Saturday 31 August 2013

Fix: The Greek word for beer

With a background of financial crisis and a market dominated by multi-national breweries, Fix Hellas made at Olympic Brewery, based near Athens, have focused on their heritage, their provenance, and a quality product to go from nothing to over 10% of the Greek market in four years. In fact, they’ve found that the country’s financial problems have enabled them this astonishing growth.

Thank Fuchs for Greek Lager

In 1832, Greece broke free from the Ottoman Empire, which it had been ruled by since the 15th century. Regaining autonomy as a Kingdom, Otto of Wittelsbach, Prince of Bavaria, became the first king.

With a Bavarian in charge, other Germans followed him. One of those was Georg Fuchs, who worked to construct mines. Georg’s son, Johann, travelled to Greece to be with his father. When he arrived he learnt that his father had been shot dead. Despite this, Johann chose to stay and seeing his fellow countrymen and their thirst for the drink of their homeland, he started importing German beer.

Johann Fuchs (left) and son Karl (right). From here

With a growing population of Germans, Johann decided to build a brewery to be able to make beer in Greece, rather than importing it – this was Greece’s first modern brewery and Johann gave his brewery a slightly-more-Greek sounding version of his name: Fix. By the middle of the 19th century his beer was popular among Greeks and Germans, and his brewery had become a central meeting point in Athens.

King Otto ruled from 1833 until 1863, when a democratic constitution was introduced and King George I took over, albeit with reduced powers to his predecessor. Taking advantage of additional freedom under the new leadership, plus the growing success of Fix, Fuchs moved his brewery and opened a new site in 1864.

The old Fix brewery. From here.
Other breweries were operational at this time and beer was so popular that by 1893 Fuchs had built a large new brewery on Syngrou Avenue, in a suburb of Athens. Johann’s son Karl joined his father in the family business and together they continued the brewery’s success and growth. Always looking to be as technologically advanced as possible, Fix became fully steam-powered and then Karl was responsible for introducing artificial refrigeration to Greece in 1920. When Karl died, his two sons – Yiannis and Antonis – took over the brewery and they built a malting facility to be able to use Greek barley. By now, the brewery had become synonymous with Greek beer and the nearby Syngrou Avenue metro stop was named Syngrou-FIX – the name remains today.

As Athens spread, the area around Syngrou Avenue started to grow and become a more populous suburb of the city. In 1957 the brewery was refurbished and expanded to be a state-of-the-art building, designed by a famed architect of the time, where the whole of the ground floor was glass-fronted to allow people to see into the brewhouse.

But this was to be a peak before a long, slow fall past political problems, internal issues, accusations of operating a beer monopoly, then strong competition from other beer brands like Amstel and Heineken. In 1982, Greece’s most famous beer brand went bankrupt and stopped making beer.

Genesis of a Fixed brand

In 2006, brothers Ilias and George Grekis, of GR INOX which manufactures stainless steel, including breweries, built a brewhouse and small filling line, from which they launched a new lager brand called Genesis. But it didn’t last long.

“Genesis means nothing in Greece,” says Ilias Grekis, a George Clooney-esque man with wide shoulders and a booming, chesty voice. “In Greece you have to make people understand that Genesis means beer.”

Making Greek understand Genesis was a challenge and instead they started to look into the old Fix brand. Then in 2008 they started a corporation with Yiannis Chitos of Zagori Natural Mineral Water and together they took ownership of the Fix brand and the Olympic Brewery – from 1995 the Fix trademark was owned of D. Kourtakis SA, who briefly re-launched the beer without success. But this time it would be different.

“We did research before we bought the brand to see two things: if people remember the brand and how they remember: in a good way or bad way,” says Grekis. “The result was excellent: they had very good memories and 95% said Fix was beer,” with the other 5% linking it to the metro station, which was named after the brewery. “This is treasure, it’s gold.”

The new Fix

“The first challenge was to make a decent beer. A beer that Greeks would like,” says Grekis. “It was a challenge but from the result we think that we have a success there. Fix Hellas has a good market, good marketing, good distribution, but beer is for fun, you drink beer because you like it, not because you have to. I believe that we have success with making good beer.”

The second challenge was distribution. Before Fix, there were only two big companies: Carlsberg and Athenian. Carlsberg make Mythos, perhaps the best-known Greek beer. Athenian brew Heineken, Amstel, Fischer and Alfa (Alfa, by the way, is an old beer brand started by a cousin of Fuchs who built another brewery in Greece, separating the family by doing so). Together they had over 90% of the Greek market. They are also the main importers of beer, so they control the whole market. With water magnate Yiannis Chitos, who has a very good relationship with wholesalers thanks to his water business, Fix found access into the market.

