Not so long ago, almost the only beerily worthwhile angle to holidaying in Greece was the excellent range of beer shampoos available in most Greek corner grocery shops. Now the country, despite its economic problems, seems to be in the midst of a microbrewery naissance: on holiday in Stoupa, a lovely village halfway down the Mani peninsula, the middle “finger” of the southern Peloponnese, with the hot, sunny, sandy beaches and warm waters of the Gulf of Messinia on one side and tall, cloud-tipped limestone mountains on the other, I was able to try beers from four different Greek craft breweries I’d never drunk before.
The most welcome was Neda, a solid German-style pale lager from the Messinian Brewery, founded in March 2009 and based some six miles outside Kalamata, the main town in Messinia (the name given to the south-west corner of the Peloponnese). Neda lager, the brewery’s only product, is named after the river that forms part of the border between Messinia and the neighbouring prefecture of Ilia (and the only river in Greece with a female name, apparently).
Neda appears to be available in bottles in the majority of Stoupa’s 30 or so tavernas, cafes and restaurants, and it’s vastly superior to the awful Alfa and the not much better Mythos, Greece’s ubiquitous Eurolagers. Greek cuisine may never challenge that of France or Italy, but it’s almost always made with fresh, excellent ingredients and sold at very reasonable prices, and it’s good to finally find a locally made beer that provides a decent match.
Zeos, from the brewery of the same name a couple of miles outside the city of Argos, in the north-eastern Peloponnese, is another solid pale beer, though more forward on the hop aromas than Neda and rather less dry/more malty sweet: closer, in fact, to a pale ale than a lager. In Stoupa it seemed available, on draught, only in the village’s specialist beer taverna, Patriko, right by the beach. Its similarity to a pale ale kept making me wonder what it would be like in a cask-conditioned version: while Zeos is a perfectly fine beer, it did have a little of what I can best call a “closed in” or undeveloped character often found in keg bitters.
Zeos, which was founded back in 1998 and has a Canadian brewmaster, David Wood, also makes a “dark wheat beer” called Black Mak, available in one-litre screw-top PET bottles. If I hadn’t been told it was a wheat beer, I’d have shoved it without hesitation into the medium-dry stout category: dark as midnight, a creamy off-white head, touches of chocolate and roast grain, a full, slightly sharp mouthfeel.
The proprietor at Patriko, Christina Constantios, and her partner also brew their own beer, and want to install a brewery in the bar. Greek bureaucracy and red tape has so far left them thwarted, What they are doing, however, is brewing beer at home and then transporting it to the Zeos brewery for bottling, before putting it on sale in the bar. The Patrikos “own brew” comes across in the double IPA style, strongly flavoured with what this Englishman’s palate believes to be American hops and with a lingering bitterness.
Not everything in the Greek beergarden is sunny, however. Stoupa’s supermarkets sell bottled beers from the Piraiki microbrewery (Πειραϊκή Μικροζυθοποιία in Greek orthography), founded in Piraeus in 2005, which uses only organic malt and hops. Unfortunately, each of the three Piraiki beers we bought was a disaster. The “pale ale” fobbed when opened and delivered an initial glassful of almost pure froth: eventually, when the beer had finally settled down, it was sharply sour and almost undrinkable. I had a Proustian flashback to some of the “bottle-conditioned” ales available from new British microbreweries in the 1980s, which would give an almost identical warning of the unpleasant taste experience to come by gushing all over the table when the crown cork was removed.
The “pils” was no better, cloudy as a Scottish summer and with the same acid sharpness. The opaqueness of the Piraiki “black” hid any visible faults, but it was again sour and nasty: nastier, in fact, because pale beers, even when they’re not meant to be sour, can carry some sourness at low alcohol levels, but dark beers, in my experience, really need high strength and plenty of flavour to cope with any sourness. That one went straight down the sink.
Piraiki apart, however, from my experience, and that of Knut Albert earlier this summer in Corfu, the Greek microbrewing scene is increasingly delivering a quality choice to the discerning beer drinker. Since Greece will continue to be one of my top personal holiday destinations, I wish the country’s small brewers every future success and prosperity.