Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pierre Celis & his Witbier stand tall in beer history.

Pierre Celis, the father of modern Belgian White Ale, died yesterday at the age of 86. Diminutive in stature, ebullient in nature, a milkman by original profession, Celis' profound legacy of beer stands tall.

In 1988, this is how the late beer writer Michael Jackson, described Pierre Celis' White Ale:

Fruity, pale Wheat Beers in a variety of local versions were once widespread in the east of Brabant
[Belgium]. There were more than 30 White Beer brewers in the valley around the small town of Hoegarden [pronounced "Who garden"] during the 1700s, but the last closed in 1954. A dozen years later, an enthusiast, Pierre Celis, salvaged an old brew-house, and set about restoring the style. His brewery De Kluis ("The Cloister" or "The Hermitage") and his Hoegarden White Beer captured the imagination of young drinkers. The beer became very fashionable. <...>

The old Hoegarden beers had a pronounced lactic character, like that of Berliner Weisse. Today's product is not so obviously lactic, but is distinctive enough.
<...> [In Flemish, it is] identified as a Witbier. In French, it is described as a Biere Blanche. <...>

Oud Hoegards is brewed from 45 per cent wheat. It contains also oats, to a proportion of five per cent. The wheat and oats are raw, and the remainder of the mash is malted barley.
<...> More significant is the spicing of the beer with Curaçao orange peels, coriander, and a third "secret" ingredient. Cumin seeds, perhaps?

Celis' brewery would suffer a devastating fire. Needing cash to rebuild, Celis entered a Faustian bargain with Interbrew, now AB InBev, to whom he would eventually lose control of the brewery.

In 1992, he moved to the US, to Texas, at a time when more US craft breweries were still closer to the two coasts. His White Ale and other brands achieved "cult following." Celis would chuckle that he had settled in Texas because he could understand Texans: they drawled s-l-o-w-l-y.

For assistance in marketing, Celis turned to Miller, but the brewing behemoth would prove clueless in promoting craft beer. Celis would move back to Belgium at the turn of the millennium. Then in his mid-70s, he, indefatigably, would begin new brewing ventures.

I met Mr. Celis on three occasions. Each time, he was gracious to me, and infectiously exuberant. The first two occasions were tastings in his honor at the renowned Brickskeller in Washington, D.C.

Pierre Celis Dinner @The Brickskeller November 1994 (01)

Then, in 1995, I met Celis at his brewery, while I was attending the Craft Brewers Conference in Austin, Texas. I asked about a large, partially crumpled tank I had noticed in the brewery. A twinkle in his eye, he bandied about a 'Texas' tall tale in explanation. That would help to soften the blow for me, when, a few years later, I would partially implode the dome of a brewery's hot liquor tank.

As Stan Heironymous wrote, at Appellation Beer:
[Celis was] an otherwise extraordinarily engaging gentleman whose influence cannot be overstated.

He was 40 years old, delivered milk for a living and had little brewing experience when he produced his first official batch of Oud Hoegaards Bier in 1966.
<...> Just over 5 feet tall, from the beginning he described himself as a “small brewer.”

As Philadelphia beer and food writer Rich Pawluk eulogized:

RIP legendary brewer Pierre Celis. 86 yrs old. Such a joyous man to be around.

As Jackson observed:
In Belgium, passionate beer-lovers knew of Celis, and admired his achievements. In the United States, they deemed him a hero.

  • Beer writer John White has an on-line biography of Pierre Celis.
  • Beervana puts into perspective the witbier style that Celis re-created.

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