- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
The new 22,000-square-foot Celis Brewery in North Austin isn’t opening until July, but locals have already visited in droves, eager for a peek at the space and an inkling of whether the Celis beers they remember from the 1990s are exactly as good as they were then.
Owner Christine Celis doesn’t seem to mind the drop-ins. She happily greets one older couple who has come by the taproom again. They stop by at least once a week, sometimes helping out her and Celis staff members, she says, and were regulars at the old Celis Brewery — the one her late father, Pierre Celis, opened in 1992 as Austin’s first craft brewery. He introduced the city to beers like the Celis White, sparking a demand that he struggled to meet.
With all the attention the resurrected Celis is now getting, Christine Celis knows she’s under a certain amount of pressure — to live up to everyone’s memories and also carry on the legacy of her Belgian brewmaster father with the same high standards he had: delivering quality beers in a comfortable setting.
“I think people hear the Celis name, and they have a certain set of expectations,” Celis says. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, the beer is not as good as her dad’s.’ I want them to say, ‘This is just the same.’”
She has done all she can to make sure she meets Austin’s — and her own — expectations. For the past couple of years, she has worked tirelessly to transform a former flooring shop at 10001 Metric Blvd. into a remarkable brewery: a place that pays enormous respect to its past while making sure it’s capable of meeting the demands of 21st-century beer drinkers.
Celis history is on full view in the tasting room, the centerpiece of which is a massive copper kettle cut in two and repurposed into a circular bar with beer taps on the inside and seating around the perimeter. The kettle was once Pierre’s, brought to the U.S. after his days reviving witbier in the small town of Hoegaarden, Belgium, and Christine Celis managed to track it down in Ohio.
But the beer made just beyond a set of double doors doesn’t come from ancient copper kettles. With the help of a lauded Belgian brewery engineer, Bert Van Hecke, Celis has put in place a state-of-the-art automated brewing system that can produce roughly 43,000 barrels per year, with the potential for more than double that amount. Other pieces of stainless steel equipment, a couple of them so cutting edge as to be unfamiliar in a typical brewery, gleam nearby.
Much of the machinery — like the nimble Hop Gun, used for efficient dry-hopping — is still stamped with the words Flemish Fox, the old name for Christine Celis’ brewery before she was able to buy back the Celis Brewery name this year.
Many longtime Austinites probably already know the story: Pierre Celis sold his beloved Austin brewery in 2000 to Miller Brewing Co., unable to continue the partnership he’d sought with the much larger business but incapable of doing it all himself. The sale was heartbreaking for father and daughter. Pierre died in 2011, but Christine vowed she would resurrect the brewery for him.
She has hired talented staff to help her do just that. Among them is her 23-year-old daughter, Daytona Camps, recently working behind the scenes at Celis in a vintage Celis Raspberry Wheat shirt. Camps gained her brewing chops most notably at Uncle Billy’s Brewery on Barton Springs Road, which began relying on Celis Brewery’s extra production capacity for contract brewing a couple of weeks ago.
Then there’s head brewer Craig Mycoskie, formerly of Fort Worth’s Rahr & Sons Brewing. He oversees Celis’ brewing program, a mix of old beers from Pierre’s arsenal and new ones, too, including the Citrus Grandis IPA. It’s made in the newer style of East Coast IPAs (hazy, lightly bitter and far more juicy than their West Coast counterparts) that have been proliferating of late.
“You get a very refreshing element out of it from the citrus” notes, Celis says of the Citrus Grandis IPA. “You get a lot of tropical fruit. Some people get melon out of it also.”
Although the Celis tasting room isn’t open for business yet, an ambitious distribution plan has already gotten two of the brewery’s beers — the Celis White as well as the IPA — into many Austin-area bars, including the Whip In, Easy Tiger and the Growler Bar in Pflugerville, where the first keg of Celis White blew in a mere hour and a half.
Mycoskie and crew also have been making the sessionable Celis Pale Bock, another throwback recipe that is more like a pale ale but got the “bock” name because Texas law, up until 2012, made a mistaken distinction between ales and beers (an ale is a type of beer) and also required beers above 4 percent ABV to be labeled as malt liquor. Pierre decided to call it a bock, his daughter says, because the amber color was reminiscent of the already ubiquitous Shiner Bock.
These initial beers also will be going to San Antonio, New Braunfels and Dallas-Fort Worth by the end of the summer. (Sorry, Houston, you will have to come here.) The beers are only on draft at the moment but will eventually go in bottles and cans.
Of all of them, Celis White is no doubt the one getting the most attention. The flavorful White is a bright, hazy Belgian-style witbier with orange peel, coriander and, of course, its distinctive yeast strain — one that Celis promises is not available anywhere else. Her father brewed with it starting in 1965 and had it carefully preserved at a university in Belgium. It’s essential to the Celis White, then and now.
“My dad sort of smuggled it into the U.S.,” Celis says. “He put the vials in his socks, and that’s how he entered. But that was when it was easier, before 9/11. It’s a whole different ballgame now. You can bring in beer, but yeast, a live organism, not so. When we wanted to brew with it again, we had made an arrangement with the professor … and put the yeast in a bag and put a box around it. So all of a sudden we’ve smuggled it in twice. But why not? It’s so unique to this beer.”
That’s not the only thing Celis is bringing back from the original brewery. She found an old flyer announcing the original grand opening date of Celis Brewery — July 11, 1992 — and knew, 25 years later, the second grand opening had to take place on the same day. July 11 is a Tuesday this year; Celis, however, is still banking that people will come by.
“But it’s not about the party, about how much you can drink,” she says. “It’s about being here, being able to announce we’re back and what we accomplished over the course of 25 years. We had to fight a lot for where we are right now. We beat all the odds. We have the building that we own, the copper kettle that we used to brew at, we have the original yeast strain, we have all the recipes. And then we have the name, which is really, really important. We have it all. Here we are to stay.”
And in the future, Celis Brewery is only going to get bigger and better, she says.
Future phases of the brewery include a beer garden and the adjacent Pierre Celis Museum that will house all of Pierre’s old brewing equipment — historic items Celis plans to restore to the point of brewing small-batch sours on them. It will take time to get these beautiful weathered pieces, which include a 4,000-pound open mash tun, a coolship, foeders and 1800s-era copper kettles, into working shape, but she has a powerful motivator: all the people who have supported Celis over the decades.
“We can give a piece of history back to Austin and then also have something for the future. This brewery actually belongs to Austin. It’s not our brewery,” she says.