EXACTLY what is a craft beer?

How about a Belgian-style ale, made with pale malted barley, wheat and oats, and mildly spicy American Hallertau hops, spiced with a bit of orange peel and coriander? Sound right down your alley?

What if this particular beer wasn't made in a tiny brewpub somewhere, but brewed by Molson Coors, the nation's third-largest brewery (after Anheuser-Bush and SABMiller)? And what if sales of that beer last year — Blue Moon Belgian-Style White Ale — approached 800,000 barrels, more than 2.6 million, 12-ounce bottles?

Puts those of us who like to disparage big brewer, rice-and-corn-lagers such as Budweiser and Coors Banquet in a tight place. In one sense, of course, no way is Blue Moon a craft beer. It's a factory beer from a giant brewer, even though Molson Coors doesn't actually advertise its connection to Blue Moon.

But on the other hand, this is excellent beer: Dry, mildly spicy nose, hint of orange and summer fruit and a crisp taste of clean malt with a tart finish and a gentle rush of drying coriander. It's our Beer of the Week.

Honestly, I have a dream: The day will come when those tasteless lagers we like to rag on will be ancient history, replaced by beers like Blue Moon, while many of us have gone on to maltier, hoppier, zappier beers from craft brewers.

Certainly Blue Moon shows mainstream Americans are picking up on the idea that beer can have flavor. Blue Moon brand manager Libby Oberpriller says sales have grown in double digits for the last four years.

Molson Coors, which is based in Golden, Colo. , has been influenced by the craft beer movement. The Brewers Association, which runs the annual Great American Beer Festival, is in nearby Boulder. When the Rockies major league baseball stadium opened, Coors got the naming rights and established a brewpub — Sandlot — in the stadium. If you're ever in Denver, and the Rockies are in town, don't miss this place.

Sandlot brew master John Legnard says the inspiration for Blue Moon came from Coors master brewer Keith Villa, who holds a doctorate in brewing biochemistry from the University of Brussels, Belgium. It was developed at the Sandlot brewpub, then released in 1995.

Now there are spin-offs. At an informal beer dinner at the San Francisco restaurant Circa last week I got to sample Blue Moon Honey Moon Summer Ale. It's similar to Blue Moon Belgian-Style, but organic honey is added while the beer is in the fermenter, so the sweetness comes through. It's sweet, but not overpowering.

Honey Moon won a gold medal last year at the Great American Beer Festival.

There are three other Blue Moon seasonal spin-offs: a fall Pumpkin Ale, a holiday Winter Ale and a Spring Ale.

I have one problem with Blue Moon. To me, it's a bit light for the style. Keith Villa of Coors explains: "This is a beer based on a Belgian style that appeals to the American palate."

Well, this American palate appreciates Blue Moon, but also loves a fuller taste. The Belgian original, Hoegaarden Wit /, for instance, definitely has a full taste and a crisp finish.

Nearly every American craft brewer makes a white ale and some are excellent. My favorites, in bottles, include Ommegang Witte /, from Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, N.Y. which has a malty taste and a sharp, spicy follow. Also, Woody Creek Belgian-Style White Ale / from Flying Dog, Denver. It's also got a lot more heft, full and malty with a real spice hit in the follow.

Sam Adams also made an excellent white ale, but it has morphed into Samuel Adams Summer Ale /, a beer souped up with a lot more spice.

If you like the spiciness and dryness of coriander, then try Lost Coast Great White .

Calendar

The weekend of Aug. 11 and 12 is a big one for beer. Check this out.

-20th anniversary of the Toronado, the mythic, fantastic beer pub on Haight street in San Francisco. Aug. 9 to 11.

Who would have known that when proprietor David Keene opened the Toronado, naming it after the classic Oldsmobile produced from 1966 to 1992, he planned on a dance bar.

As he recalls, he stocked Anchor Steam, because it was San Francisco's beer. Then one day, someone suggested a "microbeer," so he stocked it, then another. The dance floor never happened. Today, the Toronado has about the best beer cellar on the West Coast, it's one of a handful in the entire country, a world mecca for beer lovers.

David says he knew he wanted a hell of a beer to mark the Toronado's 20th. So about two years ago, he talked to Vinnie Cilurzo, co-founder of Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, a guy famous for delicious, unusual beers.

Vinnie signed on big time. He brewed five beers, of varying strengths and styles put each in oak barrels for a year. A couple were brewed with wild yeast, Brettanomyces, for a sour note.

Three months ago Vinnie and David tasted many blends of all five, chose a final blend, blended them, put some of the beer in kegs, then bottled the rest in 750 mL, and three liter corked bottles, about 130 cases in all.

Before sealing they were bottle conditioned, a bit of fresh yeast added to each bottle so a slow, second fermentation continues in the bottles.

The result, Vinnie says, is a 10.43 percent alcohol by volume beer that is smooth and soft with a faint sourness, a beer that hides its alcohol well. "It drinks like a 6 percent beer," Vinnie says. Hmmm. For comparison, Coors Banquet is 5 percent.

OK. Heres the schedule:

Russian River will tap the first keg late in the afternoon on Thursday, Aug. 9.

The big bash happens at the Toronado, 547 Haight St., San Francisco at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11. They'll also be selling the beer. Price right now is uncertain, but most likely $10-$12. A few cases will also be assigned to select beer stores in the Bay Area.

Two more calendar items. Told you this is going to be a big weekend.

-Bistro 10th Annual IPA Festival. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 11 at The Bistro, 1001 B. St., Hayward. Beers from more than 50 breweries, live music, barbecue. Professional judging, People's Choice Award. Cost to be announced. Call (510) 886-8525 or visit http://www.the-bistro.org. If you live for India Pale Ale, this is one festival you shouldn't miss. Great beer, lots of fun. B Street will be closed for the festival.

-Bruce Paton's beer dinner, featuring the beers of 21st Amendment Brewery-Restaurant, San Francisco. 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11. Cathedral Hill Hotel, 1101 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $65. http://www.beer-chef.com.

Bison is here to stay

Clarification department. Dan Del Grande, owner of Berkeley's all-organic Bison Brewing, points out that in no way is Bison leaving the East Bay. True, he's cut a cooperative brewing agreement with Butte Brewing, Chico's all-organic brewery. But he emphasizes that he hopes to make a similar cooperative brewing deal with a Bay Area brewery and Bison will always be an East Bay beer.

Dan, who holds a master's in geotechnical engineering from UC Berkeley, recently earned his Executive Business MBA at St. Mary's College in Moraga. His thesis: How craft brewers can become more efficient by sharing production facilities, while remaining financially independent companies.

By the way, if you like spice in your beer, check out Bison's fall seasonal: Organic Gingerbread Ale. It's a dark porter, spiced with ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. It's got an aroma just like a gingerbread man, he says.

Moving on to the correction: In last week's column on Achel Blond, the Belgian Trappist ale, the name of the importer of the beer was omitted because of a production error. He is Dan Shelton of Shelton Brothers, Belchertown, Mass. Sorry about that, Dan.

Beer ratings are based on a star system. World classic: Among the best beers in the world; / may be a star — don't miss it.; / very good — worth a try; — good beer, drinkable, no defects; / not very good, OK to drink in a pinch; don't toss it, take it back to your retailer and demand a refund.

Staff writer William Brand publishes What's On Tap, a consumer craft beer and hard cider newsletter. He can be reached at (510) 915-1180. Fax: (510) 841-6023. E-mail: whatsontap@sbcglobal.net.