Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wit Beer - A Toast to Pierre Celis

Ever since Port City Brewing Company opened this year we have become converts to their flagship beer, the Belgium wheat beer Optimal Wit, and have been sampling versions from craft breweries throughout the U.S. At the same time, we have been constant evangelists spreading the word on the virtues of this beer style. Sadly, at the time of our conversion, the modern day "founder" of Wit beer, Pierre Celis, passed away. And it seems, many Wit beer drinkers are unfamiliar with the roll Celis played in reviving this style.

We recommend reading the entire article by Roger Protz, Pierre Celis, Maestro of White Beer.

It was Pierre who saved and revived a noble beer style: the spiced wheat or "white" beers of East Brabant. The region has rich, dark soil ideal for growing barley, oats and wheat. Brewing in the area has been traced back to 1318, when it was in the hands of farmers and monks. By the 1500s Hoegaarden had a brewers' guild and in the 19th century there were some 30 breweries in the small town. Right: Pierre and his wife, Juliette.

The special character of the white beers of Brabant was due to the use not only of wheat and oats alongside barley malt but also exotic spices and fruits brought to the Low Countries by Dutch and Flemish traders. Spiced white beers from Hoegaarden were widely distributed throughout Brabant and the neighbouring province of Liege.

But in the 20th century the breweries started to close, unable to compete with the mass-marketed Pilsner lagers produced in the city of Leuven, home of Stella Artois.

The last brewery in Hoegaarden, Tomsin, pulled down the shutters in the late 1950s. It was mourned by many in the town, including Pierre Celis, who had done some part-time work there as a schoolboy.

Pierre's father ran a dairy and Pierre delivered milk. He was drinking in a bar with some friends one evening and they began to reminisce about the much-missed beers of Hoegaarden. Encouraged by his friends, who jokingly said he should move from one cloudy white drink to another, Pierre said he would attempt to brew some beer. He made a batch in his wife's copper in the family home alongside the dairy. There was no written-down recipe from Tomsin's, but Pierre remembered the ingredients from his work there. Grain and hops were easily available and he added milled coriander seeds and Curacao orange peel.

His beer was so well received that he decided to make it commercially. In 1966, he bought a small 25-hectolitre plant from a brewery in Limburg and installed it in the stables next to the house. The kit is still there today, but the success of the beer forced him to move to a derelict lemonade factory in the town to cope with demand.

The cloudy, unfiltered beer had taken Leuven by storm, where university students considered it to be more natural than lager. Pierre broke into the important Antwerp market and then into the Netherlands and France. The beer's fortunes were aided by the unique eight-sided glass: by chance, Pierre had found the Italian prototype in a local shop (shown below, right).

Production grew rapidly to 300,000 hectos a year by 1985. Pierre had just started to export to the United States when fire devastated the brewery. He was seriously under-insured.

"I needed 280 million Belgian francs to rebuild but I only got 40 million from the insurers," he says. "The banks wouldn't help but then Stella Artois offered to invest in return for 45 per cent of the shares."

At first the relationship with Stella was a good one. But things changed dramatically in 1988 when Stella merged with Piedboeuf of Jupille near Liege.

Interbrew was born and, according to Pierre, "the bankers took over". The fact that they were French-speaking bankers probably didn't help.

"People came from Jupille, looked around the brewery and told me how to make my beer cheaper. They said they used high-gravity brewing at Jupille to reduce costs and I should do the same," he says.

Pierre refused. High-gravity brewing means making one strong wort and watering it down to make different beers. Pierre, who had added to the range at Hoegaarden, said it would give his beers different aromas and flavours. He declared he would stick to his old recipes and ways of brewing.

As the pressure mounted, and Interbrew began to close breweries in Belgium to concentrate production at Leuven and Jupille, Pierre decided to retire at 65, selling the company to the Belgian giant.

But that wasn't the end of the story. American interest in Hoegaarden prompted him to build a brewery in Austin, Texas. Celis White was an overnight success and sales boomed. But Pierre found that his American backers wanted a quick return on their investment and, in order to buy them out, he signed another Faustian pact, this time with Miller, America's second-biggest brewer.

"I'd been brewing 22,000 barrels a year," he says, "but that rapidly fell to 15,000 barrels when Miller arrived. They spent a fortune on administration and we lost money and production. They cheapened the beer and cut out imported Czech hops."

Pierre sold his share of the company and came home to the family house in Hoegaarden with his wife Juliette. Miller eventually closed the Austin brewery and now Pierre finds that InBev, the successor to Interbrew and the world's biggest brewer, plans to close the Hoegaarden plant in October.

Now for the rest of the story....
  • In 1995, the Coors Brewing Company launched a Belgium Wit called Blue Moon.
  • In 2002, Miller Brewing sold the recipe and naming rights for the Celis brand to the Michigan Brewing Company.
  • In 2007, Miller Brewing reunited with a Wit brand when the company merged with Coors.
  • In 2009, InBev, the successor to Interbrew merged with Anheuser-Busch opening the U.S. market to Hoegaarden beer.
Yes, the two leading mass produced beer companies in the U.S. now offer a Wit from their global portfolio.

For a Father's day cookout, I decided to sample several Wit styles which included the Michigan Brewing Company Celis White, the Port City Brewing Company Optimal Wit, the Victory Brewing Whirlwind Wit, and the Flying Dog Brewery Woody Creek White. This wasn't a blind tasting to determine a favorite - just a day to celebrate the style. Yet the Celis White seemed to have the strongest profile of the style - the wheat flavors balanced with coriander and orange peel. The most unexpected result was after 5 or 6 beers, I became fatigued with the style and craved a beer with a hoppier finish. Variety in style does matter - at least for this palette.

But as summer moves along, grab a Wit, and raise a toast to Pierre Celis - a modern day pioneer.
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