Gold has been a symbol of wealth and prestige for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians treasured the metal’s rarity, brilliance, and malleability. Their love of gold also spilled over into a bubbly liquid as golden as the sands of the Sahara — beer.
The Egyptians drank it daily. The Pyramids of Giza were built by workers with a daily ration of almost five liters of beer. Gods and goddesses were even associated with it.
Malta’s close proximity to Egypt makes it a natural heir to the golden art and science of beer-making. At the center of the Mediterranean, the islands of Malta are increasingly a destination for culinary connoisseurs with a passion for the depth and complexity of this ancient libation.
Beer is becoming a reason to relocate to Malta.
Historically, people moving to Malta have been faced with a limited local selection of beer. For over 100 years, only one brand has been at the center of Malta’s hop culture.
However, a new generation of beer-makers are beginning to diversify the country’s selection of brews. They are creating an innovative mix of fruity, spicy, dark, and amber delights.
It could be the beginning of a “golden age” for Maltese beer.
History of Maltese Beer
The British brought beer to Malta. After capturing the islands from French forces under Napoleon in 1800, the British began to use Malta as a naval base. The stationing of British sailors and marines on the islands would require large amounts of food and supplies — including beer.
A Beer Legend Begins
In 1880, a brewery in Reading, England named H&G Simonds began shipping beer to the troops stationed in Malta.
Simonds’ beer imports reached their zenith during World War I, when Malta’s hospitals were treating wounded British troops from around the world. Recovering on the island, which invariably included the occasional beer, earned the islands the nickname of “nurse of the Mediterranean.”
In 1928, a Maltese entrepreneur by the name of Lewis Farrugia, together with his sons, launched Malta’s first local beer: Farsons Pale Ale.
Operating under the name Farsons, which was created by shortening his last name and merging it with “sons,” the company began also selling to thirsty British troops. In direct competition with each other, Simonds and Farsons decided to join forces. The new company was called Simonds Farsons Limited.
However, despite the merger, new competition was emerging. At about the same time, a wealthy Maltese banker by the name of Marquis John Scicluna entered the game.
Marquis had recently acquired a company that had just been granted the exclusive right to produce Bavarian-style lagers in Malta. He capitalized upon it immediately.
In 1929, just a few weeks before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, Marquis launched a Maltese icon: Cisk Pilsner.
Cisk: The Maltese Gold Standard
Cisk is the Maltese pronunciation for the English word “cheque.” Marquis John Scicluna named the beer after his father who had earned the nickname “Cisk” after popularizing bank cheques on the islands in the 1800s.
In 1948, after the Great Depression and World War II, the Cisk brand was acquired by Simonds Farsons. The newly merged company was named Simonds Farsons Cisk Limited.
Following the merger, Cisk grew into Malta’s preeminent national beer. The golden yellow label with red lettering is often found anywhere alcohol is served.
In an effort to capitalize upon the success of the Cisk brand, the company has diversified its portfolio beyond the original pilsner to include lager, low-carbohydrate, high-alcohol, and fruit-flavored beers.
The results have been impressive. In January of 2018, Simonds Farsons Cisk reported an annual revenue of over €95M and a pre-tax profit of almost €14M. The company’s pre-tax profit increased 18% over the previous year.
However, despite Cisk’s success, there is growing demand for new flavors and options. It is a demand driven by expats moving to Malta and a thirsty tourism industry.
The Importance of Water in Beer-Making
Malta is a relatively dry country. The country receives only about 550 mm of precipitation each year, making water nearly as precious as gold. In addition, Malta’s limestone is porous, which is good for producing Maltese wine, but not very helpful in collecting a year-round supply of potable water.
Water is the main ingredient in beer and usually makes up between 90 and 95%, depending upon the alcohol content. As a result, the quality and minerals of the water used in beer-making wields a strong influence over the final flavor.
For Maltese brewers, the shortage of water, together with its central role in beer production, offers a unique set of challenges.
Almost 60% of Malta’s fresh water comes from ocean water desalination. However, the water that emerges from the tap is still slightly briny and is not ideal for beer production. This forces brewers to invest in additional reverse osmosis filtration equipment.
Simonds Farsons Cisk uses nearly 100% of its water from Maltese sources and recently built a new water purification plant for €1 million.
However, for entrepreneurial craft brewers like John Borg Barthet, the founder of Stretta Craft Beer in Malta, securing pure water often requires partnering with established breweries outside of Malta.
European Sources of Water
“As a startup company without the resources available to start our own brewery, we had to gypsy brew our beer in foreign breweries,” says John, who has crafted two speciality pale ales called IPA No.1 and Mużajk. “The IPA is brewed in central Italy and Mużajk is brewed in Belgium.”
By establishing relationships with European breweries, John was able to bypass the need to depend upon Maltese water. While his beer recipes are designed in Malta, John’s use of other European water sources has created a wide spectrum of different flavors.
He describes his IPA No.1 as having citrus and floral notes and suggests pairing it with Maltese ftira bread sandwiches, pizza, or smoked beef. His Mużajk pale ale hints of papaya, bubblegum, and grapefruit and goes well with Maltese rabbit, quail, and soft and mild cheeses.
John’s craft beers are now selling at an average rate of 500 to 1,000 liters a month through a select number of bars and restaurants on the islands.
Internationally Sourced Hops and Malt
Malta’s hot climate and relatively small agricultural land means that Maltese beer makers must import their green hops and golden malt from countries in cooler, northern climates. For artists like John at Stretta, this presents an opportunity for international expression.
“[Mużajk] is made using the finest British pale ale malt called Maris Otter together with one of our favorite US hops called Mosaic, “ says John. “We used the term Transatlantic Pale Ale for this beer to signify our favorite from both the US and the UK.”
John is not alone in using far-flung hops and malt for craft beer creativity. On the island of Gozo, another Maltese brewery, Lord Chambray, is using hops from as far away as Japan and New Zealand.
However, Lord Chambray is also using ingredients native to the island, including caper flowers for their “Flinders Rose” gose beer, wild fennel for their “Nebula” brown ale, and local carob honey for their “Winter Ale.”
The Future of Maltese Beer
A vibrant tourism market and a growing interest in moving to Malta suggests a bright future for Malta’s liquid gold.