Two weeks on a little Greek island means two weeks of drinking nothing but ice cold lager. And that’s a good thing. When the air is hot and dry and the sun is shining then a glass of lager is what I want in my hand. Forget big hops, forget barrel-aged whatevers, forget anything prefixed with imperial, why would you drink anything other than something cold, thirst quenching and refreshing?
The ubiquitous Stella-Carling-Fosters-Carlsberg-Kronenbourg line-up does nothing except inject a sad, staid sense of déjà-vu, but go abroad and suddenly the choice becomes exotic with lesser-spotted brands and the local lagers, plus you’re on holiday so the usual rules are not applicable – you can have chips with every meal, you can sleep in, you can go to bed late, you can wear nothing but shorts and you can drink buckets of lager and not feel naughty.
But one thing did stand out: the difference between the lager brands. I had a variety of different lagers and came to realise that it’s the little things which have the biggest effect. The main global brands in Greece (at least where I was - Skiathos) were Amstel and Heineken. Beneath these were the Greek beers Mythos, Alfa, Fix and Pils Hellas. A few German lagers were around too, the odd Corona or dusty bottle of Budweiser (would you pay 5 euros for a Bud?) and the occasional can of Guinness.
Amstel was better than I expected. It’s got a honey sweetness and a good body that makes it ideal for the hot weather and considering it’s produced by Heineken it’s a lot better than the brand it sits beneath - I thought Heineken was the worst of the beers I had while away; there was nothing redeeming about it. Mythos and Alfa are everywhere, although Mythos is everywhere more. Pils Hellas is a budget brand, cheaper and 4.5% compared to the 5% of the others. It’s a bit thin and lacklustre but not terrible in the sun (just not great either). Fix was a new one to me although it has a long history. It’s smartly branded and stands out but it doesn’t have the shelf-filling ability of the others yet. Flavour-wise it’s okay but there’s something missing which means it doesn’t quite stand up to the others - it did have a nice fruitiness to it and it’s easy drinking. Mythos and Alfa are both full-bodied, there’s an underlying sweetness to them, a dry finish at the end, a ghost-like hint of citrus and they quench a thirst leaving you wanting more. But for me it’s Mythos which stands out above all the others. Why is that?
Drinking the beers it was the subtle differences which stood out. What makes Mythos the best is a touch of sweetness at the tip of the tongue and a full body to give weight in the mouth when the cold kills the flavour. The carbonation is soft and there’s a little citrusy, fruity quality which makes it great with salty food (or salty sea air). The others didn’t have this, but there’s also a je ne sais quoi quality, something hard to describe. It’s just better (although Amstel is a close second, I think) but then Mythos should be the best because it’s made specifically for the Greek market and the Greek weather, right?
There is a flavour similarity to big brand lagers across the world, but there are subtle differences with them all - Bud is different to Stella which is different to Kronenbourg which is different to Chang, yet they are all 5% lagers with similar flavour profiles. So here’s a thought: Mythos in England, even on the hottest day of the year, doesn’t taste great, but would Mythos work in Barcelona on a hot day? Would Estrella Damm be good on a Thai beach? Would Chang be refreshing on a sunny Greek Island? Are these beers made better for drinking them in the country they are produced (and not just because you might be on holiday which makes everything taste better – the rose-tint of sunglasses) because there’s something about them which just works better locally (with the weather, the temperament, the food)? Is there intrinsic value in drinking them ‘local’, even though they are global-scale products? How important is a local place for the global brands of beer?