“Instead of playing in sandboxes, I’d be playing with spent grain.”
Christine Celis grew up in a brewing family, which is not like growing up in other families. Her father, Pierre, founded Brouwerij Celis in his hometown of Hoegaarden, Belgium, in 1966, and later moved to Austin, Texas, opening Celis Brewery there in 1992. In just a few years, Celis became the fastest-growing craft brewery in the country.
“I had the opportunity, as a child, of playing in the brewery. I would crawl into the open mash tun and play with my little scooper, putting spent grain in wheelbarrows,” she says. “Or I’d go on the second floor and look at the beer when it was boiling; it was fascinating of course. I remember rollerskating under the bottling line because the floor was so smooth underneath the conveyer belts. Sometimes my friends would come and we’d all rollerskate, or play with the plastic crates. My dad always said ‘Let them have a good time, I’ll put it back in the evening.’”
Celis recounts stories of beer delivery runs with her father, sitting in the front seat on his lap (in those heady decades before seatbelts) while he told her stories about European kings and quizzed her about Belgian cities.
“He was so nurturing,” she says. “He was just a really physically small person, but with a big heart. And every picture that you have, he is always with a smile. I’m now getting emails and Facebook messages from people saying ‘Meeting Pierre was the best thing that happened to me because he turned me on to drinking craft beer.’ He is so hard to explain. I don’t have even the words for it.”
Pierre Celis died in 2011, leaving behind a decades-long impact on brewing … and, his daughter says, an unfinished legacy. Celis Brewery was a gateway for many early craft beer drinkers, especially through its Celis White, a Belgian-style witbier. But the company was purchased wholly by Miller Brewing Company in 2000 following a business partnership that began in 1995 intended to expand Celis’ production capacity. The original brewery shuttered in 2001, while Miller retained the rights to the brand.
“We didn’t anticipate it at all. Having no more brewery, I can honestly say it was detrimental to my dad and to me as well,” Christine Celis says. “I always wanted to brew the Celis White, to brew beers that I grew up with, to have the brewery back. If you don’t have your name, something is missing. Therefore I was determined to get that name back no matter what I had to do.”
Thus began her struggle to return Celis Brewery to family ownership, a process that would take 17 years. Finally, this year, after “much talking, negotiating and headaches,” Christine Celis was able to assemble enough investors to buy a building, brewing equipment and, most importantly, to purchase the trademark Celis from the then-current domestic and international rights owners, Total Beverage Solution and Craftbev International Amalgamated, Inc.
“Sometimes you have to struggle a bit and fight a bit,” Celis says. “Before this, the moment wasn’t ready. Now the stars aligned and it was meant to be.”
The journey was less difficult for Tom Fisher Riemondy, the great-great-grandson of Albert Fisher, who founded Salt Lake City’s A. Fisher Brewing in 1884. The brewery sold to San Francisco-based Lucky Lager around 1960; Lucky Lager was then rolled into General Brewing and later Pabst. Somewhere in this matryoshka doll consolidation, the federal trademark for Fisher Brewing fell dormant. Fisher Riemondy’s cousin, luckily, had retained the state trademark for approximately the past two decades.
“My parents, or my mom more specifically, and aunts and uncles have great memories of the brewery,” Fisher Riemondy says. “And now we’re finding out that for a lot of people, Fisher beer was the first beer they ever drank.”
He and three other owners have revived the A. Fisher Brewing name, opening the doors to a new five-barrel brewhouse in the Grainery District of Salt Lake City. All of the owners are in their early to mid-30s, young enough to have never held an original Fisher lager to their lips.
“We assumed that a lot of people would remember the brand but weren’t 100 percent positive what that response would be until we opened,” says co-owner Tim Dwyer. “Turned out to be a little bit more robust than I expect. People are very excited; older folks bring us in their old antiques and bottles and are telling us stories about the old brewery. The brewery itself had sort of faded, but people definitely remember that beer.”
Now that their families’ brewing histories are back in their hands, Celis and Fisher Riemondy face a similar challenge: bringing those legacies to bear on a modern beer landscape that looks vastly different than it did in the 60s or even the 90s. Neither plans to brew exclusively the same beers that the breweries did decades ago, but both look for ways to incorporate the past.
For Christine Celis, an important piece of the puzzle fell into place, somewhat serendipitously, in a junkyard in Ohio. This begins with a visit Celis took to the Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale, Arizona, which houses a copper lauter tun from the original Celis Brewery. The museum declined to sell it back to her, but mentioned that museum staff had heard of a similar copper kettle at a metal yard in Ohio. It turned out to be another piece of original equipment from Celis Brewery, and this time, Christine Celis was able to buy it back. It’s now a part of a museum adjacent to the new 22,000 square foot brewhouse—which, Celis adds, is full of shiny, state-of-the-art equipment including a centrifuge, yeast propagation lab and a canning line.
She’s fired up that brewhouse and plans to revive many, if not all, of the original Celis beers, starting with Celis White, Pale Bock and Grand Cru this year, and perhaps Celis Raspberry and Abbey Ale next year. Celis even has the original yeast strain used to brew White; it had been stored in Belgium and is currently being propagated by Celis’ brewing engineer.
“But you can’t just only have traditional beers; after all, it’s an evolving market. Beer is about new styles, new methods,” she says. “Look at barrel aging. That didn’t even exist in the 90s. I want to focus also on an IPA. I have foeders, so I will do some aging down the road on that. And maybe some sours.”
Fisher Brewing Co. 2.0 has also introduced more than a dozen new beer styles since its taproom opened in February, but the updated version of the classic Fisher lager is still what most drinkers seek. Because it’s a lager, the beer takes up more time in fermenters than ales do. This often means that A. Fisher is sold out of the beer that many consider its namesake.
“We really wanted to have a high variety of hoppy pale ales, all sorts of beers. But keeping a lager on that people drink [through] in seven days that takes a month to make, that’s a challenge we’re dealing with,” says head brewer Colby Frasier. “People have been pleased with the place that we’ve built and the beers that we make but we’re struggling to deal with the passion for that lager.”
To survive, legacy breweries will have to adapt to the tastes and preferences of their drinkers, the same as any other new brewery, restaurant or bar. But because they’re carrying a family name, history and reputation on their breweries’ shoulders, these owners have other, personal goals in mind as well.
“My dad would be really pleased and I think he would be surprised of the perseverance and what influence he had on me,” Celis says. “‘I want this brewery, and I need to get it done and I will have it.’ That came from him. I hate to underachieve, so I want it to be a very successful brewery but with a lot of character.”
She has a partner in developing this character: Her daughter, Daytona Camps, will be a brewer at the new Celis.
“I always wanted to continue my dad’s legacy. And my daughter wanted to be a brewer, and so I have now an additional motivation because it won’t get lost after I am gone. She can continue it. All of these components together, if that is not enough of a drive, what is?” Celis says. “And I wanted to have a Celis White again. I haven’t had one in 17 years.”