Pierre Celis says he has figured out how to guarantee that a beer will be a big seller: "Everybody likes water, so the nearer to the taste of water you get, the more you’ll sell." Mercifully, that is a finding the Belgian brewer has rigorously ignored. His beers have never sold in large quantities, but no one ever confused them with water. Celis founded two breweries during his career, piloted both to success without sacrificing quality and then sold each one to brewing giants. Now, at age 76, he has launched another brand for what he calls "the pure pleasure of brewing."
Celis grew up next to a brewery in Hoegaarden, on the border between Belgium’s French- and Flemish-speaking regions. The town had 34 brewers in the 1700s, but there were just three when he became interested in the craft as a teenager. After the Nazis stole their copper brewing kettles and the post war economy scraped bottom, all of Hoegaarden’s breweries disappeared.
Celis, though, was just getting started. Brewing at home in his wife’s washing tub, he more or less single-handedly revived one of Belgium’s most distinctive beer styles: the foamy, pale "white" beer brewed of wheat and flavored with coriander and orange peel. By 1966, he was making Hoegaarden-brand beer, first at home and then at a converted soft-drink factory he bought a few years later. Thanks to Celis, Hoegaarden became a coveted brand among Belgian’s discerning beer drinkers.
But in 1985, the Hoegaarden brewery was destroyed by fire, and Celis needed financing to rebuild. The big Belgian brewer Stella Artois made him an attractive offer and let him stay on as manager. But in the late 1980s Stella Artois joined with another Belgian brand, Jupiler, to form the nucleus of Interbrew, which is today the world’s second-largest brewer after U.S. behemoth Anheuser-Busch. Soon Celis found himself working for a former auto executive and, he says, being asked to cut corners in the brewing process. "I sold my brewery, but not myself," insists Celis. He unloaded his remaining share of the business in 1990 and got out.
Then, at age 65, Celis took off for Austin, Texas. He figured the city’s 65,000 university students (and 600,000 other residents) could support a good quality brew, so he started up Celis Brewery. "I chose Texas because they speak slowly there," he says, but Austin also had the good, hard water he needed to brew his white beer. In his first year of production, Celis made 3,021 barrels; by 1996, he was turning out 22,830, and once again, the big boys were knocking at his door. Miller Brewing, America’s No. 2 producer, offered to buy him out. "I was 70 years old, and it was difficult to say no," he says. He sold 75% of his brewery to Miller and watched sales evaporate as the logic of marketing trumped the craft of brewing. He’d had two administrators in Austin; Miller installed seven. They had him brew a special beer under a marketing deal with Clint Eastwood; it was sold at first only in Carmel, California. They invented another label, "Pierre’s Reserve," but sold it only in three Las Vegas hotels. Meanwhile, Miller’s distribution system couldn’t handle the relatively small quantities of Celis beers. By last year, sales were down more than 60% from 1996, and Miller pulled out.
The Texas adventure left Celis with a predilection for string ties, a Cadillac in the garage and plenty of cash. He could easily have retired to the tidy Hoegaarden farmhouse in which he grew up. Instead, three years ago he launched his last grand experiment in brewing, Grottenbier (also known as Bière de la Grotte), a connoisseur’s product with a highly unusual formula.
It began, he says, with a memorable meal at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. There was something in the salsa he couldn’t place. Celis cajoled the cook into revealing the name of the exotic wild fruit that gave his dish an astringent taste. Celis won’t pass on the secret, but he imports it from Peru and puts it in his beer, along with coriander and other spices. He further heightens the taste by putting the newly bottled Grottenbier through a second fermentation in the constant 10° cool of an underground cavern in Kanne in northeastern Belgium (hence the name; Grotten means caves in Flemish). He even has the bottles turned during the process to keep the yeast from settling. "I can’t brew a beer I don’t like," says Celis. This year he expects to sell 600,000 liters of Grottenbier, which retails for about $5 a bottle.
As for the brewing itself, Celis isn’t taking any chances. Earlier this year the Dutch giant Heineken bought up the family brewery where he has brewed Grottenbier for the last three years, so this month Celis switched to the St. Bernardus Brewery, a still independent operation in Watou near the French border. Nothing against Heineken, he says. He’d just rather keep things small this time round.