The Cup: A cappuccino for me, and Christine had the CinnaMocha – which sounded so yummy, I almost changed my order. Cinnamon, mocha and espresso. Mmm!
The Background: My friend Chris told me about Christine last fall, and suggested I make her one of my strangers. He didn’t tell me much, just that she was the daughter of one of the most revered brewmasters and that she had an incredible story.
Christine was in the middle of launching her Gypsy beer – a unique brewing colaboration that we’ll cover in greater detail shortly. Once her schedule lightened up a bit, we managed to get onto each other’s calendars and made the coffee date happen.
Before we get into Christine’s story, let’s cover some:
- What’s a food you can’t live without? Sushi.
- How did you make your first buck? By getting in trouble. My dad made me get a job when I was 16 as a vacation job. I had to work in the kitchen of a restaurant.
- What’s your guilty pleasure? Speeding.
- What is something you’ll regret not doing if you don’t do it? Not continuing on the path I’m on now.
- What’s the best gift you ever got? My dad’s recipes.
- What is the best place to eat in Austin? Barley Swine and Odd Duck – the combinations they come up with are so interesting.
- What’s your favorite way to unwind? I take my car out for a little spin. I’d love to get out on a race track and drive around. Driving and thinking is very relaxing for me. I used to have a motorcycle and I’d drive and admire the beauty of the Hill Country, the flowers, the sunsets.
- If you could swap lives with someone for a day, who would you pick? Cher. She doesn’t care. She just does her own thing. It would be cool to have all her talent. And her wardrobe.
For most of us, the setting of many of our childhood memories are playgrounds, up in the trees we liked to climb, at the neighborhood swimming pool, or on the baseball field. Christine’s playground was a mash tun, the bottling line and the Belgian brewery she grew up in. The daughter of famed and revered brewmaster, Pierre Celis, it could be said that beer is in Christine’s blood.
Christine’s story is very much a continuation of the story her father started. According to Wikipedia: The village of Hoegaarden had been known for its witbieren (white beers) since the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, the village had thirteen breweries and 9 distilleries; however, in 1957, the last local witbier brewery, Tomsin, closed its doors. Pierre Celis, a milkman who had grown up next to the brewery and sometimes helped with brewing, decided some ten years later to try to revive the style. He started a new brewery, called de Sluis, in his hay loft.
Over the years, Pierre built a thriving brewery and business. Often, he would take Christine along with him on trips to Austin, where he had relationships with distributors who he was exporting his beers to. In 1989, Pierre, who had been unable to keep up with demand, decided to retire and sell his brewery to InBev. His story wasn’t finished yet and he wanted to start Chapter 2 in his life. He asked Christine if she’d like to move to Texas. “Hell yeah!” was her response. She tells me, “The weather was great, the people were great, the place was magnificent. Of course I was excited to move to Texas.”
In 1990 Pierre bought some land in Austin. In 1991 he began building a brewery, and by 1995 they were up and running. They earned the distinction of being the fastest growing microbrewery, cranking out 23,000 barrels of beer a year. At that time, craft beer was not a common sight in US refrigerators. Bud, Coors and Miller had America’s hearts. But Christine tells me Pierre was a visionary; he knew craft beers would become a big deal and that people would be excited about the variety. Lagers are great, but so are all the interesting variations of ales – such as ambers, stouts, porters, imperials, pales and wits. Pierre Celis is considered by some to be the Grandfather of the White Beer.
This new brewery again had trouble keeping up with demand, and when Miller took notice of this, they made an offer to help. They suggested a partnership which would allow more production and greater visibility. Pierre and Christine decided it sounded like a good idea, and in 1996 they were in a four-year partnership with Miller.
There were some good things about that partnership, but because Miller had majority ownership, they called all the shots. Gone were the days of getting everyone in a room to brainstorm a fun commercial or ad. No more sponsoring a cool, local event at the drop of a hat. Often by the time they were granted permission, the event was over. Everything needed to go by Miller first. And that just took all the fun right out of it.
By 2000, when the contract was up for re-negotiation, Pierre and Christine decided they’d sell to Miller who was interested in buying it. The brewery was sold to Miller and, and again they were out of the brewing business. Sadly, Miller didn’t see much use for Celis beers, and in 2001 they sold off the building to an Austin company and the name and equipment was sold to Michigan Brewing Company.
What’s In A Name
Christine has been on a mission to get the family name back ever since. Michigan Brewing Company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The name was up for auction. A business partner Christine trusted offered to go and buy the name back. He was successful, but unfortunately, he had his own agenda and decided to sell the name.
The most significant thing that’s happened in Christine’s life in the last 30 days is that there are on-going discussions with the current owner of the name. She feels optimistic that at long last, she might be part owner, once again, of a name that surely means more to her, than it could possibly mean to anyone else. Particularly since the passing of her father and mentor in 2011. The name and it’s history matter more than ever. Christine’s goal is to be up and running by 2015 and once again be crafting and selling Celis Beers.
Another event Christine considers significant over the last 30 days is that her daughter has gone off to Buffalo, NY to study with a brewmaster at a brewpub owned by a family friend. Christine is so excited and proud that her daughter has taken such an interest in beer and has decided she’d like to carry on the family tradition.
