Pierre Celis, who died yesterday, is something of a legend in the beer world. The basic story is that he unilaterally resurrected the style of Belgian Witbier back in the mid 1960s, eventually sold out, and recreated the brewery in Austin, Texas, in the early 1990s.
In the mid 1960s, Celis was reminiscing in his home town of Hoegaarden with some old timers about the local Witbier that had last been brewed in 1955, and he decided to bring it back. Celis started the Hoegaarden Brewery, now famous for its Hoegaarden Witbier. At some point in the mid to late 1980s, a fire severely damaged the brewery. Several other brewers chipped in to help get him going again, one of whom was Interbrew, the Belgian giant. Over time, Interbrew (now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev) made demands on Celis to, essentially, dumb down the recipe, so Celis sold out to Interbrew.
He decided to take advantage of the growing popularity of good beer in the United States by relocating his brewery to the US. The mineral composition of water makes a difference to many (but not all) beer styles, and Celis required a water profile as close as possible to Hoegaarden. He found that in Austin, and opened the Celis Brewery (1992? 1993?), using a recipe for the Wit that was, he claimed, the original Hoegaarden. This was a fantastic beer, and in order to aid in distribution, Celis sold a stake to Miller. In a familiar story, Celis sold out entirely to Miller, who eventually closed the brewery in early 2001 claiming that it wasn’t selling enough.
A brewery in Michigan bought the equipment and brands in late 2002, and their version is every bit as good as the original (the two or three times I’ve had it). Additionally, it’s been “contract brewed” in Belgium by two different breweries (most notably by Brouwerij van Steenberge), leading to the oddly gratifying situation where a (good) American beer is being brewed under contract in Belgium for the Belgian market. I’ve also had this several times, and it’s also excellent.
Celis was a purist, and possibly not the most business-savvy player in the brewing game — Roger Protz did say that he had been “so badly mauled by global brewers that it was good to find him sprightly and cheerful” when they met for an interview five years ago, and at the time of the Miller “investment” in Celis Brewery, my circle were not optimistic that this was perhaps the best way forward. However, his impact on beer style, both in Europe and in the United States, can not be overstated. I had the pleasure of meeting him twice, and back in England I have a couple terrific pictures of us together at a beer festival here in Portland, Oregon, from the early 1990s. (Suffice it to say that neither of us were 100% sober). He always seemed to me to be a jovial good natured guy, but then that might have been the beer. I also brewed my own version of a Belgian Witbier, which, while I don’t think Celis ever tried, the late Michael Jackson did, and he rather enjoyed it.
Tot ziens, mijn vriend.
Additional testimonials from Austin can be found here and here.