From Bevs to Bud: Ceria Co-Founder Keith Villa Discusses Foray Into Cannabis
When Blue Moon creator Keith Villa retired from a storied 32-year career at MillerCoors in early 2018, few alcohol industry observers could have predicted that his next venture would be in the cannabis sector.
Villa is the co-founder of Ceria, Inc., a Colorado-based beverage company that makes THC-infused non-alcoholic (NA) beer. Prior to launching the company in 2018, he spent more than two decades traveling the country trying to convince consumers to drink a cloudy Belgian-style white ale with a slice of orange.
At the time, beer drinkers were more familiar with lighter domestic beers and amber-colored microbrews. Retailers initially struggled to sell Blue Moon, and MillerCoors leadership even made repeated attempts to discontinue the brand.
But Villa’s hard work and persistence eventually prevailed, and Blue Moon would go on to become the best-selling individual craft brand in the U.S.
Now, Villa is hoping that his brewing expertise and time spent learning a highly-regulated alcohol business will enable Ceria to emerge as a leader in the THC-infused beverages market.
In a recent interview with THCnet, Villa -- who actually voted against the legalization of recreational cannabis use in Colorado back in 2012 -- discussed his motivations for getting into the cannabis industry, and why other beverage industry professionals should consider it as well.
The following exchange has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
THCnet: Why did you decide to enter the cannabis industry?
Keith Villa: When cannabis became legal recreationally in Colorado in 2014, I began experimenting with the idea of cannabis-infused beer. I quickly realized you could brew with cannabis, and the resulting product gave you quite a buzz. My wife and I looked at the growing market and thought there was a significant opportunity to make cannabis beverages. With my brewing experience, a cannabis-infused beer was the obvious choice. From the very beginning, we wanted to imitate the alcohol world, getting people to socialize and have fun with cannabis drinks.
THCnet: What experiences from your time in the beer industry have carried over to the cannabis market?
KV: My 32 years of experience as a brewer has been crucial to the development of Ceria. I also relied on my business knowledge from the beer industry and a few critical relationships from my time with MillerCoors to build the Ceria brand. For example, to help us with sales and business development, I hired IBC, a New York-based consultancy with years of experience in the global beverage space. To develop the brand architecture, we worked with Trinity Brand Group, a company who helped early on with the branding at Blue Moon.
THCnet: What’s been the hardest part of transitioning into cannabis?
KV: Overall, cannabis is more regulated than alcohol. Learning the rules and regulations of the cannabis market was a major challenge. Laws are complex and they can change very quickly. It's essential to have a competent legal team when launching a new brand.
THCnet: How do you see the industry evolving over the next few years?
KV: We believe federal legalization in the U.S. is coming between 2022 and 2025. At that time, many new companies, big and small, will jump into the market. You'll see an explosion of new cannabis products, but it will take time for new entrants to get established.
THCnet: How big of an opportunity is cannabis? Why should someone consider a career in an industry that is just beginning to develop and mature?
KV: I may be biased, but I feel the time is ripe for a jump. The cannabis industry is going to explode and people that get in early and going to reap the benefits. When cannabis goes federally legal, there will be an abundance of companies looking for employees who know how to navigate the maze of regulations.
THCnet: What is something you wish you knew before you got into cannabis?
KV: I would have liked to know how difficult and time-consuming it was going to be to access the market. It's a process to grow sales and build relationships with dispensaries. Also, the number of dispensaries is limited, so missing out on a chain of dispensaries can really affect overall sales. Since the market is small, you need to make sure your product is dialed in terms of quality and taste from day one.
THCnet: How do you hope your company will evolve over the next 2-5 years?
KV: I see us being a national brand in 2-5 years, but also having an international presence. I see Ceria’s growth being rapid and the company becoming a market leader.
THCnet: Which cannabis companies are you watching closely?
KV: There are only a handful of companies making THC-infused beer. In Colorado, we're the only ones. In California, there are Two Roots, High Style and New Frontier. Lagunitas also makes a carbonated hop product, called Hi-Fi Hops, which just came to Colorado. Ska Brewing in Durango just entered the market with Oh Hi, a cannabis seltzer line.
Get to know Ceria:
Jodi Villa and Dr. Keith Villa launched CERIA in 2018. Ceria’s flagship product is a non-alcoholic Belgian-Style white ale called Grainwave that contains 5 mg of THC. Currently, Ceria products are sold exclusively in Colorado. Next month, Ceria will expand distribution to California, and introduce a non-alcoholic West Coast IPA containing 10 mg of THC and 10 mg of CBD. The company recently unveiled a line of non-infused, NA beers, and hired Greg Miller, a sales and marketing leader who spent 25 years with MillerCoors, as its vice president of business development.