportunity to interview Brewmaster John Legnard of Denver’s Sandlot Brewery, we were ultimately thrilled. His brewery, best known for developing their flagship brew Blue Moon Belgian White, is the onsite beer producer at Coors Field home of the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team. Owned by Molson Coors Brewing Company, the unassuming Sandlot Brewing is a unique specimen such AC Golden Brewing Company that is allowed to provide research and development for their parent company as well as great beer to one of the country’s best craft beer regions. And if recent years past have showed us anything, it is that the type of beer being brewed by Legnard and his staff has a bright future.
John Legnard has an interesting story with professional craft brewing that began in Fort Collins in the early ’90s. Before getting into the heart of our interview, Legnard spoke about living in Colorado and his love for Fort Collins in particular. “Fort Collins is a great beer town. I’ve got quite a history with Fort Collins,” he attests. “I would have never left Fort Collins if I didn’t get a job down in Denver.”
A young Legnard got his feet wet in brewing in Fort Collins and lived there for ten years. In 1992 he helped open HC Berger Brewing, a now defunct operation, reborn as Fort Collins Brewing at the same place where Funkwerks Brewing now resides.
Legnard started off in the same homebrew club Jeff Lebesch and some of the folks who started New Belgium. “Doug Odell interviewed me for a job at Odell’s (Brewing Co.) but didn’t hire me,” he say, “he was hiring his second employee. I still remind him to this day that he should have hired me but he didn’t.”
This certainly did not deter Legnard who found his career path with Sandlot 1995 when he relocated to Denver. “It kind of started off as The Sandlot Brewery because we’re inside the baseball stadium here” he points out. “And in the summer of ’95 we were brewing brewmaster specials, new beers, experimental beers.” With an array of baseball themed brews such as Pinstripe, Rightfield Red, and Slugger Stout, it was one particular brew that changed everything for this small 10-barrel brewery. “We brewed a Belgian-style white ale called ‘Bellyslide’ because of our beers have these catchy baseball terms,” Legnard says. “We came up with this Belgian white recipe and put it on tap. It literally went from an unknown beer to our biggest seller in about two weeks. So, as the story goes, we thought “we had better sell this somewhere else. And ‘Bellyslide’ doesn’t really roll of the tongue. Somebody came up with the concept of “Beer this good only comes along once in a blue moon,” and so Blue Moon Belgian White was born.”
An Interview with John Legnard
Tell us a bit about what function(s) Sandlot and Blue Moon have within the larger parent company?
JL: We come up with new recipes, all the seasonals like The Summer Honey Moon – the Honey Wheat Ale that we’ve got coming out now. Our job is the R & D (research and development) and experimental portion of Blue Moon; what’s new, what’s exciting so that is what we get to do here.
How much beer do you produce annually?
JL: We brew about 2,500 and 3,000 barrels per year, so it’s not a big test batch, but enough that we can get everything right and make sure the beer tastes good.
Is the majority of the beer that you brew at Sandlot consumed at the ballpark or do you have other company pubs that you provide for?
JL: The ballpark takes up a pretty good chunk of summertime production. During baseball season, we do a new beer about every week or every other week. We’ve got the flexibility to brew just about anything we want in a 10-barrel batch, and as long as we can put it on tap…we’ll do all those experimental beers that way.
How many taphandles do you regularly maintain at the brewery?
JL: There’s 15 different taphandles and we try to keep the same beers on most of them. We probably rotate two to three beers every two weeks. It does change quite a bit. It’s a pretty big change. Unfortunately, what we do is, we pack up our GABF – our Great American Beer Fest Beers – at the end, so our selection goes way up as we get closer to GABF. We tell people that this is like our Super Bowl, or like Lance Armstrong, this is our Tour de France. It’s the only beer contest we enter all year long, so we go crazy for GABF; that’s in our backyard and we try to make it an event for sure.
I am hoping to make it this year for sure as I’ve never been before.
JL: …And you call yourself a beer blogger having never been to the GABF? If you never do any other beer event in the world other than one, I would do this one.
Okay, I’m sold. We’ll be there. We hope to see you when we get there.
JL: We’re usually running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We’d love for GABF to be held somewhere else other than our backyard because we’re running full steam ahead at the brewery. We’ve got beer events for the GABF, I’m a judge, so I’m busy Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We’ve got night sessions at the GABF where people are like “You’ve got a great job; all you do is drink great beer.” Well, it’s not as easy as you might think. It’s a commitment, a professional commitment to be this good at it.
Last year when we visited Denver we attended the Beer Bloggers Conference soon after GABF in November. We made this decision so that we could experience more of the Denver and Colorado region and get to interact more with brewers and industry folks.
JL: (GABF) is really hectic. I tell people to come and drink beer, but t if you want to go anywhere, see anything, or talk to anyone, you’re right, it’s not the time to do it. It’s so dang busy. That’s why I think it would be fun if it was somewhere else so I could go on vacation, stay in a hotel, visit some breweries and drink beer. But instead, I’ve got to be here and be working hard. It’s fun to see people. We know brewers from all over the country that we get to see once a year – always at the GABF.
What percentage of you capacity does Blue Moon production entail? Do you brew it, as I imagine you would, at other facilities?
