Witbiers, White Ales, Belgian Wheats and Mr. Celis

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Commentary, Stuff about beer

Do you know who Pierre Celis is?

Pierre Celis (1925 - 2011)

If you are a serious beer lover, you should.

Pierre Celis was born in the Belgo/Dutch region of Flanders near the town of Hoegaarden in 1925. As a young adult, he became a dairy farmer, likely following in the footsteps of previous generations of Celises. But, as a schoolboy, he also helped out at one of the local breweries where the favorite local style was the witbier (or “white beer” in the local Dutch dialect), an unfiltered, spiced, wheat-based beer since the 14th century (or was it the 1400s? Sources differ.). During and especially following World War II, most of the local breweries closed or began making more-popular styles such as light lagers or pilsners, gradually doing away with the local fave entirely by the 1950s.

In 1966, Celis — prodded by his friends who were reminiscing about their favorite by-gone beers — decided to revive the style and opened his own brewery,

Bottle and glass of Hoegaarden witbier, originally created by Pierre Celis.

Hoegaarden, to brew his interpretation with a wheat-malt base and flavored with coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel. Was this the historically accurate recipe? We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly became the standard recipe from 1966 forward.

In 1985, just as Hoegaarden started exporting to the U.S., the brewery suffered a catastrophic fire. Although the beer was popular, Celis was severely under-insured, forcing him to accept a merger with Belgian brewing giant Stella Artois to generate the capital needed to reopen the brewery. The merged company became known as Interbrew, whose first two letters of their name you may recognize today. (InBev, anyone?)

Soon, “the bankers” (as Celis put it) were asking Celis to make the beer more profitable with cheaper and, in his mind, inferior ingredients. Rather than compromise his standards, he sold the brewery outright and “retired.” But owing to the American market’s interest in Hoegaarden, Celis decided to move to Austin, Texas, where he opened his own Celis Brewery, where his flagship

Label from Celis White brewed in Austin, Texas.

Celis White was an immediate hit.  Unfortunately, his American investors, too, wanted a quicker return on their money and he sold an interest in the company to Miller Brewing Co., which repeated the experience of cheapening the beer and eventually closing the Austin brewery as Pierre exited the scene once again. Miller ultimately sold the Celis name to the

Label from Celis White brewed by Michigan Brewing Co., Webberville, Michigan.

Michigan Brewing Co. in Webberville, Mich., (you knew there had to be a Michigan connection, didn’t you?) which continues to brew the Celis line of beers to this day, apparently with Celis’ blessing, if not his involvement.

Meanwhile, Celis’ style took the beer and brewing world by storm and today, hundred of versions and variations of the recipe are crafted by breweries around the world. Sadly, Pierre Celis died last Saturday (April 9) at the age of  86. The Beermudgeon hopes you will honor a man who singlehandedly rescued and resurrected a style of beer that is loved around the world today by raising a glass of your favorite witbier/white ale/Belgian white in his memory.

A sample of witbiers from around the world:

  • Hoegaarden (Belgium)
  • Celis White (Michigan)
  • Victory Whirlwind Wit (Pennsylvania)
  • Hitachino Nest White Ale (Japan)
  • St. Bernardus Wit (Belgium)
  • Long Trail Belgian White (Vermont)
  • Allagash White (Maine)
  • Southhampton Double White (New York)
  • Ommegang Witte (New York)
  • Port City Optimal Wit (Virginia)
  • Unibroue Blanche de Chambly (Quebec)
  • Estrella Damm Inedit (Spain)
  • The Bruery Orchard White (California)
  • Avery White Rascal (Colorado)
  • New Belgium Mothership Wit (Colorado)
  • OH, OK … Blue Moon (Coors Brewing Co., Golden Colo.)
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