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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pierre Celis, Dead at 86

Both Stan and Jay have news of the passing yesterday of brewing legend Pierre Celis, but for a fuller account of his life, try this blog:
He revived the Belgian witbier style in his home town of Hoegaarden after the town’s last brewery had closed down in the 1950s, opening his own brewery in 1966 following a nostalgia-washed conversation in a local pub lamenting the witbier’s demise. His Hoegaarden Witbier became the standard for the style.
That word "revived" is the usual verb used to describe what Celis did for wit, but it substantially downplays the contribution. The witbiers of Belgium bore a closer resemblance to lambics than weizens in their six-century run. According to Stan's Brewing With Wheat, they were soured--always by lactobacillus and sometimes by pediococcus. They may have employed orange peel and coriander (though little mention is made), but in low quantities.

Celis, brewing his wit sixteen years after the style went commercially extinct, left the wild beasties out of the equation and created a beer more resembling German hefeweizen than lambic. He may even have left the spices out in the early batches, which would have further enhanced the resemblance. Eventually, though, the style we recognize emerged: a soft, light wheat ale spiced to brightness (but not sweetness) with Curacao orange peels and coriander and a crisp, sometimes tart finish. This is now "traditional," though side-by-side comparisons with historical examples would reveal only a distant cousin.

Which is certainly no criticism. The infected style died out for a reason; Celis' new style became a huge success for a reason. Celis' wit is an immense crowd-pleaser--I've rarely found a beer drinker, novice to terminal-stage geek, who didn't enjoy it. Pallid examples like Blue Moon and over-coriandered versions (unfortunately too common) fail to arrive at that lovely balance between approachability and complexity, but even they are pretty drinkable. It's a fantastic style, and we can trace it literally back to a single man.

Wherever you are, Pierre, thanks--

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