He no longer brews full time, but Celis' effervescent passion remains
Originally published October 11, 2008
Pierre Celis stops by once a week, usually on brewing days, when the sweet aroma of steeping grains fills the air around the fledgling (512) Brewing Co. in South Austin. Celis, renowned among beer aficionados as "the godfather" of Belgian white ales, visits for sentimental reasons. The modest little brewhouse feels a little bit like home.
"I enjoy talking with young brewers who are just starting out. Their dreams are a little bit of my dreams, too," Celis says in a stiff Flemish accent, raising his voice a bit to be heard over the low hum of machinery. "If I can teach them something positive, it gives me pleasure."
Celis is 83 years old now, and it's been almost 10 years since the elfin, white-haired gentleman who founded the late, great Celis Brewery of Austin in 1990 left Texas and retired to his hometown of Hoegaarden, Belgium. But every once in a while, Celis and his wife take an extended vacation to Austin to visit their daughter Christine - and on some days, to visit a young brewer like (512)'s Kevin Brand, who aspires to honor the Celis legacy.
Have you heard of Pierre Celis? If you're a beer fan, you might know of a Belgian brew named Hoegaarden - a wheat ale, cloudy in texture, light on the tongue, flavored with coriander. Celis created this world-famous import in 1965, reviving a centuries-old community recipe during hours when he wasn't working as a neighborhood milkman in Hoegaarden. His original beer, flavored with orange peel, remains the standard by which all Belgian white ales are judged to this day.
If you've lived in Texas for a while, you might also remember the Celis Brewery in Northeast Austin, where Celis produced his Celis White "wheat" brew (from his Hoegaarden recipe) and a Grand Cru speciality ale that were consistently honored as gold-medal beers at festivals around the world during the 1990s. Celis was a man ahead of his time in the United States, producing finely crafted ales when American consumers preferred mass-produced lagers from Budweiser and Miller and Coors.
Celis' brewing legacy has always been passion over profit. At his Austin brewery, Celis refused to sacrifice the quality of his beers to cut costs. But when his growing brewery needed an infusion of capital in the mid-1990s, Celis gradually, reluctantly, sold a controlling interest to the Miller Brewing Co. - which shut the place down in early 2001. Miller's mass-produced, bottom-line mind-set never sat well with the "no compromise" master brewer.
"A good brewer is one who thinks this way first," Celis says in slightly broken English, slapping his heart with his hand.
"But you cannot be a good brewer and think the other way first," says Celis, shifting in his chair and patting the wallet in his back pocket.
Although his step has grown unsteady with the years, Celis clearly enjoys hanging out at Brand's spartan brewery - it's housed in industrial garage space - discussing flavor blends and fermentation temperatures with a young man who clearly respects the master's legacy. Celis first visited Brand's plant on a day when he was brewing a batch of (512) Wit, modeled after Celis' renowned wheat beer. But the faint hint of citrus in Brand's version (available only on tap) comes from grapefruit, not orange peel.
"My goal was to reproduce that beer, that Hoegaarden style, but with a character that I could call my own," says Brand. "Pierre has really inspired me with his advice. Not only in terms of what to do, but even more in terms of what not to do."
Celis insists his brewing days are behind him - "Oh, how I wish I could turn back the clock" - even though he still contracts intermittently with Belgian breweries to produce two varieties of delectable grotten "cave" beer.
Celis tells Brand he's always been "a beer taster, not a beer drinker" - and that in general, the European brews he samples today are not nearly as flavorful as they were a generation ago. Celis admires the sense of daring and independence of modern American microbreweries. He says, "The stouts I drink here in America, from small brewers, taste better than Guinness."
Surprisingly, Pierre Celis has a soft spot in his heart for big ol' Budweiser. "This is something," he says, "that the American flagship and all its history is no more." Celis has no fondness for InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate that is buying out Anheuser Busch, and for good reason. The Belgian wing of InBev, known then as Interbrew, bought Celis' homegrown Belgium brewery in 1985 and began mass-producing his beloved Hoegaarden beer in a different facility.
"Hoegaarden, for me, is more like a 'normal' beer" today, says Celis, who sees it as a less complex version of his original brew. " It tastes more hoppy to me. And the fruit taste? It's absolutely nothing."
Celis occupies a different philosophical universe than InBev. "I always wanted to give something to America," he says, "not take it away." As a man who came of age in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Celis forever associates America with the notion of good will and sacrifice, remembering the U.S. soldiers who liberated his country in 1944.
"We had nothing " no food, no drink, no smoke " until the Americans crossed the small river at the edge of Hoegaarden in their Jeeps ," recalls Celis, blue eyes flashing. "There was a temporary hospital set up in Hoegaarden, inside an old school, with nurses and doctors tending to soldiers, American soldiers, back from the front. We (Belgians) would visit with the nurses and the young soldiers in the evening. We'd drink and dance. We came to know them as our friends.
"So many people, 20 years old, 25 years old, came through Belgium to liberate us and die for us. I asked myself, 'What can we ever do for America?' I always said, 'If I can ever do something for America, I will.' Brewing my beers in Austin, I know, was a small thing. But it was a part of that dream."
Pierre Celis did his best. He's trying, still, with Kevin Brand. "What do you think?" the white-haired gentleman says to his Austin protégé, a twinkle in his blue eyes. "Can we taste your Wit now?" Carefully, affectionately, Brand draws out two chilly taster glasses of Hoegaarden-style wheat beer from his brewery tap, one in the name of tradition, one in the name of dreams.