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Inside the Greek Islands' Unexpected Craft Beer Boom

October 31, 2019

By Demetrios Ioannou, October 31, 2019

Summer in Greece is intertwined with drinking ouzo in a taverna next to the crystal clear blue sea. There’s hardly a beer in sight. Greece doesn’t have a strong beer culture like other European countries, let alone when it comes to making its own craft beer. For that reason, it’s rarely considered a beer destination, but that’s slowly changing.

Recently, I took the morning ferry to one of the most popular among the Greek islands: Mykonos. The small, white houses with the colorful windows, typical of the Cyclades island group, flooded my eyes as the bright sunlight showered the island.

In a small, underground area a couple of miles away from the port, in a building that formerly housed a bowling alley, sits the Mykonos Brewing Company. Co-owner Angelos Ferous, a 30-year-old chemical engineer with a Master’s Degree in brewing and distilling, gave me a tour around the facilities.

While Mykonos Brewing Company is the first and only microbrewery on Mykonos, it’s not alone in the islands of Cyclades. Microbrewing has seen an unexpected rise in this part of the Aegean Sea the past decade; a decade marked by the deepest economic crisis in the country’s recent history.

“The financial crisis in the country took us back for about two years,” Ferous said. “But failure is not an option for this. For as long as our homes are in mortgage, nothing can go wrong with this brewery. It is doomed to succeed.”

Brewers from Mykonos, Santorini, Paros, and other Cycladic islands have decided to return home and invest in those islands, defying the difficult financial conditions in Greece, taking on the risk of making their own beer and sharing it with the world. Their biggest supporters in this are the tourists, millions of whom visit those islands each year, but locals too are slowly putting down their ouzo in favor of a craft beer.

Demetrios IoannouMykonos Brewing Company

Mykonos

Although Ferous had no previous connection to Mykonos, he decided that this island had the most potential as a home for his business. Not long after stepping foot on the island he met Mykonian-Swedish Alyosha Solén Kambanis, who was already making his own beer at home. The two men agreed to collaborate on the project and soon after, in May 2017, the first batch of Mikònu beer arrived on the market. 

“We make our own recipes,” Ferous said as he offered me to taste his beers. “Here you will taste beer you won’t find anywhere else in the world.” They make six core labels and four seasonals. The best seller is blonde saison, the first beer made at the brewery.

“Blonde saison and a pale ale are the first two beers we made back in 2017. We wanted to make those two types known to the people here. Intentionally we didn’t start with a pilsner or a lager,” Ferous said. “Now we also have an IPA, which is the hottest trend right now in the US and Canada, and people who visit the island when they learn there is a local IPA they really want to try it.”

Today they make 50,000 liters per year and about 85 percent of that stay on the island. “Every year we increase our production by 30 to 35 percent,” Ferous said, as he gave me a taste of their latest creation: two limited-edition beers aged for six months in wooden barrels, half of which contained local Agiorgitiko wine and the other half Vinsanto wine.

“We also experiment with coffee or try to sour our beer with local Mykonian sour milk,” Ferous said, but he explained that the unique taste of their beer is mostly due to the salts contained in the water. “This is the heart of Mykonos that goes into our beer, and we can’t change that.”

Demetrios Ioannou

Santorini

Ferous’s uncle Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, a winemaker, was friends with Serbian brewer Boban Krunic, Majda Anderson, and Steve Daniel, the brewer and owner of the Rocky Head Brewery in London, long before they founded Santorini Brewing Company in 2011.

“Steve had the idea back in 2009,” Paraskevopoulos said. “At first we did a small market research for a couple of years on the island. We asked locals and visitors if they would buy a local beer. We had a 100 percent positive response.” At the same time, the beverage market wasn’t very supportive, mainly because of the ongoing economic crisis in the country. “People from the market were telling us that we shouldn’t do it and that it’s going to fail. Our intuition was that they were wrong and that the project would be successful. And it went incredibly well.”

About 400,000 bottles of beer made in Santorini are consumed every year, 80 percent of which are consumed on the island. “Although Greek people don’t have a beer culture, the locals in Santorini are trained to support the local products. Also the tourists who visit the island come from countries with a culture in microbrewing,” Paraskevopoulos said about the success of their beer, which is exported to America and Japan every winter when the tourists leave.

The famous donkeys of Santorini seemed like the perfect logo for Santorini Brewing Company. “Back in the ‘80s there was a discotheque on the island with the name Yellow Donkey and also donkeys are the icon animal of Cyclades, so altogether ended up in this very strong brand,” Paraskevopoulos said. The donkeys found their home in the village of Mesa Gonia, not too far from the famous Santorini churches with the blue domes. Santorini Brewing Company sits in a modern building operated by solar panels. There’s a small tasting room overlooking the brewhouse, where guests can drink beers adorned with different colored doneys.

Santorini Brewing Company currently produces five different beers: Red Donkey is a lagered ale, Crazy Donkey is an IPA, White Donkey is a seasonal weisse beer, and Slow Donkey is aged in oak and acacia barrels that previously held wines made from Santorinian Assyrtiko grapes. Last but not least, Lazy Ass is a refreshing, fruity, and spicy lager made in collaboration with Flecks Microbrewery in Austria.

Experimentation is in their blood too—they try to use local products into their beers as well. “We planted hop and tried to make malt with local barley, but it didn’t go very well. Maybe our technique is not very good yet, but we’re still working on it,” Paraskevopoulos said.

Demetrios Ioannou

Paros

Nikolas Pavlakis was born and raised on the nearby island of Paros. He studied finance in London, where he met Marinos Alexandrou, his “partner in crime.” Together they decided to open the first microbrewery on the island. Not long after, the Microbrewery of Paros was founded and 56isles beer was born.

“I wanted to return to the place I grew up,” Pavlakis said. “We started thinking of a project about beer in 2012 and we went officially into business in 2014. Our first beers were in the market in early 2016.” With the name 56isles, Pavlakis and Alexandrou wanted to pay tribute to all 56 islands of Cyclades, smaller and larger ones. “We wanted a name that would include both Paros and Cyclades islands, that’s why we agreed on this. It combines everything.”

They first found the equipment and they rented a space in the village of Naousa, the most tourist-friendly location in Paros, but Pavlakis explains it was quite difficult at first. “Obviously, when you start a business like this you know the risk. We had difficulties with the banks and the subsidies. Our first goal was to get a good percentage of the local market and it went pretty well.”

Although Aegean Wit is their newest and award-winning wit beer, the beer that solidified their place in the market is a pilsner “infused with the breezy flavours of Parian barley that grows under the sun on the shores of the Aegean Sea.” It’s that small amount of local raw barley in the malt bill that gives their beer its unique taste. “Local barley is of the best quality and when brewery started in Greece, they used to buy barley from Paros,” Pavlakis said.

Currently, they are working to increase distribution throughout the country and around the world. “People in Paros are very supportive, so we slowly try to increase our production and go outside of the island,” Pavlakis said. “Right now about 80 percent of our beer is being consumed within Paros."

The local support, as well as the popularity of the Cyclades islands to foreign travelers, especially from countries with stronger beer cultures, is the key element that managed to keep those microbreweries alive despite the hard conditions in the country. And what started as a risk or a dream, eventually succeeded to overcome all obstacles and slowly become an unexpected ray of light during a dark time in Greece.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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