Hoegaarden — Legends of Brewing: Tribute to Pierre Celis

March 23, 2011

While sitting down to write this very article, “My Generation” by the Who came on the stereo. Thinking of their name and their music caused thought-dominoes to fall over. Sounds like Hoegaarden (pronounced Who-garden)… anti-establishment… iconic in their respective fields… Of course, I’m speaking of brewmaster Pierre Celis. Think I’m gonna do some soapboxing on his behalf.

Pierre has been making some of the world’s best beers since 1966 when he converted an old cowshed into a makeshift brewery. He had been working as a milkman when, commiserating with friends in a pub, they realized what a shame it was that Hoegaarden’s history of making wheat ale or witbier, as they call it, was over. Kaput after 402 years! A very long story short, Pierre quit his day job and started down the path to zymurgic legend. Demand for his product grew and his name became synonymous with brewing excellence.

Tragedy struck in 1985 when his Brouwerij De Kluis (Cloister Brewery) caught fire and burned down. As he was already branching away from investor backing, he was left to assume the total cost of the rebuilding. Unable to afford it, he sold controlling interest to Artois, makers of Stella, and their parent company Interbrew, a group of, seemingly, concerned Europeans. Everything looked like business as usual – heck, they even rebuilt the brewery and stocked it with state of the art equipment. Unfortunately, even in the heart of timeless Europe, things were about to change.

Interbrew became Inbev after a bankers’ merger of two companies. They trademarked the name Hoegaarden and began tinkering with Pierre’s recipe. Seeing as the beer was named after a town, how can they trademark a place? The meddling was more than he cared for and he sold what was left of his company. History repeated itself after he moved to Austin, Texas of all places and his new venture was sold out by his investors to Miller Brewing.

You can’t keep a good man down and he went on to create some of Belgium’s most flavorful and thoughtful beers to date as evidenced in his Grottenbier, both brown and blonde. As far as his legacy with Hoegaarden goes, at least certain steps are being taken to ensure some of his former quality. Flash-pasteurization is still employed to prevent the wheat wort from becoming too tart and the Coriander seed and Curacao orange peel are still used as spices. For all intents and purposes, Hoegaarden is still a tasty beverage.

The decision lies with conscience. In 2006, Inbev closed the brewery in its original town and moved production elsewhere despite still calling it Hoegaarden. For a place with deep roots in brewing tradition this heartless move is tantamount to a slap in the face. Thankfully, Pierre never let it stand in the way of making great beer.