“The third challenge is the consumer. We focus on the consumer because he has the final judgement of the product.” This involved clever marketing and focusing on the Greek provenance and history of the beer.

It was immediately successful from its launch in March 2010, perhaps too successful; in the middle of that year, just as the peak tourist season approached, they ran out of beer. “We sold everything we have,” says Grekis. “We haven’t beer to drink ourselves. This is a terrible time. So we make a decision that we have to increase our capacity.”

Olympic Brewery
Following an initial €4m investment, they spent another €16m in filling lines, filter and cellars for their four-vessel 100HL brewhouse, which produced 100,000HL of beer in 2010. The next year they invested a further €15m to install an additional four-vessel 200HL brewhouse (supplied by GR INOX) while also increasing filling capacity and fermentation capacity which allowed their output to jump to 195,000HL, deliberately stopping there because in Greece there is small brewery tax relief for those producing less than 200,000HL annually (it’s €0.34 per litre for a large brewery versus €0.17 for a small one). In 2012 they made full use of the second brewhouse, which they run concurrently with the original (they brew eight turns through each brewhouse each day) and their output grew to 410,000HL. In early 2013 they invested €4m in fermentation tanks and recycling facilities for filtration, meaning they are able to maximise their brewhouse output and reach 550,000HL. To grow further they need to build another brewery and plans are being worked on.

The Olympic Brewery are also looking into the possibility of building a malt plant in Greece. Fix brews with Greek barley but aside from two private plants for Athenian brewery, Greece does not yet have a malting facility, so the 150 hectares of barley that Fix planted in 2013 will be sent to Germany to be processed.

“We need a malt plant here in Greece,” says Grekis. “I believe that somebody will make this investment. If nobody does it we will see to make it ourselves.” It would cost about €8-10m for 10,000 tonnes, which is the amount that Fix currently uses, so they would want to make a larger malting to be able to produce 20,000 tonnes to also support the growing number of Greek microbreweries. “It would be a plant for all. It’s a safe investment. You will sell it, no matter what.”

A modern brewery

The brewery is a very impressive facility. The two brewhouses sit side-by-side with a small production office between them, monitoring the process. There’s an enormous filtration area and then a spotless, stunning cellar: tiled floors, bright hoses snake across it as the conical bases of vast tanks look like upside-down pyramids. It’s calm, clean, and quiet. Into the packaging area and things get noisy and busy as 28,000 cans and 24,000 bottles are filled an hour – in the summer they will fill up to 60,000 cases of beer a day (which drops to just 3,000 in winter showing the seesaw seasonality of beer in Greece).

There is also a 100-litre trial brewery sitting in the pipes beneath the 100HL brewhouse. It’s in this that they can try out different recipes. They used this to work on FIX Dark, a beer which was introduced in 2012. A schwarzbier, it’s smartly branded and aimed at younger drinkers and while it was initially launched with the winter in mind, it’s selling throughout the year and it’s quickly been successful: it will account for around 8% of the brewery’s production in 2013.

A Fix to the financial problems?

But for a country that’s in financial crisis, how has Fix managed to achieve this monumental growth in such a short time? “The economy is very difficult in Greece, especially for the banks. And if you have a huge growth like we have, you need banks,” says Grekis. “But if you have in front of you a company that is going well with growth, you don’t have problems,” he says.

“The thing is that the crisis has helped us very much as a company. We are an original Greek company. Through the crisis Greek people started turning to Greek products to support their country. Fix Hellas is Fix Hellas. It’s Greek.”

The name – Fix Hellas – suffixes the Greek word for Greece (Hellas), therefore closely aligning it to the Greek people. And where Fix is unique is that it has a long history in Greece, it was the original Greek beer, it’s now an entirely Greek company, employing Greek people, with a Greek-built brewhouse, and using Greek-grown barley, and they have used this to their advantage.

“Why the consumer will pick my product is the marketing – the strength of the brand,” Grekis says. How did they build that? “Millions of Euros!” he laughs, but behind that is a serious statement: there is a large marketing budget, and they aren’t afraid to spend the money, but it’s really just telling a good story that appeals to Greek sentiment and their current desire for Greek products.

