In 1966, a milkman named Pierre Celis in the town of Hoegaarden (about an hour’s drive east of Brussels) decided to revive witbier, a regional beer style that had become extinct almost a decade earlier when the town’s last brewery closed.
Introduced to the United States when Celis founded a microbrewery in Austin, Texas, witbier (from the Flemish word for “white”) or biere blanche (as French speakers call it) has become one of the craft industry’s most popular styles. This turbid, straw-gold, easy-drinking wheat-based brew, spiced with coriander and orange peel (and sometimes additional ingredients) has probably introduced more Americans to Belgian beer culture than any other style.
If you’re one of its fans, raise a toast to Pierre Celis, who died on April 9 at the age of 86.
“He was the best father everybody can wish for, a great mentor, and he definitely had an enormous passion for beer,” said his daughter Christine Celis, who was intimately involved in her father’s brewing ventures.
Pierre Celis’s first brewery was in his father’s stable. In 1972, he relocated to an abandoned soft drink factory, and by 1985, he was brewing 300,000 barrels a year. But Celis never had luck in business. His brewery burned to the ground that year, and Celis, who was underinsured, wound up selling his Hoegaarden brand to Belgian giant Interbrew. That company, now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev, continues to make Hoegaarden to this day.
Celis, at the age of 67, founded a microbrewery in the Hill Country outside Austin in 1992. (At a Brickskeller tasting, Celis, who spoke English haltingly, remarked that he chose Texas because its inhabitants speak with a slow drawl, making them easier to understand.) Celis White received a perfect four-star rating from the late British beer writer Michael Jackson in his “Pocket Guide to Beer” (Running Press, 2000). But the Celis Brewery floundered under the ownership of Miller Brewing Co., and the plant was shuttered on the final day of 2000. In 2002, Celis White and other brands were acquired by Michigan Brewing Co. in Webberville, Mich., which continues to make the beers and market them in northern Virginia, among other areas.
Today, dozens — maybe even hundreds — of breweries make a wit or wit-inspired beer. Many of these add their own twist to the basic recipe, which calls for unmalted wheat, oats, coriander and bitter Curacao orange peel. Southampton Double White, for instance, is an amped-up version, with an alcohol content of 6.7 percent by volume. Friar Hop Ale, one of three selections in Boston Beer Co.’s new LongShot mixed six-pack, is a wit/IPA hybrid, full of hops and spices and measuring an even more formidable 9 percent alcohol by volume.
Optimal Wit, the first release from the new Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria, substitutes Spanish orange for the traditional Curacao and adds grains of paradise, an African spice that head brewer Jonathan Reeves describes as “a cross between black pepper and turmeric.”
Reeves says wit was the first beer he formulated himself when he worked for the Sweetwater Tavern brewpubs in northern Virginia. He recalls loading a keg of the wit into his Honda Civic and driving it to St. Louis for his wedding. “My wife, when I first met her, had Bud Light in her fridge,” he notes, but the wit made her a craft beer convert.
Over the next few weeks, the Rock Bottom brewpub chain will introduce a wit at its 31 locations nationwide as part of a move to standardize four house beers. Director of brewing operations Kevin Reed describes it as “a fairly straightforward white ale,” no extra spices, although it does substitute Florida orange peel for the Curacao and uses mostly malted wheat.
On a recent visit to a mom-and-pop grocery near my home, I counted five versions of the style in the cooler: Hoegaarden, the original; Coors’s immensely successful knockoff, Blue Moon Belgian White; Anheuser-Busch’s answer to Blue Moon, Shock Top Belgian White; Starr Hill Brewing’s Lucy, a golden ale laced with lime, coriander and ginger; and Breckenridge Brewery’s SummerBright, an American wheat beer flavored with lemon.
“My father would not have liked [people] to mourn for him, but rather to remember him in happy times,” commented Christine Celis, who urged the craft community to “raise a glass of beer” in his memory.
That should be a simple enough task to perform.