Beer for Cretans is definitely not the same thing as beer for cretins. But most people don’t spend much time thinking about beer with respect to either of those groups — probably more for cretins than Cretans. At any rate, when I was looking for some new and different hiking locations I discovered that Crete has a nascent local beer scene to be explored before, during, and after interesting looking hikes.
Beer culture in Greece is a fairly modern development. Even though beer imported from Germany and elsewhere was consumed in Greece before then, the first Greek breweries didn’t appear until late in the 19th century. Beer is a popular drink though, particularly in the summertime. Just fill in the blank and complete this series of things that go together quite nicely: warm, sunny climate; beaches; and ____________ . Annual per capita beer consumption in Greece is about 36 liters and has been increasing – that compares with about 75 liters in the USA and 104 liters in Germany. Nevertheless, I saw people drinking beer everywhere and I found that I could get beer whenever I wanted. Local and craft beers were harder to find – more on that later.
Historically, popular brands have derived from German-style lagers. The big breweries and brands in Greece are Heinekin-owned Athenian Brewery (Athens Alpha, Amstel, Mamos), and Carlsberg-owned Olympic Brewery (Fix, Mythos), Greek-owned EZA Hellenic Brewery of Atalanti (EZA Pils, EZA Lager, Pils Hellas), and Greek-owned Macedonian Thrace Brewery (Vergina Lager, Red, Black, Weiss, and unfiltered lager). I understand that these four companies account for more than 95% of the Greek beer market. Imports and craft are the rest – I’ve seen estimates of the craft share being about 1% and there currently being about 45 craft breweries in the country. This number has increased fairly rapidly since 2011 when there were only seven registered microbreweries.
It could have been the setting, or maybe that my beer drinking often came after a hike in the sun, but I don’t remember having a beer I didn’t enjoy in Crete. As for the non-local Greek brands, I’d recommend you find draft versions of the Alpha and Mythos if you can (versus bottled). I didn’t try the Greek version of Amstel and I never encountered any of the Verginas on Crete. I drank Mamos, ESA, and Fix several times when there wasn’t a local option and I’d rate them as pleasant surprises. For the most part, though, I was trying local and craft beers whenever I could find them.
While on Crete, I visited five of the six local breweries that my research identified, and I’ll also discuss a couple of craft beer venues that were interesting stops along the way. Finding the local beers along the hiking route or even when thirsty in a city was a pretty hit-or-miss proposition. I was told by more than one of the brewers that tastes will need to grow beyond the expectation of a very inexpensive light lager for this to change, but that change is happening.
Lyra Brewery is located near the center of a small, seaside town named Kissamos. It took a little finding as it is purely a brewery – no tasting room or retail presence here. We were greeted by founder and brewer, Charis “Harry” Maragoudakis who showed us around the small brewery he opened in 2012 and shared their flagship Golden Ale over conversation on their shady patio. Harry spoke good English although at first, I didn’t recognize it – he has an Australian accent to his English from growing up “down under”. The Golden Ale is the sole beer brewed currently and it was clear that Harry has a laser focus on quality and consistency of any beer he will brew and that has been concentrated on his single offering. He told me that he is thinking about a red ale for the future, but for now, it’s a concentration on the Golden Ale. I really enjoyed this beer — the best match for my tastes of all the local beers I tried. I didn’t find it very often as we traveled around the island, but I did find it a few times and took advantage.
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The Cretan Brewery is most often called by its beer brand “Charma” (pronounced “Harma”) which looks like “Χάρμα” in Greek. It was a little confusing getting all that straight at first. Founder Ioannis Lionakis started the brewery in 2007 with a vision of providing a high-quality, local option for Cretan beer drinkers. The brewery is located in a beautiful rural setting about 15 miles from the center of Chania amongst olive and orange groves.
The Charma facility is a pleasant small campus with modern brewery building adjacent to a large patio and beer stand serving the range of five Charma beers on tap: a Dunkle, a Pale Ale, a seasonal Weiss, a seasonal Cretan Ale (orangey), and the flagship Blonde Lager. I particularly liked the lager and the dunkle for my tastes – smooth, clean, balanced, and refreshing beers. The brewery was built with an emphasis on sustainability in terms of water conservation, energy usage, and waste management.
In our brief experience, Charma was the most readily available local beer as we traveled around the island. They distribute kegged beer (unfiltered and unpasteurized) and their purveyors are equipped with Charma kegerators that were very visible and easily identified when entering a taverna or cafe.