Despite the ongoing struggle to get the name back, Celis is still a name in beer. Christine Celis Brewing LLC is an Austin based company of Christine’s making. She and Texas’ first female brewmaster, Kim Clark, are working on something very exciting. Christine says, “Kim was the only female brewer in Texas when she brewed at the Celis Brewery with my father throughout the 1990s.” According to a press release, the pair “will work with master brewers around the world to create unique, limited-edition craft beers as part of her own “Gypsy” collaborations series.” Christine says, “Gypsies never stay put. We are going to work with different breweries, and even some brew pubs, and every batch is going to be different. The idea behind Gypsy is, “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Their first collaboration was with Adelbert’s Brewery in Austin. It was a huge success and if you are lucky, you might be able to find a bottle or two on the shelves of HEB, Central Market Whole Foods, Specs or maybe Twin Liquors. I’d suggest you call ahead though, to avoid disappointment. Christine is open to partnerships with any brewery that makes sense. Which, for Christine, means they have a good reputation, they are cool and they have an interesting story. For now she’s focused on Texas, but she’s in talks with breweries in Florida and New York, and if you’re lucky, a city near you!
Work, Work, Work
I ask Christine what she thinks people might be surprised to learn about her. She tells me people are always surprised to learn who her father is. She says, “I tell them my name and then they say, ‘Celis? Are you the daughter of Pierre Celis?’ It always surprises them.” She also thinks people would be surprised to find out how hard she works. She tells me, “I work a lot. I am very passionate about beer and about what I do. I can talk about beer for hours. I am very much like my father that way.”
Here’s something people likely won’t be surprised to learn. If happiness were the national currency, Christine says she’d be doing exactly what she’s doing now. “I love what I do. Weekends I’m doing tastings. Because I also import Belgian beers, I travel to many distributors throughout the US and to keep my eye on the market. Sometimes in the evening, I’m exhausted and I ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ But I love it and wouldn’t know what else to do.”
A societal issue Christine feels strongly about is greed. She says, “Greed has taken over. I wonder, when is enough, enough? People are making decisions on the basis of personal gain and greed but ignoring the big picture. If everyone can benefit from it, isn’t this what business should be about? It feels great to give back to the community and put a happy face on less fortunate people. That’s worth millions!
I wonder what Christine would change about herself, if she could. She tells me she’d find more balance. She says she’d take more time for herself and although her kids are grown, she says she’d make more time for them. Also, she’d spend more time with her 82 year old mother who still lives in the family home in Belgium. Christine describes this push and pull that’s so common these days, among people who are struggling to have a successful career while raising a family, having a loving marriage or partnership, maintaining close friendships – and being available for family who may need us but who may live on the other side of town, the country or in Christine’s case, the globe. On top of all that, we all try to carve out a little time for ourselves to feed our souls – with books, art, music or other hobbies. Even just a warm bath and a glass of wine – so much to do. And never enough hours in the day to get to it all.
Success or failure – which is the better teacher? Christine says, “The thing about success is sometimes we don’t know how we got there. With failure, you learn a lot. You learn why you failed, how you failed, and how you can prevent the same failures. Then success just comes.”
Who Can You Trust?
Something Christine believed to be true for a long time, but now knows differently is that people can’t always be trusted. She says her dad always trusted people and he was taken advantage of many times as a result. “Most people are good. But now I know that people have their own needs in mind. They aren’t just looking out for your best interest. I am a lot more wary. You need to analyze what people say and you have to ask a lot of questions before you agree to anything.”
Life By Example
When I ask about the best advice she ever got, she immediately thinks of her dad. “My dad was my biggest mentor. He encouraged me to stay true to myself, humble and to stay on the path I’m on – always striving to make things better; to keep trying to think of things that will excite people, instead of doing what everyone else is doing. To not be a follower, but a leader. And be genuine and full of passion. Sometimes it isn’t about words that were spoken. I learned this by watching him.”
With 30 seconds to make a speech to the world, Christine’s message is this: “Everyone has struggles. Not everyone grew up with the same advantages that we did. Be kind. Be genuine. Open your heart. People are in need. Be there for them. They won’t always show it, so ask. Don’t get so busy with your daily life that you forget about being kind and helping other people.”
Busy, busy, busy. We wake up with a list running through our heads of all the things we need to get done that day. We go to bed with a list running through our heads of all the things we didn’t get to, and we’re already behind on tomorrow and today isn’t even over. We’re anxious, we’re stressed, we don’t have time to get it all done and we feel guilty for not doing more. It’s an endless loop, and like the merry-go-round when you were a kid, you want to jump off, but it keeps spinning faster and faster and you can’t find the courage to take the leap. So you sit there – scared and disoriented.
What if your to-do list only had one item on it? If you could only do one thing every day, what would it be? What if your to-do list looked like this?
- Be kind.
Christine is spot on. People don’t always ask for what they need. We don’t always know what’s going on with someone. So what if we decided to practice kindness, in every situation? What would that do for our stress levels?
Cut off in traffic? It’s OK, I’ve been in hurry before too. Kids screaming? Yeah, I know it’s been a long day. Scream on, little one, and let it all out. Your spouse has to work late? Thank you for providing for our family. I know you’d be home if you could be. See you soon. Clients driving you nuts because they won’t sign a contract? I understand you’re making a big decision and that takes time. I’m here to answer any questions that might make this easier on you.
Every exchange, experience and interaction offers us a choice. We control our response, and the cool thing is, when we choose kindness, we typically get kindness in return.
We won’t ever get it all done. That’s the best part. That’s called life. When we’ve done it all, we’re done. Not sure about you, but I’m not ready for that.
While I wish you all the exact number of heartbeats you need in order to do all you wish to do, I don’t need to remind you that our time here is not guaranteed. Our time here is fleeting, and each moment is to be savored. Our moments are much like Christine’s Gypsy beer. Here today, gone tomorrow. Enjoy them while they last.