The financial crisis had a big impact on their sales. Where wine was once the drink of choice, beer has now became the affordable alternative and Greeks are now choosing Fix over Amstel, Heineken, and the others, because they want to support and buy Greek things. There isn’t a pub drinking culture in Greece and beer was previously a glass of summer refreshment, but that’s changing; beer is becoming the drink of choice. And with clever marketing, quality approachable beer, smart branding and, crucially, a Greek product, Fix has grow phenomenally against the backdrop of a financial crisis and they now have a considerable segment of the market – and it’s still growing.

Fix. It's the Greek word for beer.

Friday 30 August 2013

A Bamberg Beer Tour

Last night I was drinking in Munich until 2am and then I woke up at 6am to get a three-hour train north, so my first steps in Bamberg should be painful, weary, disinterested by the prospect of drinking more beer, but they aren’t. I leap off the train, already excited at having seen a malting plant on the way in, and eager to see how this new end of town merges into the postcard-pretty centre.

With a population of 70,000, a fifth of whom are students, Bamberg has 9, 10 or 11 breweries, depending on who you do or don’t count. There is also a brewery manufacturer, two maltings, 36 churches, a cathedral, rivers, seven hills, a Benedictine monastery, museums, markets and much of the town is UNESCO listed.

Say Bamberg to beer lovers and they will think rauchbier. The name flashes into my head a picture of that old white building hanging over the river and I imagine that the air smells like smoked sausage.

Rauchbier is a curious drink. Made with malt smoked over beechwood fires, it takes on a distinct smoky meatiness. Challenging and unusual, I don’t really like it; it’s an olfactory assault which takes hours to clear, as if the smoke is stuck in my nostrils like last night’s bonfire clinging to an old coat. But mention Bamberg and otherwise blokey brewers go all gooey and weak, so if I’m going to start liking the style then this is the place to fall for it.

I’m staying at Fässla Brauerei and during the short walk from the station I notice, to my disappointment, that the town doesn’t smell of meat. I’ve been conditioned by beer geekery to assume that Bamberg means bacon. All I can smell is clean, fresh Franconian air which hangs with the threat of sleet and rain. Where’s the bacon?

You enter Fässla through large doors into a covered courtyard. Five men are standing in here drinking beer – it’s about 10.30am, by the way. I’ve read about this place and I’m intrigued. It’s called the ‘schwemm’. A curious local thing, a few of the breweries have this and it’s a crafty way for men to go to the pub and get a beer without having to go inside the pub. So when their wives ask if they’ve been in the pub, they can honestly say that they haven’t: they were standing outside it. The small serving hatch passes through full pints to the waiting men.

I dump my bags in the cosy, comfortable room upstairs (it’s very affordable, by the way – when I return to Bamberg I’ll stay here again), take a shower, get dressed because I’m still in yesterday’s clothes, and then decide that I might as well just go downstairs and start drinking.

Not quite in the mood for vertical drinking in the schwemm at 10.45am, I go inside where there’s only one free table – they start drinking early in Germany. A bright bar in the morning light, the dark wood panels and tables presumably turn this into a cosy evening drinking den. I choose the Lagerbier and it’s gold with a thick, creamy foam, it has a bright fragrance and the rich malt texture of Bavarian beer which is full yet still somehow light. It’s finished before 11am. One brewery down, lots more to go...

Opposite Fässla, on Konigstrasse, a street which once had 23 breweries, is Spezial Brauerei, with its handsome frontage and blooming window boxes. This is where I can get my first taste of rauchbier in Bamberg. I probably should walk all the way into the city centre to start with Schlenkerla, the most famous smoked beer, but I’m outside already and my pre-noon thirst is surprisingly large.

The clock runs 10 minutes fast in Spezial (though you’ll probably still end up being 10 minutes late to wherever you’re going next), there are stag horns on the walls and it’s mostly single men sipping in silence. I join them and I order the Rauchbier Lager. Amber with a thick white foam, there’s soft, sweet smoke in the aroma, like bonfires and smoked meat. The beer is incredibly clean and smooth, some background bacon depth hangs around and gives a savoury meatiness, there’s a hint of lemony freshness and the smoke is surprisingly elegant. By the time I’m halfway through it, I barely notice the smoke anymore. It’s a wonderful beer.

As it’s only midday, I decide to take a walking tour of the city. Heading towards the river, the main shopping area still has small stalls set up in the middle, a reminder of when this was the busy market place. Look up and around and the buildings are tall and varied as the winding streets lead closer to the thing I really want to find: the Old Town Hall.

