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Craft beer legend Pierre Celis dead

Patrick Beach
Pierre Celis Belgian beer legend is dead at 86.

Pierre Celis, the Belgian brewing legend who operated his namesake brewery in Austin in the 1990s and helped spur the craft beer boom in America, died in his homeland over the weekend, according to the Dutch-language newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen. He was 86 and was reported to have had cancer.

Celis, a former milkman, is thought to have singlehandedly saved the centuries-old, unfiltered Belgian witbier style from extinction in his hometown of Hoegaarden in the mid-1960s. According to legend, those first batches were made in a washtub. Although Celis sold out roughly 20 years later, Hoegaarden Brewery is still going, and the beer, spiced with coriander and orange peel, is now the standard for the style.

In the early '90s, lured in part by Central Texas water that percolates through limestone, Celis opened his Austin brewery and became a leader in the craft beer movement in the U.S. — and a huge inspiration to a new generation of brewers.

"He was a major pioneer," said Jordan Weeks of South Austin Brewing Co. "If it wasn't for Celis, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. Period. ... I always say everything I know about beer comes from Belgian brewers, and in my opinion, he's the best Belgian brewer."

Celis beers, including Celis White, Pale Bock and Grand Cru, gained a substantial following among beer lovers looking for something more adventurous than what the mass market offered.

Celis helped kick off a Belgian beer renaissance in North America, with breweries such as Allagash and Unibrou at least in part following his lead. It's also worth noting that at the time of Celis' launch in Austin, most local breweries such as Live Oak and Real Ale were largely just dreams — and many of the brewers responsible for a wave of upstarts in the past few years quite possibly weren't even old enough to drink.

With an eye on growing the business, Celis entered into what would prove to be an ill-fated partnership with Miller Brewing Co., largely to help with a fairly constant frustration for the smaller brewer: distribution. The sometimes spotty availability of Celis products became even more so, and at the end of the '90s, Celis sold his half-share in the company to Miller, which before long shut the place down, saying it wasn't moving enough beer. The final six-packs were gone within a month or two, and Celis returned to Belgium, although his daughter, Christine, remained in Austin.

In 2002, Michigan Brewing Co. of Webberville, Mich., acquired the brewery and the right to brew under the Celis name. Those beers are faithful to Celis' recipes and are still available on store shelves today.

Celis became widely known as someone quick to offer his expertise to fledgling brewers. Late in his life, he stopped by Kevin Brand's (512) Brewing to sample Brand's (512) Wit, his version of the icon's most famous creation.

"To have him taste our beer was an incredible honor," Brand said. "But I was definitely nervous that he would think it was entirely wrong. He had an amazing impact on the whole industry and was such a wonderful person. We spent a few hours together, but that wasn't enough for me."

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603