REMEMBERING PIERRE CELIS: A CLASSIC BEER STYLE RESURRECTED BY A LEGENDARY BREWER

1992. How many of you were around in 1992? The world was a much different place back then than it is now. The internet was in its infancy (in regards to being offered to the general public.) There was no Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media. Most of us back then got our news from either the television or trade magazines, especially when it came to beer news.

Being a Belgian beer enthusiast since 1983, I got excited when I had read that a brewer from Belgium was going to lay roots down in the United States! The man: PIERRE CELIS. The beer: CELIS WHITE. As it has been written, Pierre chose Austin, Texas because in his words, “The people spoke with a slow Southern drawl and were easy for me to understand.” Its also no mistake that he started a brewery in the same city that Manneken-Brussels (Importers of Chimay Trappist Ales) was located. But that’s another story for another time. In order to articulate the story of Pierre Celis the best way we know how, you have to go back to the beginning.

WITBIER LOOSELY DEFINED

The beer style of WITBIER  It is a descendant from those medieval beers which were not brewed with hops, but instead flavored and preserved with a blend of spices and other plants referred to as “gruit”. Gruit is still used today, although nowadays the gruit consists mainly of coriander, orange, bitter orange, and hops. It gets its name due to suspended yeast and wheat proteins which cause the beer to look hazy, or white, when cold. French regulation (part of the territory was French in the 14th century) excluded the use of hops in gruit.  The taste of today’s witbiers are only slightly hoppy. They have a somewhat sour taste due to the presence of lactic acid. In the past, the Belgian wheat beers were much more sour than is the case now. The suspended yeast in the beer causes some continuing fermentation in the bottle. (Source: Wikipedia)

PIERRE CELIS: EARLY LIFE

Celis was born on 21 March 1925 in his family home on the edge of the Hoegaarden town square. He grew up working on his father’s cattle farm, but also helped out in the brewery of his neighbour Louis Tomsin. Tomsin brewed wit beer, which was a speciality in the region around Celis’ home town. [Source]

BECOMING A BREWER

After Tomsin closed his brewery in 1955, wit beer disappeared from Hoegaarden. Celis, who became a milkman after he married, took up beer making in 1965. The first year he started out with a wash tub in the barn of his father. With a loan from his father he bought equipment that came from an abandoned brewery in Heusden-Zolder. His first batch of Hoegaarden beer was made on 19 March 1966 and he opened Brouwerij Celis (Celis Brewery). In 1980 he opened Brouwerij de Kluis as he transferred the production to new buildings. In the late 1980s his brewery burned down. Because the buildings were not insured, he was forced to sell his company to Interbrew, now AB Inbev. [Source] (InBev continues to make Hoegaarden Witbier to this day.)

PIERRE INVADES THE UNITED STATES

Being the entrepreneur that he was, Pierre set his target on the United States market, and introduce his version of Witbier. In 1992, Pierre decided to start his microbrewery in Austin, Texas. His brewing expertise quickly garnered him Gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the category of Wheat Beer. Celis White received a world-class, 4 -star rating from The Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson. His daughter, Christine and her husband were managing partners in the brewing enterprise.

He added other beer styles to the Celis Brewery line up (see picture below) which also were received with much fanfare and acclaim.

However, Pierre’s beers were before their time here in the United States, and the brewery struggled financially. Eventually, the brewery found itself in a position of having to sell to Miller Brewing Company, and on December 31, 2000, Celis Brewery closed its doors. In 2002, Miller Brewing Company sold the Celis brand to Michigan Brewing Company which continued to brew it products until they closed in 2012. NOTE: We found that the quality of the beers suffered- especially after the passing of Pierre, (who by the way went to work for Michigan Brewing as a consultant.) Pierre died on April 9, 2011, at the age of 86. [Source]

THE LEGACY OF PIERRE CELIS CONTINUES

As of June 25th, 2012, an announcement was made- the Celis Brewery was going to reopen in the near future. When the assets of Michigan Brewing Company were sold, the Celis family bought their brand back, and attained full rights to begin brewing again using the Celis name.

Christine Celis (pictured) has planned and is in the process the collaborating with various craft breweries around the world to create beers under the Gypsy Series name. The first beer in the series to make its debut (as of this month) will be a Belgian IPA brewed and bottled at Adelbert’s Brewery in Austin, Texas. Adlebert’s specializes in hand-crafted Belgian-Style ales.

According to Christine, their first Gypsy recipe was created by Texas’ first female brewmaster, Kim Clarke. “Kim was also the only female brewer in Texas when she brewed with my father at the Celis Brewery in Austin throughout the Nineties. It seemed only fitting that she should be involved in the creation of our Gypsy brand, which will be the first product released by my new company.” Kim and Adlebert’s brewer, Scott Hovey, have produced a remarkable medium bodied beer with noticeable Belgian malt character. It’s a deep golden colored IPA crafted from Belgian yeast and features pronounced hops on the nose and distinct citrus notes. “We’re very happy with the initial results,” said Christine in a press release.

Celis says to start looking for the Celis Gypsy Belgian IPA on tap at local beer establishments in October while the bottled product is still aging. Bottles of the beer should show up on local shelves sometime in November. She promises that details about a launch party and tasting events, as well as a list of bars and retailers for the first Gypsy brew, are all forthcoming. [Source] We’ll keep you posted when we find out more…

ANOTHER WORLD CLASS BREWERY KEEPING THE CELIS WITBIER ALIVE

St. Bernardus Wit from Brouwerij St. Bernardus is a traditional Belgian white beer developed and brewed in collaboration with the legendary Master Brewer Pierre Celis. This ale is very pale (whitish-yellow color) and quite hazy. The head is white and dense. In aroma, it has a wheaty, apple-like, tartness; herbal-spicy notes with coriander and orangey fruitness and honeyish sweetness.
(Source: Specialty Beer.com)

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

I had the great honor of meeting Pierre Celis at a beer festival in 1994 held at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, while working for Alehouse Distributing at the time. (Alehouse is out of business) I remember Pierre being a soft spoken, gentle sort of fellow. Very proper and easy to talk to. No wonder the beer world loved him; not only for his contribution to the beer world, but who he was as a person.

In mid December 2000, I was working for Verio NTT as a database manager / intranet web manager. The opportunity arose for me to have an all-expenses paid trip to Austin Texas. I was to be interviewed for a tech position at Verio’s Austin offices. I decided to fit in some beer adventure on this trip as well! I first made a planned stop to the Celis Brewery itself. When I arrived, I was the only one on the guided tour. Unfortunately, Pierre nor Christine were available to talk to. There was no brewing activity going on, but there was plenty of beer to sample, and I did! They also sent me away with various signage, t-shirts, coasters, etc. – all for free! My tour guide then broke the news to me that the brewery was going to be closing on New year’s Eve, and it was bought by Miller Brewing company. My heart sank.

Needless to say, I was bummed out, and decided to make another stop- at The Gingerman Pub in Austin. Those who I met that night did not know the news, and were shocked! We all lifted our glasses with Celis White, paid tribute and toasted a man who not only changed the United States brewing scene, but locally in the beer scene in Austin and all of Texas. To Mr. Celis, we remember you!

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