Chances are, if you are a longtime Austin resident who loves craft beer, you know the name Pierre Celis. You know he founded Austin’s first craft brewery in the early 1990s, after coming to the United States from Belgium, where he resurrected a beloved witbier recipe. You know his daughter fought hard to revive the brand – after it was snuffed out nearly a decade later – and opened the new Celis Brewery in 2017.
But San Antonio-based writer Jeremy Banas wanted to know more. He wanted more details about the man who chose Austin as the site of his new brewery, after selling the old one in Hoegaarden. And that information didn’t seem to be readily available.
So he changed that. He’s filled in the gaps in our collective knowledge and added facts to the mythology surrounding the legendary late Pierre Celis with his new book, “Celis Beer: Born in Belgium, Brewed in Texas” ($21.99). He hopes the book will provide insight into a man pivotal to today’s craft beer industry.
“A few years ago, I’d done a profile on Celis reopening for the Brewers Association,” he said. “In doing follow-up research after interviewing (daughter) Christine Celis, I realized that I was coming across the same two paragraphs basically regurgitated just about everywhere. For a story so important (about) a man who single-handedly has influenced brewing around the world, bringing back a style, and spreading it everywhere,” it just wasn’t being told.
With such a dearth of information about his subject, Banas had to start from scratch, creating “the very resource I was hoping to use myself,” he said. The research process for “Celis Beer” took more than two years and included a two-week trip to Belgium. He interviewed everyone he could who had worked for Celis in Belgium and Austin, as well as relatives, friends, and other brewery owners.
He learned that Celis’ fabled reputation was well-earned – as a milkman who began to brew to bring back the bright, hazy witbier to his southern Belgian town of Hoegaarden in 1965. (You now know of it as Celis White: Celis smuggled its distinctive yeast strain to the U.S. by putting the vials in his socks, according to his daughter, Christine.) With the closure of the ancient, beer-loving town’s last brewery in 1957, the witbier, a longtime regional style, had gone extinct. Celis not only resurrected the traditional recipe but helped the wheat beer proliferate across Europe and the U.S. After having to divest of shares in his own brewery in the 1980s, Celis realized it was time for a new dream: starting a production facility across the Atlantic Ocean. He opened the original Celis Brewery on July 11, 1992.
One of Banas’ favorite things he learned during research? “When Pierre began to brew in Hoegaarden, everyone in town knew except his wife,” he said.
Celis died in 2011. Banas pieced together the 128-page book without ever talking to the man himself. But he did have extensive conversations with Christine Celis, who had been just as devastated as her father to lose the Austin-based Celis Brewery in 2000 to Miller Brewing Co. Thanks to her dogged efforts, the third iteration of Celis’ beloved brewery came to life in North Austin, putting into cans Celis White and other original recipes like Celis Raspberry and the Grand Cru Tripel. Her daughter, Daytona Camps, works there, too.
Banas was still in the middle of research when Celis filed for bankruptcy protection in the summer of 2019 to avoid foreclosure – another sad chapter in the Celis story. But that story doesn’t have an end, not just yet: Celis remains in operation, under new ownership, at its sprawling 22,000 sq. ft. facility at 10001 Metric Blvd.
Banas believes the Celis legacy has endured because of Pierre’s passion for both beer and people.
“The very reason anyone on the planet brews a Belgian-style witbier is because of Pierre. That alone is epic,” he said. “But I think the true lasting legacy for Celis is what I hear from almost everyone I talk to who remembers Pierre and Christine when they came to Austin, Pierre in Belgium prior to that, and even now: his desire to spread the love of beer, community, friendship, and brotherhood. Pierre was all about spreading his passion to anybody who would listen or drink it and helping anybody who shared that passion.”
In addition to “Celis Beer,” Banas has written two other books about craft beer – “San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint” and “Pearl: A History of San Antonio’s Iconic Beer.” He is also a co-founder of San Antonio Beer Week.
Meet Banas and get your copy of the book signed (books will be available for purchase as well) during a celebration of Pierre Celis’ birthday on March 21 at Celis. This year’s batch of Celis Raspberry will be released.