JL: Yes, we brew at other facilities. There’s no other way we could keep up with demand here. Our job here is specifically to make Blue Moon Belgian White for the baseball stadium. We make all the seasonals (and develop) recipes for all the experimental stuff. Right now we’re working on beers for 2012 because in order for us to get them out into the market to all the distributors, we have to stay a year plus ahead. We’re launching things to about five different test markets such as this beer with Chardonnay grapes and wheat malt – like a 50/50 blend. With all the experimental stuff, we can’t keep up with production for Denver metro alone. It’s really just the baseball stadium for us.
Sounds really great that Coors gives you and Sandlot Brewery so much autonomy and freedom to be creative.
JL: We’re like any other guys from small breweries. We’re running around with baseball caps, facial hair, t-shirts, and shorts on. The autonomy (from Coors) was by accident I think because they kind of forget about us. I like to tell people we’re like Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but not really connected. Then all of a sudden we’ve got these really cool beers coming out and they are like “maybe we should utilize them.” They let us keep doing what we are doing and have fun with it.
What is the relationship like there with the rest of the brewers at Sandlot?
JL: We’ve got four guys who have been here sixteen years and a new guy who has only been here ten, and a part time intern guy. But, we’ve got 80-plus years of brewing experience between us. It’s a pretty well rounded team of brewers. I think we’re pretty well respected, and when people taste our beers, people feel like “wow, these guys are making some pretty good beers down there.”
It seems that a lot of the macro breweries are beginning to recognize the value of craft beer as it begins to eat up more and more of the market share. The number of craft breweries continues to grow at an alarming rate. How do you feel about his phenomenon?
JL: Craft continues to grow while other beers seem to be fairly stagnant. The good thing about working for this company is that they realized this fifteen years ago. They aren’t just coming into this and just all of a sudden making something to cling on to some trend. They were there fifteen years ago before (craft beer) got as popular as it is now. It is one of those things – people don’t realize how long we’ve been around.
So there is a lot your summer brew making its way into cans, including yours. This seems to be a trend in craft brewing these days. How do you feel about canned beer?
JL: It’s getting a little crafty like some other craft brewers who are putting craft beer in cans. And I’ve always been a big fan of cans because you can take them places that you can’t take bottles. I look at that as an extension of the brewery. It’s your little beer tank. It’s kind of an ideal scenario for beer. Sealed in a can, it’s protected from oxygen, it’s protected from light, it’s portable. Everybody can take it wherever they want to go and it doesn’t weigh as much as a bottle. I like the cans better.
Anything special coming up on the calendar for the summer?
JL: The other thing we’re doing for our real beer fans is an artfully crafted promotion this summer. If people go on our Facebook page, they can enter to win an all-expenses paid trip to Denver to spend a day with the brewers , kind of craft your own beer, and get a behind-the-scenes tour to see how things work at a real brewery. There’s been a lot of positive response to that on the Facebook page.
With the Colorado Rockies struggling a bit in the baseball standings, how is the beer production affected at Sandlot? Does the team’s success affect your job at all?
JL: It doesn’t really affect our job that much. Obviously, when they play better, we sell more beer. But when they go to the playoffs, we sell less beer. I know that sounds crazy, but instead of standing in the pub here that is attached to the baseball stadium while drinking beer, they are in their seating watching baseball. It’s a little harder to sell draught beer at the pub if they’re in their seats. For us (in the brewery) though, it’s business as usual. We’re always two weeks ahead what baseball’s doing. As long as they’re not mathematically eliminated by the All-Star Break, we’re in good shape.
Tell us about the developer of Blue Moon, a man named Keith Villa.
JL: Keith is one of the guys who doesn’t always work here all of the time. He’s kind of the inspiration for the original recipe. Keith has a PhD in brewing science from the University of Brussels in Belgium. Keith just went on a trip to Belgium to revive his inspiration for this beer and come up with new ideas and perhaps come up with the next big hit for Blue Moon. He’s brilliant; knows his stuff about beer. We meet with him and talk with him to come up with new recipes and ideas. We do the hands on and the “here’s how we do it.” Ideas like making a beer with peanuts – that was a marketing guy’s crazy idea. We had araspberry cream ale to make a peanut butter and jelly six pack. You look up all the brewing texts for beers and under “P” you’ve got porters, pilsners, pale ales, but there’s no peanut. So the four of us sat around and sampled different kinds of peanut butter to figure out what would taste good in beer, and we made a beer – I kid you not – if you were sitting at a ballgame eating a handful of peanuts and drinking a beer, that’s exactly what it tastes like. It’s probably not something that we’re going to produce nationwide, but a real unique beer that we’ll sample at festivals and tastings. People are familiar with Blue Moon Belgian White. They’re familiar with our seasonal lineup. If they want to try something else, we throw this out there and it just freaks them out. It blows their mind that we could make a beer like this. We’ve seen a few other people make one (a peanut butter beer), but we’re pretty sure we were the first to do it back in ’96.
How hands on is your brewery?
JL: It’s hands on. We don’t have a computer controlled brewhouse. A batch goes into the lauder tun. We’ve got to hook up some hoses and flog through the mash; get all of the stuff pumped from one place to the other, moving hoses and stuff. It’s a tightknit little group and it’s good because if something goes wrong, you can say “Oh, I screwed it up. Here’s where we went wrong.” Or if it’s really good we can talk amongst ourselves and put forth some really good ideas on how to make a beer. It’s a lot of fun.