The famous image of Bamberg is the building hanging over the river; this is the Old Town Hall. Much of the architecture in town dates from the 15-18th century and is a mix of Medieval structures and Baroque facades, meaning you now see timbered buildings and elaborate frontages side-by-side. This famous old bridge is the best place to see both together.

It’s a handsome sight and what you never get to experience on those postcard pictures is that there’s more than just this building here. You can see the slopes of the seven hills surrounding Bamberg, there’s river-lined terraces of tall buildings and the river itself splits and rushes in different directions, giving the nickname of ‘Little Venice’. The origin of the Old Town Hall supposedly comes as the townsfolk were not given any land to build a communal hall on, so they decided to build it over the river.

Next I follow the cobbled streets to the enormous Cathedral. In a small city like this, it’s unexpectedly vast. The Sunday service has just finished and people stand around outside and talk. Inside it’s dark, lit like a kaleidoscope from the stained glass. Here you’ll find the only pope buried outside of the Vatican.

Up what I assume is part of one of Bamberg’s convergence of hills is Michaelsberg Abbey. It’s now holds the Franconian brewery museum for half the year (I’m there in the half when it isn’t a brewery museum) and there are well-kept rose gardens leading to a view over the old town, showing off the orange roofs, the flow of the river and the steeples of the churches. In the distance are the towers belonging to the maltings. It’s a magnificent sight.

Photos taken and tourist stuff ticked off, I pick one of Bamberg’s seven hills and walk up it (I choose the one which leads to a brewery, of course). Just a few minutes from the bridge and it’s into the suburbs. At the top is Greifenklau. The lights are off and there’s a hand-written sign on the door. It’s closed.

Down the hill again and my thirst is growing by each cobble-stone step. I check my map and follow another hill (I think so anyway, it’s hard to tell where each of the hills begins or ends) which gets me to Klosterbräu, the oldest brewery in town. I sit next to a young American couple who are eating pig knuckles bigger than their own heads. This place does 0.3l pours, so I try the three house beers. A fresh lager, a textured and malty braunbier that’s not quite dunkel and more chocolatey, and a very excellent Schwarzbier that makes me wish I had a spare fork to help myself to the leftover pork knee beside me.

Next up is the place I’ve been waiting for all day. I could’ve started here, I know I could, maybe I should’ve, but I like the extra satisfaction that comes from delaying gratification or teasing out expectation, which is why my first stop in Schlenkerla is my fourth brewery of the day.

If you haven’t been to Schlenkerla’s tavern, then you might have an image in your head of what it’s like. I certainly do. I picture it as the Old Town Hall. Whenever Bamberg and Schlenkerla are talked about, there’s always an image of that building, so I associate them as the same place and I was looking forward to getting a seat with a view of the river. Combining that with a clichéd image of a huge beer hall, I expected Schlenkerla to be very different to how it is.

In the centre of the old part of the city, Schlenkerla tavern, home to Brauerei Heller-Trum, is a simple, slated-window-fronted building around some tight streets. It’s inconspicuous, really. Inside it’s dark, almost like a cave, there’s lots of doors and levels and wood, and my eyes see a fog of smoke in the air but I don’t think it’s actually there. The ceilings are tall and arched like an altar, an appropriate shape for a building on the beer pilgrimage map. I find a seat that allows me to look over most of the bar and I order a Märzen, the famous flagship brew.

It’s a really deep red-brown with a thick off-white foam. Lifting the tankard, the smoke fills the senses straight away, aromatic and woody like bonfires with leftover barbecue (and much less like the bacon I expect). This beer is poured from wooden barrels and the body is so soft and pleasing, it has such an alluring, intriguing depth of flavour and I feel like I’m getting sucked into the charms of rauchbier. There’s dried fruit and bitter candied bacon; it’s far, far better than any bottle I’ve tasted. And it’s odd: the smokiness feels like you’re drinking it while sitting in a smoky room, rather than the beer itself having a smoked flavour. It’s evocative.

Photo from here
I probably should stay for another but I’ve still got other places to get to and one is next door. Everywhere else I’ve been to today has been busy with people drinking. It’s early-afternoon on a Sunday and Ambräusianum is empty, which probably should’ve forewarned me about what the locals think of it... A little brewpub, the only brewpub in town, with nice copper kit in the middle, it feels like an ersatz German brewhouse which is ironic because it’s a genuine German brewhouse. I order the small-pour safety of a sample flight and that was enough for me. If you’re passing – and as Schlenkerla is next door you will be – then tick off a brewery visit and have a quick half, but there’s better places to linger.

