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Traveling through rural Georgia, I pulled over, prayed for good reception, and juggled two phones – one for speaking, one for recording – to interview Christine Celis. As I geared up for the first question, a man with two rifles and a Confederate flag T-shirt sauntered past my truck’s window. I faltered, stammered, and then panicked; Christine Celis, however, just kept right on going. The daughter of famed brewmaster Pierre Celis, Christine is used to a certain amount of chaos. At just 4 years old, an age when most of us were playing make-believe, Christine was living her own fairy tale of sorts, watching her father brew beer. Christine says she was immediately enchanted. The memories are still vivid: “I was intrigued by the smells, seeing all the bottles pass by, something steaming coming out of the brew kettle.” She recalls riding around with her father in a little truck in Hoegaarden, Belgium, making deliveries to distributors and bars. Eventually she graduated to washing and sorting bottles and finally to exporting. In 1989 when Pierre Celis retired, he asked Christine if she wanted to move to Texas. The proposition came seemingly out of the blue, but Christine remembers her excited reply: “Let’s go to Texas.”
Indeed, Clarke has rejoined Christine Celis as brewmaster. In 2014, the newly formed Christine Celis Brewery, LLC, will begin brewing Pierre Celis’ original recipes. On a mission to educate beer lovers on the merits of Belgian beer, Christine will brew the beers she grew up with in Hoegaarden, telling me that each beer has its own story. In the meantime, she’s working with master brewers from around the world to create a limited edition Gypsy Collaboration series. A true collaboration between each brewery and Christine, each beer will be experimental, with a healthy dose of whimsy: “People want that full-bodied, well-balanced, complex beer. The younger generation is even going beyond that. I mean, they are making it even extraordinary. A little more hops, a little more sour, all sorts of types. So I want to have my own line of some really crazy beers, but still keep the tradition of my father going as well.”
For the first beer in the series, a Belgian IPA, Christine and Clarke partnered with Austin’s Adelbert’s Brewery, due to their expertise in brewing Belgian beer. Over the course of several months, working very closely with Adelbert’s founder and brewmaster Scott Hovey and his head brewer, Taylor Ziebarth, the team nailed down the recipe. Brewed with Belgian yeast strains, it has a deep golden color with grapefruit and citrus aromas courtesy of the Cascade hops. At 7% alcohol, it’s highly drinkable. According to Clarke, “We tried a lot of IPAs and tried a lot of Belgian strong ales, we tried other beers that would fall into the category of Belgian IPA, and really talked about what we liked, what qualities stood out to us. We tried a lot of hops. We were up ’til midnight one night just sniffing different hop varieties.” Even with the new collaboration, Clarke can’t help but wax sentimental. She’s ready to make that Celis White again: “I love the Belgian white beer. I miss that beer. I love to drink it, I love to make it. That’s a beer I really want to see come back. We brewed a number of beers, but it’s a beer that I truly miss the taste of. There are a lot of other wheat beers out there, but I don’t think that any of them are exactly like that beer we brewed.”
As more and more women join the ranks of craft brewing, Christine Celis and Kim Clarke have certainly blazed a trail worth following. Christine Celis’ 19-year-old daughter, Daytona, wants to continue the Celis legacy by becoming a brewer. Next year, she will travel to Belgium to learn under Belgian brewmasters, where she will reside for at least a year. Says Christine, “Twenty years ago, this was really a man’s world. Right now, things have changed a lot. People are much more open-minded. Women can brew just as good as men. It doesn’t matter what gender you are.” Her only advice? “Never sell your name, ever, no matter what.”