Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Personal History of Cyprus Beer

Wannabe with Alesmith's IPA at Brewfellas
My first tryst with Cypriot beer was not unlike that first time a teenage boy has sex: short-lived, rudderless and as plain as a greenhouse cucumber in the dead of winter.

It was 2005 and I sat at Washington DC's iconic and now defunct beer tavern The Brickskeller, having just polished off a Belgian dubbel or tripel. I had been dating The Wife, PhD, for several months and—in what now rings like a premonitory alarm to my eventual move to The Rock—I chased my first tipple with a KEO, a Cypriot pilsener-styled lager and the island's favorite beer.

You must understand that, as a fresh-faced twenty-seven year old, my knowledge of the proper progression of beer consumption was limited to randomly alternating between pale ales—Sierra Nevada (still my favorite beer) and Bass—and Sam Adams Boston Lager with an occasional Chimay Blue thrown in to class shit up. Hence, my first impression of Cypriot beer was, uhm, watered down.

Cyprus can get as scorching hot as Emily Ratajkowksi in an animal print bikini. Or a topless Ryan Gosling eating a churro. So it makes perfect sense that locals and tourists alike would want a crisp, light beer that doesn't overwhelm the palate with intense flavors and a thick torso. Even for the hopsessed, this style of beer has its moments. During my first or second summer on The Rock, I spent one sunny afternoon at Zefkas (the good one) above Fig Tree Bay pounding innumerable large bottles of KEO with good friends and then stumbling to the sea—volleyball and buzz in tow—to spike, dig, set and serve the sunset away.

Self-Appointed King of Happy Times
For years, The Rock's beer market was pretty much limited to KEO, Leon (the island's first beer) and Denmark's Carslberg, the latter two brewed by the Photos Photiades Group. All three have similar flavor profiles: they are clear and light and refreshing and as harmless to the palate as a lukewarm boiled potato. Personally, I prefer KEO as it has a decent hoppiness to it, while Carlsberg, which is a far cry from being the best beer in the world, reminds me of the $5-for-a-6-pack Natty Light I used to consume as a penny-pinched college student. No, that's not a compliment. Then again, don't ever put me through a blind tasting of the three because it will just confirm that you shouldn't be reading this blog as a source of knowledge. Praise the Lord my writing ain't gospel truth.

Early on into my arrival to Cyprus almost fourteen years ago, a handful of microbreweries surfaced to mixed success. Declaring itself Cyprus' first microbrewery, Prime Microbrewery opened its doors in Sotira by Ayia Napa and offered the market six (decent-ish) beers—a Cyprus Pilsner, Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Golden Ale, Belgian Wit and Oatmeal Stout, with the Wit being my personal favorite.

Rumors had it that Prime's facilities were among the most technologically advanced in Europe, but every time I attempted to pay them a visit, they were either too busy or the phone rang unanswered for what seemed like the time it takes me to polish off a pint. Yes, eons according to my friends. Some time in 2017, Prime closed its doors, stopped production and broke my heart with nary a visit. Not all might be lost, however, as it seems Octo Microbrewery, a new project housed in Prime's former headquarters, has opened its doors, recently releasing a hoppy lager and an ultra-light session IPA. I had hoped to get invited to their official launch, but that has come and gone, so now I'm back to relying on my own creepy Latino charm.

Aphrodite's Rock Brewery in Tsada
After a protracted battle against bureaucracy, Aphrodite's Rock Brewery opened in 2009 just outside Tsada in Paphos, slowly building a steady following among British expats and tourists in the area. I don't make it out west often enough to visit, but whenever I'm on my way to Polis, there's an obligatory stop at Aphrodite's Rock to buy a six-pack and track its development. Last time I was there—six long years ago—I thought the beers were alright with my favorite ones being the Lian Shee Irish Red Ale and London Porter. However, in my old age I've discovered I have an issue with British real ales—I find them under-carbonated and, hence, soupy for my taste. Purists (and Brits), come at me. [Pulls up trousers, pounds sagging man boobs, raises fists and puffs.]

Furthermore, finding a large variety of beers at pubs or supermarkets ten years ago was not the easiest of tasks. My go-to bar upon arrival was Plato's, an architectural gem I truly believe should reconfigure itself as a gastro pub that matches a strong beer selection with high-end and creative bar food à la Granazi, which—side note and shout-out to chef David A. Lakes—serves the best bar food in Nicosia. Back when I was a regular patron, Plato's carried a large range of Belgian beers but hardly an IPA except for BrewDog's ubiquitous Punk IPA. Still, it was the only place where someone open to experimenting with beer could feel at home.

Who Would Have Thought? An IPA Fest on The Rock
Nicosia's (and to a certain extent the island's) beer scene ultimately changed for the better in 2010 with the opening of Brewfellas, which is without question The Rock's best beer bar and my favorite watering hole. It's even Little Miss Despot's preferred place to grab a bag of crisps and see daddy work his way through half-a-pint on Saturday afternoons and slowly say goodnight to his liver. Plus, I cannot wait to introduce Little Miss Miracle (yes, new addition to the Whine On The Rocks household!) to this budding family tradition. Good parenting they call it.