With the main middle of the town conquered, I spread west to where I know there’s some more breweries. Keesmann and Mahr's are opposite each other. As it’s Sunday (don’t go to Bamberg on Sunday...), Keesmann is closed, but Mahr's is open. Walking in through the schwemm, the warm old tavern is dark, the tables are huge and busy with big groups and families, and the food smells great. I’ve heard that their Ungespundet is the beer to order. Ask for U (Oooh) and they know what you want. The name is to do with an ‘unbunged’ beer, meaning it’s not packaged under pressure, so you’re getting a kind of kellerbier or unfiltered lager with less carbonation. Dark amber, the body has toffee and toast with a dinner-in-a-glass richness, and it’s as soft as a pillow with a comforting duvet of malt depth.

It’s dark when I leave. And raining. But I’m ahead of schedule and have only one more planned stop. Cafe Abseits is on the edge of town and walking away from the historic centre feels like a different world of fast cars and modern buildings which could be anywhere in Central Europe. This is a great beer bar, busy, buzzing. It has the relaxed feel of a Belgian cafe with six draught beers, four classic German styles and two are more adventurous, there's also around 50 bottles on the menu. I take the Keesmann Herren Pils, having missed the opportunity to drink it at the brewery: it’s remarkable. Peachy and fresh, grassy, dry and bitter, it wakes me up and gives me the energy for more drinking (I love when a beer can do that; I was ready to sleep before this, now I’m ready for more drinking).

Then I order a bottle of Weyermann Schloffegerla. If you drink smoked beer anywhere in the world, then there’s a very good chance it was brewed with malts smoked by Weyermann Malting. They also have a small brewery, where Schloffegerla was made. It’s a wonderful dark smoked beer which is like maple and chocolate smoked meats, deeply smoky and remarkable in how you get a glassful of malt flavour without it being sweet or chewy or overpowering.

I’m still thirsty, somehow, and being in Bamberg I figure I should go back to Schlenkerla, where they have Fastenbier on tap. A spring seasonal, it’s bigger and dark than the Märzen, more woody than smoky, a little sweeter and still as evocative. The bar is quiet tonight, relaxed. I like it a lot. I can sit here for hours, though I’m four pints into rauchbier and think I’m done with that for today.

Before bed, I finish up in Spezial for their unfiltered lager, the only unsmoked beer they brew. Soft, lemony and spritzy, creamy and smooth, it’s amazing and I only wish that I hadn’t been drinking for 12 hours and that I could start again. As I finish the beer I look around and see two other solo drinkers and both are talking to themselves; I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the same, though they are probably having a laugh at the tourist taking photos of his beer and writing things in a little notebook...

Say Bamberg in the beer world and it means rauchbier, though there are only two (three with Weyermann) breweries in town which make it, which is surprising for a place so synonymous with one idiosyncratic beer. As important as rauchbier, or arguably even more important, is the malt made in Bamberg.

Arrive by train from the south and you pass BambergerMalzerei; arrive from the north and you pass Weyermann (Spezial and Schlenkerla also smoke their own malt). They use barley grown nearby and it’s malted and then shipped to breweries around the world. Not everyone has been to Bamberg, not everyone has drunk a rauchbier, but I reckon everyone will have drunk a beer made with malt produced in Bamberg. This malt has probably made more impact on world beer than the smoked style, even if the smoked malt is the one with the star status. And the Bamberg beers all share a richness of malt without ever being heavy; it’s like the malt flavour is fresher, fuller, cleaner, there than anywhere else.

I expected Bamberg to be an interesting place to visit but I also expected it to be a day of smoked beer. I wasn't prepared for just how much I loved Bamberg. Yes, it’s famous for smoked beer and that tastes better in Bamberg than anywhere else, but you’ll also find more beer choice than any other Germany city and it’s a beautiful, interesting old place which you can walk around. I tried to do it all in one day, which was fine but I wanted longer to linger. It's a must-visit stop on a world beer tour. Bamberg is probably my new favourite drinking city.

As well as those listed (I’ll repeat them: Fässla, Spezial, Greifenklau, Klosterbrau, Schlenkerla, Ambräusianum, Keesman, Mahrs, Weyermann), there’s also Maisels and Kaiserdom breweries. That’s 11 breweries.