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Tears of Chios drive mastic business

Claudia Wiggenbröker Chios
February 5, 2019

The Greek island of Chios is the only place in the world where the multipurpose mastic resin is cultivated. It's used for refining desserts, drugs and cosmetics — and nowadays also for making beer taste (even) better.

Store in Mesta, Chios, offering mastic products
Image: DW/C. Wiggenbröker

People are busy as bees in the Chios Beer brewery. Brown bottles are being filled, labeled and packed into boxes. One of the wheat beer varieties with a light-blue label boasts a special ingredient: mastic, a tree resin.

Brewer Stella Dimistriado created this beer variety: It's her first formula, which took her nine months of intensive testing.

"Mastic is a unique product," she said. "Mastic trees only grow here, on Chios — creating a beer with mastic was an absolute must for us."

This tree gum plays a vital role for the economy of the island, which is located just across from the Turkish mainland. Many residents feel that because of the resin the economic consequences of the global financial crisis have not been as hard here as elsewhere in Greece.

"Many people here have a regular income," says Diomidis Georgiakodis. He transports the beverages from the brewery to its clients. "They work aboard ships — as skippers and engineers, or they cultivate mastic."

The tears of Chios

Mastic has been a part of the island's cultural heritage since 2014, with the substance often referred to as the "tears of Chios." The name is associated with the harvesting process. As of August each year, people start carving the bark of the mastic trees. Resin is created to close the trees' wounds, or — more poetically — the trees shed tears.

Gum drops fall to the ground and dry up to be collected by farmers toward the end of September. Some 3,000 of these farmers are members of the Mastiha Growers Association, which is located in Chios, the capital of the island with the same name.

A red carpet leads up the steps to the main hall. Receptionists help me find my way to Niki Galatoula, who works in the association's trade department. In a spacious office with a conference table, I find her swooning over the island's unique resin.

Resident of Mesta, Chios, riding a mule
Local residents in Mesta on the island of Chios in Greece don't mind the recent influx of tourists from EuropeImage: DW/C. Wiggenbröker

"It's like a superfood; it's got a healing effect and acts like an antioxidant — that is it helps against harmful free radicals."

And so, mastic can be found in drugs for stomach pain, toothpastes or body lotions. It's also been used in chewing gum for centuries.

New target groups

Which goes to show that mastic is cherished for both its health benefits and its ability to improve the taste of foodstuffs, at least in some regions. Galatoula mentions that in Turkey there are many food items that contain mastic, for instance cheese, milk, candy and rice pudding, but also coffee. It's used like a spice.

In 2017, a total of 120,000 kilograms (264,000 pounds) of mastic was exported, predominantly to the Middle East. But the trade association is looking to conquer additional markets. This is why mastic was presented during the latest Anuga food fair in Cologne. Galatoula says a couple of tradespeople showed some interest, but there are no concrete deals yet.

No mastic beer for the island

But not every resident on Chios is a passionate mastic fan. Brewer Stella Dimistriado herself confesses that she likes the substance in only two or three foods. Her boss, Iakovos Amygdalos, even says that mastic is really overrated on the island.

"Many of our products don't really need any mastic as it doesn't make them any tastier," he argues. "We don't distribute our mastic beer on our own island," he says, adding that it goes almost exclusively to Athens and Thessaloniki.

Greek entrepreneur Iakovos Amygdalos
Greek brewer Iakovos Amygdalos had his misgivings about launching a beer containing masticImage: DW/C. Wiggenbröker

That way, Amygdalos wants to prevent his beer from becoming a mere tourist attraction and "just another thing containing mastic."

For a long time the businessman refused to make a beer with mastic at all. His brewery has been around for eight years, and ever since then he's been asked by people whether there's a beer with mastic. In 2018, the brewery finally bowed to mounting market pressure.

Driver Diomidis Georgiakodis doesn't understand the restraint of his boss. "We need to do a better promoting job," he says. "The beer and the islands have to be seen as belonging together," he argues.

Mastic to draw vacationers

Georgiakodis hopes that the mastic beer will attract more European vacationers. Mastic is already playing a role in luring more visitors as Niki Galatoula explains:

"There's a tour provider that specializes in agritourism and shows visitors how mastic is cultivated."

The villages in the southern parts of the island where the mastic trees grow like Pyrgi and Mesta are among the most popular tourist destinations anyway. Some years ago, a big museum opened in this region, with an exhibition focusing wholly on mastic and its uses.

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