What Brewfellas managed to do (and still does) so wonderfully well is fill a huge gap in the market and cater to those of us who are brave enough to try something new and empty our bank accounts, per diems, trust funds and pocket change for whatever that new is. Dimitri Kemanes, Costas Siahinian and company are hopsessed and have a huge soft spot for American microbreweries. With Brewfellas' launch almost ten years ago came a slew of American, British and European IPAs, alongside Imperial Porters, Stouts, Saisons, Sours, Pale Ales, Unicorns (The Alchemist's Heady Topper was once on tap and I missed it) and the kitchen sink. They routinely organize unique private tastings and keep us on our toes by revealing on a weekly basis new beers to discover and creating unwanted marital strife. If only I had married a beer lover.

Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?
With Brewfellas' emergence, what followed was a deluge. Let's not talk causality here as this post ain't meant to be your be-all and end-all history of Cypriot beer. New microbreweries have risen from the empty, rusty cans of KEO and Carlsberg to satisfy The Rock's increasingly sophisticated palate. Pivo Microbrewery, True Ale Cyprus Brewery, Barrel House's Mad Pan Handcrafted Projects in Larnaca, Radical Way Brewing, Humor Beer, Turkish Cypriot OO's Craft Brewing Co., and Hula Hops Brewing, to name a few, have started sourcing the island with beers that cater to both lager fans and those with actual taste buds. Of course, some of the beers produced still require fine tuning, but it's the spirit and push for bigger, better and bolder beers that counts, right? Having sampled beers from most of these breweries, I must say that Pivo, Humor and Hula Hops (now seemingly on hiatus) lead the way in the delivery of quality, consistency and taste.

Pivo Microbrewery's Standard Offerings
I think the best beers ever produced by Cypriot microbreweries are Hula Hops' Cyprus Citrus IPA and Pivo's Hoppy American (Easy) IPA and their 2017 limited release India Pale Lager, which would sit alongside Greece's Fix Dark (you have so many questions right now, don't you?) as a staple in my refrigerator as go-to beach beers.

So here's my personal challenge to all these new microbreweries out there—cook up an Imperial Stout aged in old Commandaria barrels and (hopefully) join the list above. Plus, I'll pay big bucks for a case, even more so if you let me name it and write the back label. [Editor's note: Homie is desperate for writing jobs and has a serious drinking problem.]

Furthermore, as a result of this growing interest in beer, during the past five years or so, a myriad of beer festivals have sprung like (both good and bad) weeds. Some are just excuses to bring Greek pop stars to regale the masses and sell them the usual suspect beers imported by The Rock's major distributors. I've attended some of these "beer" festivals in both Ayia Napa and Nicosia, and there wasn't a single beer I couldn't procure myself in a supermarket. Beer selection might have improved during the past few years, but when you have Sakis Rouvas—Greece's version of Justin Timberlake going through a mid-life crisis as a Dublin-based busker—serenading twenty thousand crazed fans, you know it's not about the beer.

The Full Pint 2018
Of all these festivals, one truly stands out for its genuineness, passion and overall good vibes—The Full Pint, the annual event organized by the Cyprus Homebrewers Association. What started off with four brave souls peddling their home-brews to curious bystanders at Faneromeni Square in Old Nicosia has turned into a major event for local beer drinkers. Dozens of home-brewers now congregate each spring in Nicosia's Municipal Gardens to showcase their latest concoctions. Yes, some beers are obviously better than others, but the overall event is still a whole lot more revelatory, true and fun than the competition. A shout-out to Yiannis from The Beer Lab, Nicosia's main shop for home-brewing equipment, for his Black Dino Stout, which will belatedly receive five Sparkling Spatulas for Best Brew at the 2019 The Full Pint.

Another interesting development has been the evolution of beer menus at established bars. Case in point, Moondog's Bar & Grill, which has undoubtedly set itself up as Nicosia's best sports pub. Upon opening, their beer selection was quite basic with nary an IPA in sight. However, if you visit Moondog's these days, their menu is chock-full of IPAs and other beers that weren't available before. They've slowly but steadily ramped up their selection in parallel with this growing interest in beer on The Rock. Plus, they have the best marketing ploy by any eatery or bar on The Rock—inviting their customers to be featured as models in their annual and thematically-diverse beer menu. If y'all ever need a bearded, voluptuous cross-dresser with a penchant for dark beers and reciting Neruda's love poems, I know a guy.

Cheers to the Future of Cyprus Beer!
So things are looking up for The Rock's beer scene. Palates are evolving, more beer lovers are joining the ranks of the producers, a myriad of beer-themed events continue to sprout like Cascade hops bines in the Pacific Northwest. While there will always be a space in our hearts (and sultry dad bods) for a pint of KEO, the future of beer in The Rock lies elsewhere. Time for the Church of Cyprus to step up its game and bless us with a holy IPA and for that other brewery to stop pretending it brews the best beer in the world.

What's your #CyprusBeerStory?