The Lafkas Brewery is located in a commercial building along a busy road that has the look and feel of a former automotive shop. Big doors face the White Mountains, the namesake for their flagship beer. We were welcomed into the small facility by Michalis Lafkis and his partner/wife Aurelie Petillion who share the brewing duties. Aurelie is Belgian by birth and Michalis is a native Cretan. Michalis is a navy guy who loves good beer and has formal education in winemaking and beverage technology. He met Aurelie, a beerophile herself, on a beer pilgrimage to Belgium, one thing led to another, and they eventually decided to start a brewery to make a Belgian-Greek beer. They have been making their White Mountains Triple Hop Pale Ale since 2007 and have since added Black Sheep Breakfast Stout to their range. There is not a retail tasting room at the brewery but they have a big outdoor space with a fun mural that is turned into a beer garden for community events.
We tried but were unable to get an invite to visit this brewery. We were told that it has been sold to a foreign concern and was in transition. Their “Cretan Kings Mountain Beer”, a light lager was available at several places we stopped and it served as a fine thirst quencher. There was/is reportedly a brand of beers called “Brinks” associated with this brewery but I never saw them anywhere. I wish I had more to report about this brewery.
Notos is a brewery and taproom located in a commercial part of Heraklion not far from the center. Head brewer Kostas Verigos gave us a quick look at his microbrewery kit where a range of four beers is brewed – Gold Lager, Weiss, “Pirate” Blonde Ale, and Stout. Their taproom is a comfortable place with good visual interest and a cozy neighborhood feel. I came across Notos beers several times in my travels around the island.
The hospitality we encountered at Solo Brewery near Heraklion was unmatched as GM Nikolas Loukakis spent time showing us the brewery and personally preparing a big spread of Cretan food – sausages, smoked meat, cheese, vegetables, and rusk as we tasted and talked. Solo was founded by Norwegian ex-pat Kjetil Jikiun and their brewery was opened in 2018. Kjetil is a former international airline pilot turned beer fanatic who co-founded the Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø which he eventually sold before starting Solo.
The brewery is in an industrial neighborhood, but there is a funky little patio out front where people can enjoy a beer. Nikolas explained that their approach is deliberately “anthroprocentric” – aimed at connecting people and beer and that is evidenced by various of slogans they have associated with: “good beer is a human right”, “craft beer with a soul”, “life is too short to drink the same beer again and again”, and “craft beer = human contact”. They see the brewery as a gathering spot for people.
Solo was certainly the most like an American craft brewery of those we visited. Their range of beers is broad and at times experimental – it includes a Saison, Americana Pale Ale, IPA, Imperial IPA, Askianos Porter, and Imperial Stout. These were the hoppiest Cretan beers I tasted but they don’t let it get out of hand – that isn’t the market here. An interesting collaboration brew that Nikolas shared is called “Taste of the Cretian Sun”, a “fusion gruit” style that incorporates unripe Cretan grapes, pomegranate, rosemary, orange peels, and ginger. Experimental but it went nicely with all the food.
“So you like beer?” were the first words from Rudi’s mouth after we entered Rudi’s Beerhouse, his small beer bar on a backstreet near the harbor in Chania. Rudi is definitely a beer guy and he has a big collection of craft beers from all over the world available. I tried to engage him a bit about the local beer scene, but that didn’t seem like a strong interest of his. He does carry a number of local beers as well as craft beers from elsewhere in Greece though. He said that he thought that a barrier to the growth of local breweries is the limited brewing expertise to be found on the island.
Bricks Beer House
Bricks Beerhouse is an interesting craft beer joint on the harborfront in Rethymnon. The interior is a small spot but there is an expansive patio shaded by umbrellas out front. The proprietor, Kostos Aloupis is a friendly and welcoming person and we talked Cretan beer over a sample of some of his current offerings. He told me that the craft beer bar business is more a passion than a living – it is enabled by his other business interests catering to travelers and tourists. In a former professional life in the financial sector, he traveled a good bit and developed a passion for good beer by exploring the beers of the places he went to. Bricks has Solo beers on tap along with a bigger variety of bottles of local beers and Greek craft beers. As we were about to leave, Kostos pulled out a bottle of Raki and poured shots. After all, good raki is a human right, too.