It would be hard to find a better example of entrepreneurial inventiveness, corporate social responsibility and innovative quality products that draw on tradition than Volkan. These Santorini beers—a blonde pilsner and a black wheat lager—have only been around since the winter of 2011 but have already earned accolades. Surprisingly enough, it’s one of two Santorini microbreweries, (the other being the equally well regarded Santorini Crazy Donkey).
Volkan is the inspiration of London-born Princeton graduate Peter Nomikos, an economist and 5th generation descendent of a Santorini shipping and wine-producing family. Vice-president of the Thira Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the study of archaeology and geology in Greece and Santorini, Nomikos is also the founder and president of Greek Debt Free, a non-profit organization which secures donations and corporate pledges to reduce Greek foreign debt. It does this by buying Greek government bonds in international markets at prices much lower than the amount owed by the Greek government and then helping reduce the debt by cancelling these bonds. Volkan Beers, naturally, was the first company to sign on. Other companies have been slow in joining, though the Olympiakos Football Club has pledged to help. Fifty percent of Volkan’s profits are used to buy such debt.
Local beers are ordinarily brewed with local water, often spring water. But ground water in Santorini is scarce, and what water is available is too saline for brewing. In an inspiring example of entrepreneurial ingenuity, Nomikos had a special filter developed for its brew water that uses millennia-old basalt from the island to simulate the spring water that would have been found on Santorini in antiquity.
Two local ingredients are used in brewing the beer (the hops are obviously imported): Santorini honey and citron essence from the neighboring island of Naxos. Given the extremely dry climate of the island, there are few apiaries on the island, but the bees on the ones that do operate feed on wild thyme, the blossoms of pistachio trees and the plants of the famed Santorini yellow lentil (fava) but most distinctively on the late harvest grapes that are laid to mature in the sun for a month or two at summer’s end before they are turned into the renowned Santorini dessert wine Vin Santo. The citron in the beer is understated but gives a characteristic if not identifiable accent to the beer.
Volkan celebrated the launch of its beer in the winter of 2011 at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Petrus. Chef Sean Burbidge created a menu designed to show off the qualities of the new blonde and black beers, with such dishes as roast breast of quail with Santorini fava and a pork cutlet with black pudding and a sauce made of Santorini Vin Santo. It seems to me a fitting celebration for a pair of premium craft beers from a microbrewery with a demonstrated commitment to stimulating the local economy but also a view to establishing a foothold in markets beyond its home in the Cyclades.
Purists might disagree with mixing anything with raki (or tsikoudia), the grappa-like Cretan pomace brandy made from distilling the grape skins, stems and seeds left over from the winemaking process. But while rakomelo, a tsikoudia that has been flavoured with honey and spiced with cinnamon or cardamon or herbs, is not something you’d want to pair with octopus or marinated anchovies, it definitely merits drinking on its own. This is not a liqueur and there’s nothing cloyingly sweet about the drink. In fact, the honey is or should be used more as an aromatic than a sweetener. If spices are used, they are (or again, should be) added with restraint.
Since raki was almost always traditionally distilled in the village when not at home, rakomelo has long been a part of traditions of hospitality on Crete and in the Aegean. Although consumed during the winter as a warm digestif, I prefer mine chilled (in which case it can also be served as an aperitif). Rakomelo has become increasingly popular as a year-round 20s-something drink and a summer evening hot-toddy in the village squares of the Cyclades (Amorgos and Folegandros are well-known for their rakomelo). It’s even been used to flavor ice cream (Kayak developed a rakomelo cream for its 2011 spring collection).
You can make rakomelo at home fairly easily, though care must be taken not to let the mixture reach a boil. However, the simplicity of preparation is too often taken as a license to skimp on the quality of ingredients and overdo the honey or cinnamon. Kretarakimeli’s excellent rakomelo, on the other hand, is almost austere in comparison to what I’ve often been served elsewhere: it contains tsikoudia and honey but no cinnamon or other spices. It is produced by DS Distillery, a company founded in 2000 by two Cretan families (Diamantakis and Stamatakis) with a long tradition in the distillery business. The thyme honey used is Cretan, of course, as is the tsikoudia, produced by the distillery with grapes from its own 120-hectar vineyards.
In Serreal’s award-winning packaging design, the product is bottled in a medicinal-like amber flask, a clever play on the therapeutic value traditionally associated with the drink: rakomelo is often served warm as a palliative for sore throats and head colds!
Admittedly words like microbrewery and ale don’t come to mind when you think about Greece. Although beer has been drunk in the country since antiquity, until quite recently there was never much of a beer culture in Greece. In fact, when Karolos Fix established the first major brewery in Athens in 1864, he felt obliged a few years later to create a beer garden as well in order to promote the custom of drinking beer.
Both Fix’s beer garden and his beer lasted for almost a century; indeed for decades Fix enjoyed a near monopoly on the beer trade, that is, until the arrival in the 1960s of Amstel, Heineken, Henniger, and finally Carlsberg. Of these only Amstel and Heineken survived; at one point the two brands controlled 98% of the market.
Things are changing. New Greek breweries have appeared, both large-volume companies with a very dense distribution network like Mythos and local microbreweries such as Brinks Beer in Rehtymno and the Donkey Brewing Company on the island of Santorini. You can find organic beer and fresh, unpasteurized beer, and places to drink them, too—there a dozen or so biraríes in metropolitan Athens alone. Munich it’s not, but some of the beers you can now find in Athens actually are made in accordance with the centuries-old Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, which decreed that beer could be made only from water, barley and hops.
Among the best artisanal beers are ones from Septum. In fact, of the five most highly rated Greek beers on ratebeer.com three come from this microbrewery: a wonderful malty, honey-sweet golden ale; an English pale ale; and a porter. Septem also makes a very decent unpasteurized but filtered Pilsner, which I also like but isn’t always easy to track down.
The young brewery, which delivered its first beers in 2009, was started by Sofoklis Panagiotou and Giorgos Panagiotou with a vision of innovation, quality and social responsibility. Their track record so far seems to bear this vision out, not only in the high-quality beer they produce but also in their business practices, if one can judge by their brewery. Located in Avlona on the island of Evia the handsome high-tech facilities were designed and built in line with green building practice.