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.”
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.