Some of the credit for a more laid-back American beer belongs to one Belgian and his brief stay in Texas. Pierre Celis single-handedly revived the witbier after centuries of dormancy in 1965, when he began brewing it in his barn in the Belgian town of Hoegaarden. His recipe became the recipe for Hoegaarden White Ale and sold more than 300,000 barrels at its peak in 1985, when a fire engulfed its brewery and forced a cash-strapped Celis to sell to giant Belgian company Interbrew. That company is now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev and is the reason jelly-glass tumblers of Hoegaarden can be found in outdoor restaurant spaces and beer gardens across America.
Even Hoegaarden wouldn't be the success it is today if Celis hadn't dusted himself off, moved to Texas and opened his own craft brewery just outside Austin in 1992. His Celis White was good enough to get Celis a buyout from Miller and introduce witbier to a generation of craft brewers. Celis died in April, but his legacy is in every hazy, spicy sip a beer lover takes of a white beer this summer.
"The first one I ever tried was the Celis White, when Pierre Celis was still brewing it in Texas," Allagash's Tod says. "That's what turned me on to the style and though our white is different than that white, I love that white and remember exactly how it tasted and the mouth feel."
Two years after Celis debuted his white, Tod was selling his first batches of Allagash. A year later, Coors brewer Keith Villa formulated Blue Moon while working at the company's on-site brewery at the Denver home of Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies in Coors Field. By 2003, the U.S. would have its first Belgian-owned beer maker when Duvel Moortgat bought Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Brewery Ommegang and its Witte witbier less than a decade after its 1997 opening.Witbier has become so widely accepted that breweries in their infancy can lean on it as a summer staple. Gregg Berman was distributing wine when Tod was getting Allagash off the ground 15 years ago and wasn't a big fan of witbier when he and his brewing partner, Mercury Brewing head brewer Dan Lipke, began working on one as a summer beer for his new Ipswich, Mass.-based Clown Shoes label last year. "I'll be totally honest, it was 100% something to fill up the lineup," Berman says. "The couple of witbiers I had tried bored me, but with the brand starting we had to pay attention somewhat to the seasons -- and I wasn't just going to be making beers for myself." Berman, Lipke and a close circle of home-brew helpers found the witbier a bit tough to nail down after burning through a dozen test batches. Eventually, they decided to blend one batch using sweet orange peel with another using clementine orange extract to make what became their Clementine witbier. The beer has since become the small label's second-best seller and has made a witbier fan of its owner.
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