Greece Me Up!

What’s up with Greece then? Thousands of years after the great minds of Aristoteles, Plato, Socrates, Archimedes, Euclid and a host of other famous scientists and philosophers thought so hard that they pretty much created civilization as we know it, there seems nowadays to be nothing other than bad news about Greece in the average newspaper. Despite this, I figured that any country where the road signs and newspaper headlines look like giant mathematical equations can’t be that bad and has to be worth a visit, so as soon as I found a cheap flight I didn’t book twice.

The city of Thessaloniki is nicely situated on a massive bay, a pleasant and scenic half-hour flight north of Athens. It’s surprisingly big – apparently, more than a million people live there – but the central part is relatively compact and, assuming you don’t mind constantly dodging cars and motorbikes that seem hell-bent of running you over, it’s quite a pleasant place to walk around. The seafront is especially nice – a great long walk next to a busy road next to a seemingly infinite number of busy bars. There was certainly not much sign of the Greek economic woes here – every drinking hole seemed to be filled up with smart looking young people sipping cocktails, coffees and perhaps even beer. Which brings me nicely to the main topic of this blog post: beer.

The Greek beer scene has, apparently, been very sad, if not tragic. Beer has traditionally been regarded by locals and tourists alike as a golden, fizzy, ice-cold drink that doesn’t need to taste anything as it is thrown down the gullet to quench a sudden thirst, so the selection in bars and restaurants usually boils down to either “beer” or “no beer”. Therefore, it was with very low expectations that I googled “the best beer bar in Thessaloniki” when I arrived at my hotel. Imagine my delight, then, as the first result that popped up was a recently opened place called “The Hoppy Pub” that had managed to receive an amazing number of glowing reviews on the Ratebeer.com web site. Needless to say, I wasted no time, since time is money, and the last thing Greece needs is someone wasting time not spending money in their bars.

The pub is not hard to find if you know where it is, so I figured out where it was and walked there at a brisk pace, avoiding both the temptation to be distracted by other pubs and bars along the way and the hordes of cars and motorbikes that tried to run me over. Once there, I located the door, opened it, and went in. The scenery inside was simply wonderful. Along the bar were 12 taps, each of which contained a fresh, interesting craft beer. Along the walls were craft beer bottles, posters and other beautiful decorations reminding you of, well, beer. Behind the bar were a bunch of fridges containing an amazing selection of craft beers from around the world. If beer was religion, this would be the place to worship. If beer was music, this would be Greece’s best concert hall. If beer was more than just a fizzy, cold, tasteless drink, this would be the place to drink it.

The Greek tap craft beer selection was the best (and only) I've ever seen.

I like to try the local stuff if it doesn’t look too awful. Greece is not a big country, so I decided that any Greek beer would be local, especially since I had already travelled about 2000km that day in order to drink it. I therefore asked the bartender, who happened to be a very friendly and knowledgeable guy, what Greek beers he’d recommend. “Ah”, he said, “I’ve got this IPA from a brewery called Septem which is very good – nicely hoppy and fresh, yet balanced and sophisticated”. It felt a bit like I had won the lottery, though since I’ve never won the lottery I may have to recalibrate this sentence once I do. The bartender then proceeded to do what all good beer pubs should do, namely offer a taste. It was great – a really good IPA, worthy of comparison with the best.

It turned out that the bartender (who was also part owner) was a real Greek Beer Geek (henceforth simply GBG), and there aren’t many of those. The Greek scene is still lagging behind some of the more enlightened (in the beery sense) parts of Europe, but things seem to be slowly changing, with new GBGs emerging from the shadows all over the country. Furthermore, there seems to be a Europe-wide network of like-minded geeks – my bartender’s favourite brewery turned out to be Haandbryggeriet from my home town Drammen in Norway, so we had plenty to chat about. I managed to try a couple more local beers on tap too, a Red Ale from the same brewery, which was also excellent, but the evening’s highlight was an unfiltered Pilsner-style beer from a brewery in Crete which had unusual, but absolutely wonderful hops, no skips and just a hint of jumps. I’m pretty certain that this was probably the best 3rd beer I’ve ever had.

The best pilsner in Greece

My final beer was a bottled beer, and at this point the GBG produced the ultimate GBG tool, namely a bottle opener that did not bend the cap so that I could bring it undamaged home to my collection! Never have I felt more at home in a pub. I was practically ready to move in. Unfortunately, though there was a good supply of popcorn and other beer snacks, I got hungry.

The final beer, opened with the best bottle opener known to mankind.
Thessaloniki has hundreds of places to eat, but I decided to try only one, in fact the one conveniently situated about 20 metres from the beer pub. This turned out to have great Greek food, and since I was in a great Greek mood I decided to have another Greek beer. The selection was, unsurprisingly, very limited, but they had at least avoided the foreign crap (Amstel) that seems to get shipped to Greece by the boatload, probably because the Dutch themselves don’t want to drink such rubbish, and offered a beer from the interestingly-named brewery “Fix”. The beer was actually OK too, with a decent hoppy taste.

OK, time to start wrapping things up, it’s only a few weeks to Christmas after all. The Greek craft beer scene exists, but you have to do some research (the internet helps) to find it. Once you do, you’re likely to be surrounded by a bunch of very friendly GBGs that are happy to talk about anything as long as it’s related to beer. If you can’t be bothered and decide to just order the standard Mythos, Alfa or (Bacchus forbid) one of the Dutch imports, you’ve missed out big time, especially if you’re in Thessaloniki. I read somewhere that the Michelin guide defines a three star place as “a restaurant that’s worth an entire trip by itself”, and that’s exactly what I would say about The Hoppy Pub. Yes, it’s that good. I’d suggest going for a few days, or perhaps even make it a full Greek Beer Geek Week. The airport code is SKG, and the bus into town costs 2 euros. See you there! Στην υγειά μας!