After years of struggling to find work in his native Athens, Yiannis Papathanasiou, a mechanical engineer, decided to give up—and turn to beer. Last spring, Papathanasiou opened the first microbrewery in Sparta, Greece.
On a sweltering afternoon in August, standing outside his small brewery in the green valley of the Taygetos Mountains, near a village where his mother had grown up, he said he was “very tired, but happy.” He'd been selling out of his Sparta Beer brews, a lager and an American Pale Ale, nearly all summer.
In Greece, a wine-loving country where hard alcohol sales have plummeted amid its financial turmoil, there's been a surprising little boom in local craft beer—an industry that was almost non-existent when the economic crisis hit in 2009. In the last two years, the number of microbreweries has more than doubled across the country's mainland and its islands, from 15 to nearly 40, according to the Hellenic Brewers Association. Like Papathanasiou, many of the new wave of craft brewers are educated young people who were flailing in a tough job market—Greece continues to have the highest rate of unemployment in the E.U—and needed to figure something out. They're also just young guys (they are mostly men) who are passionate about beer, want to create new industry in their financially strapped country, and are working to forge a modern beer culture for the first time in Greece.
Last year, four longtime friends, each about 30 years old, opened the first independent microbrewery in Athens, inside an old car garage. “What we’re doing is difficult, but we love it,” said Jason Panagiotopoulos, a former journalist who decided to actually give up a job at a Greek radio station to pursue the microbrewery with his buddies—two engineers and a food technologist.
Panagiotopoulos said he and his friends, like Sparta Beer’s founder, were avid home brewers, and their love for beer grew as they tasted different, quality brews in their travels outside of Greece. About two years ago, when they noticed more microbreweries opening in Greece, they thought it was time for Athens, their home city, to have its own craft brews—and they should be the ones to make them. After investing their own savings—along with money from each of their families—and scouring the city for potential locations, the friends opened their Athens brewery, called Noctua, in August 2016.
Their first beers, a black IPA called Night Vision and a pale ale called Head Twister (all their beer names relate to their logo, and namesake, the little owls that reside in Athens and have long been a symbol for the city, called the Athene Noctura in their Latin classification) picked awards up for taste from the International Beer Challenge this year. Getting more Greeks to appreciate the strong flavors of fresh, unpasteurized craft brews is still a work in progress though.
For decades, Greece has been almost completely dominated by brands owned by foreign beer giants, specifically Heineken and the Carlsberg Group. Those labels, which are brewed in Greece, include the easy-drinking lagers like Mythos or Fix that you may have sipped if you’ve ever found yourself at a picturesque seaside taverna, or, really, anyplace in Greece.
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“Greece is a wine culture—traditionally, when Greeks drink beer, they think of a cold, bubbly, refreshing drink in the summer—like the Heinekens they were used to drinking, but mostly, I think that’s because they had no other choice,” says Marios Mantzoukis, the owner of Barley Cargo, one of Athens’ first craft beer bars. There have been a few early-ish bright spots in the Greek craft beer scene, like microbrewery Septem, which opened in 2009, and is now one of the most popular, and widely available craft brands in the country. “Craft beers are so much more aromatic and complex—I think the more Greeks taste these beers, the more they love them.”
Both Noctua and Sparta Beer sell their brews at Barley Cargo, which focuses on Greek craft brews. When Mantzoukis, 38, opened in 2012, he had about 60 Greek craft beers to choose from, now he has more than 200. At his bar, he sells a rotation of 70 Greek beers, with 17 on tap. "This is something new and exciting for Greece—people thought I was crazy when I opened, but we’re doing well,” Mantzoukis says. “I love educating people about beer, and seeing young people trying to seize an opportunity here."
The young brewers are finding success, but, for now at least, it’s on a small scale, with many of them only selling to local bars, restaurants or curious passersby and tourists. Working to the brewers’ advantage is the strong movement to support local products, and that has spilled over to beer—even though Greece, overall, has some of the lowest beer consumption in Europe. And while Greeks seem to appreciate that the craft beer made by their countrymen is of high quality, the higher price than the usual Mythos or Heineken remains a tough hurdle for the average Greek consumer. A Mythos might sell for about three euros at a bar, while a craft brew is more like five or six euros. The big beer companies also have longstanding relationships with bars and restaurants, making it harder for the smaller, and pricier, brewers to break in.
“This is not an easy business, but I also think opening any business in Greece is challenging, unfortunately,” says Marinos Alexandrou, 35, the co-owner of 56 Isles, the first microbrewery on Paros, part of the 56 Cyclades island chain scattered in the deep blue Aegean Sea. Alexandrou, a native of Cyprus who’s lived in London for the past 15 years, opened the microbrewery with his friend, Nicolas Pavlakis, 32, who grew up on the island. The pair met when Pavlakis came to London to study finance. There, they both learned to love beer—and shared a desire to bring more business to Greece. This year, their light blonde pilsner, made with barley grown in Paros, won a star from the Great Taste Awards, a large UK-based competition organized by the Guild of Fine Food.
It’s not easy to get a brewery up and running in Greece. The initial costs can be more than 200,000 euros—with some brewers using a mix of family funds, European Union subsidies and even now some lines of bank credit—to launch. Then there’s the burden of high taxes and the bureaucratic barriers to innovating beer in Greece, says Ioanna Sidiropoulou, one of the rare female Greek craft brewers.
Sidiropoulou, 30, runs the Elis Brewery in southwestern Greece, near Olympia, where the first Olympic games were held. She’s a chemical engineer who left Greece to study brewing in Scotland and worked for Brewdog, a self-proclaimed “punk” Scottish brewery that’s now one of the UK’s fastest growing beer brands.
While she loved the work, she missed Greece. Two years ago, via a search online, she happened to find a Greek family that ran a winery who were interested in opening a microbrewery. She’s been at the helm ever since. Her beers, a pale ale, pilsner and porter, are crafted with care—but she says, “I want to experiment, to innovate more.” But in addition to the commercial-beer palate of the general beer-buying populace, there are also some arcane laws in the country stymying brewers’ creativity.
A beer purity law that dates back to 1922 (and comes from a German beer purity law from the 1500s) has essentially stopped brewers from playing around with the wealth of fresh fruits, herbs and other aromatics available to them in their beers—or even brewing ciders. The law changed over the summer, but there are a host of technicalities that brewers are still wrangling with.
“Everything in Greece has to be regulated, and because so much of the beer culture here is brand new, everything we try to do—even adding local rosemary or lemongrass to a beer, is a huge process, with paperwork, with levels of bureaucracy,’ says Angelos Ferous, 28, a co-owner of the first microbrewery on Mykonos, another Cycladic Island, that’s also known as the most expensive party hub in Greece.
Ferous, another engineer, was in the same Scottish brewing masters program as Sidiropoulou—they also both worked at Brewdog. After launching last spring, making a blonde saison and a pale ale made with hops from America’s west coast (something they say is a rarity in Greece)—Ferous says he wants to push Greek beer culture forward. He’s aging beers in Greek wine barrels, and he’s hoping to launch Greece’s first sour beers, using strains of lactobacillus from Greek yogurts and lactic acid from Greek cheeses—this process too will take levels of approvals through Greek officials.
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Ferous also points to the country’s growing number of “gypsy brewers”—young brewers who don’t own their own microbreweries, but rent space from others to brew their recipes—as some of the guys making the most inventive beers, like brands Strange Brew and Flaros.
“I think there are passionate young Greek brewers who really want to make craft beers that are unique, and are more daring,” says Ferous. “It just takes a lot of hard work, but we’re willing to do it—we’re lucky, to be working on something new, something of substance that we care about in our country.”