Come to Crete, the home of the mysterious Minoans, of countless stunning beaches, and the land of true philoxenia, the love of strangers. Come here to incredible Crete, and sing an epic poem about beers and brewing! Okay. The last part there was strange. But, I assure you it’s true. You are reading the verses heralding Solo Brewery right now.
We’ve wanted to find out exactly who the people were behind the several fantastic micro-breweries here on Crete for years now. Time and again we’ve tasted at restaurants and tavernas like that of our friends at Kafeneio O Lakkos (Καφενεῖον Ὁ Λάκκος) brands like Solo and also Notos, but for one reason or another we never got the chance to hunt down these unusual gems of Crete. Then a good friend mentioned that her husband Nicolas Loukakis is one of the people standing behind, and an invite for a tour led us to the place where Solo Beer is brewed, on the outskirts of Heraklion.
Our friends from Athens, founder of the Cultural Organisation Branding Heritage (BH) Katerina Frentzou, and her brilliant attorney husband Nikos Grammenos (below) accompanied us on the tour our friend Ifigeneia Aeraki had arranged. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover that the founder and brewmaster at Solo Kjetil Jikiun would be giving us the full tour and tasting himself. A former airline pilot, the tall Norwegian entrepreneur, narrated his journey to graft beermaking art with local pride and culinary adventure lust in Crete.
As he levered out some remarkable drafts, he recounted how the hurdles to engage the Greek market played out at first—in contrast, making me realize just how far I am from being a beer connoisseur, not in a mean way. Or, in short, listening to Kjetil as a beer lover is a bit like a steak eater listening to Gordon Ramsay talk about textures and culinary art. Yeah, one feels that dumb when running across people who know their science and their art.
Thankfully, my pal Nikos is a brewing aficionado, so I was able to join my wife Mihaela in tasting brewing magic while he and Kjetil discussed beer science. I must say, I took great pleasure in the fact, my friend, Nikos seemed to be in a real Nervana moment talking with the brewing genius. However, for the novice out there, Solo Beers, compared to the commercial fare, is like comparing muddy, tasteless water to the spring of eternal youth, fine champaign, or the best Bourdeaux ever. This is my impression, at least, but it’s a valid and important one for the rest of this story.
As it turns out,Kjetil Jikiun and other micro-brewers have managed to insert their beer art into the culture and heritage instead of battling culinary or wine traditions that dominate here on Crete. Jikiun may be from Norway, but his ideas, passion, and genius at creating stunning brews are Cretan, through and through. I picked up on this the minute he talked about how the different hops appeal to varying palates because of our DNA. He also informed us about the real heart of craft beer culture, the fact that people and community are the keys to creating a successful enterprise. Nowhere in his narrative did profit enter into his thinking. Success, yes, but making beer just to make money is the farthest thing from his mind. His brewery’s Instagram, Facebook, and every aspect of their operations reflect fun, life, and enjoyment.
Next, when Jikiun began talking about the unique growing conditions, the fermentation, and so on, I was immediately reminded of one of Crete’s most successful wineries and Alexandra Manousakis in Chania. She’s based her brand and production excellence on the terroir of Crete, the idea that place and culture play a huge role in creating excellence.
What’s impressive for me is the “chance” that slings people like Kjetil Jikiun, Nikos Grammenos, his wife Katerina Frentzou, and other Crete geniuses we know like Nikos Gavalas and Ioannis Stylianou into the cookpot that is the Crete paradise. Jikiun must have researched somewhere to discover a market where unique beers would take flight and fly. Sadly, I forgot to ask him about this. I know that my beer selections from now on just got a lot narrower and much more full-flavored. If you’d suggested that beer could be paired with food like the wines of Gavalas or Stylianou a year ago, I’d have laughed in your face. As I type this, I find myself needing some graviera and apaki to go along with an ice-cold Solo pale ale, one of my favorites from the tasting.
Finally, I found Kjetil Jikiun’s short beer history lesson most interesting, which revealed the 7,000-year-old tradition’s origins. The ancient Egyptians are thought to be the first to have documented brewing processes. And in Greece, remnants of brewing cereals and beermaking structures have been found dating to before 2135 BC. So, maybe the Norwegian beermaker has tapped into deep Minoan tradition anyhow! For more information, you can read more about beer in Greece on Wikipedia. As for my final take, I truly wish I were the budding expert my friend Nikos is. I can only tell you what I like, and these wonderful ales and other beers from Solo have converted me to seek out real flavors, real excellence, from now on.