PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The average U.S. beer drinker doesn't know what a witbier is. Ask them what a wheat beer is, however, and there's a good chance the answer will be Blue Moon.
The hazy, cloudy, coriander-and-citrus concoction that's become a summer favorite here in the U.S. and has worked its way into the catalog of brewers including Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) , Boston Beer's (SAM) Samuel Adams and the Craft Brew Alliance's (BREW) Redhook existed long before Blue Moon came to be, but owes that brand a great deal of gratitude -- as do many small brewers and members of the craft beer community for whom Blue Moon served as a gateway between light lager drinkers and more complex beer styles.
It wasn't until Pierre Celis single-handedly revived the witbier after centuries of dormancy in 1965, when he began brewing it in his barn in the Belgian town of Hoegaarden, that witbier came out of a more than 400-year slumber. The yeast in witbier that's allowed to float around and give it a hazy color disgusted brewers adhering to the Reinheitsgebot, the German brewing purity law enacted in the early 1500s that limited beer ingredients to water, barley hops and, begrudgingly, yeast after some prompting by Louis Pasteur. Under that provision, witbier's standard combination of wheat, bitter Curacao orange peel, coriander, sweet orange peel and only a slight touch of hops is a no-no.
Celis' recipe turned into Hoegaarden White Ale and sold more than 300,000 barrels at its peak in 1985, when a fire engulfed its brewery and forced a cash-strapped Celis to sell to giant Belgian company Interbrew. That company is now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev and is the reason jelly-glass tumblers of Hoegaarden can be found in outdoor restaurant spaces and beer gardens across America. Undaunted, Celis moved to Texas and opened his own craft brewery just outside Austin in 1992. His Celis White was good enough to get Celis a buyout from Miller and introduce witbier to a generation of craft brewers.
Three years after Celis debuted his white, however, Coors (TAP) brewer Keith Villa formulated Blue Moon while working at the company's on-site brewery at the Denver home of Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies in Coors Field. Not only was it well-received during the initial craft beer boom in the early '90s, but it's still growing in popularity today. Amid a recession that sent light lager sales plummeting, Blue Moon sales rose 26% in 2010 and anther 19% a year later, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Of the 20 beer brands that make up 72% of all beer sold in the U.S., Blue Moon is the only one that's not a light lager.
Though slurred as "crafty" by the Brewers Association craft beer industry group and often ridiculed by craft brewers themselves, Blue Moon is often beer drinkers' all-important first leap from the comfort of their favorite mass-produced can into the broader beer spectrum. If you've drunk witbier, you can handle a hefeweizen. If you can hack that, you might try a Berliner Weisse and some raspberry or woodruff syrup. If you're comfortable with that in your beer, you could be persuaded into a tart lambic. From there, you could kick it up to a stronger tripel or abbey beer. From there, you'll be ready to drink a Trappist brew such as Rochefort or the evasive Westvleteren 12.
If you take that path, congratulations! You just went from Blue Moon to some of the best beers in the world in five steps and it wasn't a very difficult trip. It's the wonder of an expanded palate and, depending on what a drinker enjoys most about Blue Moon or other witbier, it can go off in several directions. Like the citrus flavor? That's the first step on the pale ale trail to an Imperial IPA. Like the cloudiness and spice? Welcome to wheat doppelbocks such as Germany's banana-flavored Aventinus. Like the refreshing mix of all of the above? Step into a saison and see if that suits you.
The only problem presented by a Blue Moon is where to go next. Craft beers and imports have been the answer more often than not, but the mean, mocking cool kids from both of those ends of the beer aisle should be a bit friendlier if they want to keep reaping Blue Moon's benefits. MolsonCoors has grown wise to Blue Moon's effect on business and has built an entire "craft" division -- Tenth and Blake -- around it. After all, why let beer snobs who hate you cull your customers when you can redirect them to a Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss or Summer Shandy or a Third Shift amber?
Until Tenth and Blake broadens its offerings a bit, there's still a window of opportunity for smaller brewers to woo beer lovers who are just getting into wheat beers. The following are 10 examples of wheat beers well-suited to folks testing the boundaries of their beer tastes and looking to take the next baby step beyond Blue Moon: