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The Rebirth of America’s Original Witbier

A quarter-century ago, Austin's Celis Brewery introduced the first American-brewed witbier to the market. Today, it's reopened with original equipment, recipes and notes.

Celis Brewery

If you’ve basked in a perfect patio day, enjoying a tall glass of witbier brightened by a juicy slice of orange, you can thank Pierre Celis. The acclaimed Belgian brewer not only put the village of Hoegaarden on the map in the 1960s with its aromatic white beer, he was the first to introduce it to the United States, in 1992.

Now, 25 years and a tumultuous takeover by Miller Brewing later, his family has reclaimed the brewery’s trademark, plus Celis’ historic recipe and yeast strains, reintroducing the witbier that went on to inspire well-known imitators like Blue Moon and Shock Top.

The origin of witbier, known as bière blanche in the French-speaking part of Belgium, dates back to 14th-century monasteries, where monks used locally available fermentable grains and a proprietary blend of herbs and spices known as gruit. By the 16th century, the small town of Hoegaarden became known for its unique witbier, crafted by small farms with access to high-quality barley, wheat and oats. But, near the end of the 19th century, as brewing technology swept through Europe and hops gained popularity, clear lagers became the beer of choice.

When Celis was growing up in Hoegaarden in the 1930s and ‘40s, only a handful of farmhouses were still crafting the cloudy un-malted wheat beer, spiced with coriander and bitter orange peel and brewed using wild hops and the area’s calcium-rich water; his neighbor Louis Tomsin’s brewery was one of them. Celis helped out at the brewery while also working at his father’s dairy, eventually going on to deliver vitamin-fortified milk across the country.

“He always laughed about that,” says his daughter, Christine Celis. “He’d say, ‘You know, I had the same customer twice—first when they were a baby and then when they were 18, when they were drinking beer.’”

By the end of World War II, the economic crisis forced many of Belgium’s microbreweries to close their doors or sell to the larger, industrialized breweries that began saturating the market with lager. After Tomsin closed his small operation in 1955, witbier essentially disappeared for a decade.

After much encouragement from his friends, Celis began homebrewing in 1965, at the age of 40. He crafted his first batches out of a washtub in his father’s barn before purchasing old equipment from an abandoned brewery.

“He bought really old equipment because that’s all he could afford,” says Christine. “His mash tun was from 1914 and these two copper kettles he had were from the late 1800s.”

In 1966, Pierre opened Brouwerij De Kluis. He relocated to an abandoned soft drink factory in 1979 and, by 1989, was brewing nearly eight million gallons a year and still couldn’t keep up with the demand. That same year, his underinsured brewery caught fire and Celis, the only brewer in the world making witbier at the time, accepted an offer from Interbrew (now know as AB Inbev) to rebuild a bigger and better production facility, reopening as Hoegaarden Brewery.

“In the beginning it was fine,” remembers Christine. “But CEOs—they come and go and everybody doesn’t always have the same motivation or the same vision that you do.”

With increasing pressure to cheapen the ingredients used in his beer, Pierre, then 65, decided to retire and sell his shares to the company, which still brews Hoegaarden to this day.

“That didn’t stop him from starting another brewery,” says Christine, who relocated with her father to Austin, Texas, to open his namesake brewery. Celis had traveled to Texas often in the 1970s to visit Hoegaarden’s importer, and felt that the city’s hard water supply was perfect for brewing. “I mean, who does that when you’re 65—go to the other side of the world to open a brewery?”

In a city accustomed to light lagers like Lone Star and Pearl, Celis set out to educate beer drinkers on hazy, Belgian-style beers. By 1995, Celis was producing 16,000 barrels a year, but was once again unable to keep up with the growing demand, and needed a solution. When Miller Brewing (now MillerCoors) expressed interest in partnering, with a pledge to maintain the integrity of their craft, Celis (then 70) obliged.

“In the beginning, they all need passion, they all need a good product,” says Christine. “And then they change directions and it’s all about how much money they can make.”

As Miller pushed for mass production, quality began to drop. And at the end of the five-year contract, Pierre forfeited his remaining shares to the beer conglomerate. Miller ceased production of Celis that same year.

“They would make decisions when they were sitting in their golden tower in Milwaukee, and never set a foot in this place,” says Christine, shaking her head. “Sierra Nevada was growing, Anchor Steam was growing, New Belgium, Samuel Adams—all the craft breweries were growing. They thought it was just a fad and people were going to go back to what they were familiar with—drinking mainstream beer.”

After Celis shuttered, Christine vowed to never return to the business. But she eventually found herself back in the beer world: first selling brewing equipment, then importing beer from small Belgian breweries and hosting tastings on her weekends off.

“I was born and raised in the brewery, so I missed the beer business after a while,” she says.

When Pierre passed away in 2011, Christine promised him she would reclaim the rights to Celis Brewery, which had changed hands several times over the years. She tracked down her father’s original yeast strain at a university in Belgium, as well as his original equipment, recipes and notes.

Christine started brewing again in 2013, collaborating with Austin breweries like Adelbert’s and Uncle Billy’s, before working with acclaimed Belgian brewery engineer, Bert Van Hecke, to design a brewing system customized to the timing and temperature needs of traditional Belgian beer. She then assembled a team of her own, including head brewer Craig Mycoskie of Fort Worth’s Rahr & Sons Brewing, two employees from the original Celis Brewery and her 23-year-old daughter, Daytona, who cut her teeth at Old First Ward in Buffalo, New York. This past spring, they released the flagship Celis White, using Pierre’s original recipe.

On July 11, Celis Brewery reopened its doors, exactly 25 years to the day after its initial debut. One of Pierre’s original handbeaten copper kettles has been repurposed into a round bar, and Christine will be transforming the rest of her father’s salvaged equipment into a working museum next door. For now, glimpses of the past can be seen in the old coasters displayed on the bar top, and in the black and white photos lining the back wall. And while Celis White is undoubtedly the main attraction, several new creations round out their taps: a malty Pale Bock, tropical Citrus Grandis East Coast IPA and a hop-forward West Coast IPA.

Though Christine says she was incredibly nervous to reintroduce her father’s beers, she couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.

“I had big footsteps to follow,” says Christine, who’s currently working on reviving Celis’ Grand Cru Trippel and raspberry ale. “People take a little sniff and then you see that smile—it’s great. It’s almost like the chapter is closed.”

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