One brewer has absolutely monopolised the islands of Malta; Farsons Simons Cisk, who are part of the larger Farsons group and the only commercial brewer on the island. I’ve got a bit of a thing about monopolies, but I like Farsons products, so I decided I would do the tour of their Mriehel brewery. Unfortunately, whilst I was over there tours had been suspended due to a major overhaul in some production areas. Undeterred, I emailed them, and they were kind enough to properly roll the red carpet out and provide a bespoke guided tour. I thank them for that, I really enjoyed it, and it also changed my, possibly warped, outlook on big corporations.
The Zona industriali, Mriehel is not really a place you’d visit as a tourist, apart from the brewery, the only thing you might want to see is the fantastic seventeenth century Wignacourt aqueduct which runs straight past the brewery on it’s way from the springs in the west of the island to Valetta, a sort of 1600ish engineering masterpiece.
Because of my uncertainty around the bus routes/times, we got there thirty five minutes early, so we had a walk round to kill a bit of time. Now, if I said the brewery was large then I might be underestimating things. It took us a full thirty minutes to go-a-ganging and beat the bounds of the site.
We met our guide at the main gate, Isabelle, a lovely lady who had worked for Farsons for most of her working life. As she showed us round the site it was apparent she knew everyone, and everyone knew her, all part of one big happy family. It was also obvious that she was genuinely very proud of the organisation and the part she had played.
The most impressive thing about the site is the (now) old brewery and brewery buildings. A sort of impressive colonial cum art deco design that looked like it had resulted from a collision between some twentieth century government buildings and an Odeon cinema. Everything about it proclaimed power and esteem and a sense of history. You could even see the old coppers through the dusty windows. Eventually the old brewery will be turned into a museum and business centre, planned to open in 2021.
In terms of history, the company began in 1929 when the already wealthy Farrugia family merged their, mostly non brewing, operations with brewers Simonds. Without regaling a lengthy history; following the Beer Riots of 1919. Yes beer riots, due to price increases! Makes you think doesn’t it? Anyway Farrugia’s flour mills got burnt down so they diversified into other things. One of these was supplying industrial gases and so impressed with the quantities of CO2 that Simonds were buying they thought they’d have a go at brewing themselves! In April 1928, Farrugia launched their first beer at the Feast of St George in Qormi. Farson’s pale ale was named after the original Farson street, Hamrun based brewery, and is essentially the same Hopleaf beer they still make today.
I touched on the British influence on the island in my narrative about British style pubs and clearly the taste in beers was dictated by the British garrisonisation of the island. Indeed Simonds were a Reading, England brewer who gained a foothold through importing British ales for the servicemen stationed on the island.
At roughly the same time, 1929 actually, a guy called Scicluna started to brew a Lager beer which would turn out to become Malta’s iconic national brew, Cisk . Giuseppe Scicluna was a banker who introduced the concept of the cheque to Malta, the islanders soon corrupted this English word to Cisk, and Scicluna became known as ‘The Cisk’. I guess when he started The Malta Export brewery, his beer was never going to get called anything else. In 1948 they merged with Farsons Simonds and the rest, as they say, is history.
The brewery moved to it’s current location in 1951 and was actually designed by founding chairman Lewis Farrugia. He obviously had a long game strategy as he bought a lot more land than he initially required. For what is essentially a factory he did a pretty decent job of producing an effective working space that screams grandeur and importance at the same time. There’s even a state of Neptune outside the grand entrance, a nod to the classical figure which featured on the bottle labels of their first pale ale, and a device which still features prominently on many of their products. Once inside the brewery you feel more like you’re in a big hotel. There’s a real sense of history, little things like the original brewery clock and the now redundant punch clock hang on the walls with other memorabillia, including a rare Simonds of Reading pub mirror. I’d never been in a brewery with a 3/4 life sized image of Christ blessing the workers and the brewing process. Along a cloistered walkway, there are two apartments for the brewers, who were initially aliens, and their families.
The stately home feel is heightened once you enter the boardroom. I couldn’t put my finger on the style, Georgian style fan lit doors meet southern Europe, with more than a hint of art deco. If you just think Grand, then you won’t go far wrong. Portraits of the founders and chairmen, sons of sons of chairmen and the like, adorn the walls around a mahogany table. There’s some very large old copper beer flagons on an ancient sideboard and wherever you go all you can see is this massive, magnificent tapestry; The Banquet of Alexander by Urban Leyuiers. It was made sometime between 1730 & 1740 and is one of eight, the other seven now hanging in museums in Germany. I think it’s testimony to the sort of heritage the Farrugia’s wanted to associate themselves with, for a lot of modern uber rich these days it would be a monstrous yacht. Maybe they’ve got one? There’s nothing wrong with being rich, but somehow I don’t think they will, actually.
I asked whether the board room was still used? Isabelle said that apart from award ceremonies and parties for retiring employees, it is seldom used. I think that’s a nice touch myself.
Photos weren’t allowed in any production areas, although there are some on the company web site. The €12 million state of the art brewhouse, opened in 2012, looked more like something from NASA, a gentle hum and two guys sitting in a control room was as exciting as it got. The statistics are a little more spectacular; using the mash tun, lautering vessel, wort kettle and whirlpool sequentially, with a two hour start up and a total brew time of 8 hours, they can output six 200 hectolitre brews per day. Each brew is equivalent to 70,000 bottles and six brews go into one of the thirty giant fermenters/conditioners. One and a half weeks fermenting, two weeks maturing, then through a sand filter and into bright beer tanks before the bottling/canning/kegging process.
They were brewing Carlsberg Lager when we dropped by. That may be surprising, but Farsons have really got the brewing industry on the island sewn up. As well as the nations favourite drink and the old timers, they own more other brands than you can imagine, importing or brewing under licence; Carlsberg, Skol, John Smiths, Guiness, Bud, Wychwood, Hoegarden, Leffe, Strongbow, S & N. I could go on, they even make Coca Cola and the islands signature soft drink Kinnie, which they invented in 1952. Suffice to say, if you go into any bar in Malta or Gozo, you can be guaranteed nearly everything on sale will have been sourced or made by Farsons’s. Lowenbrau had a go at brewing on the island a few years back but they didn’t last long, so tight is the Farson’s stranglehold on the market. The Times of Malta tells me Lowenbrau operated from 1992, using solely Maltese workers, until 2012 when the brewery was turned into a supermarket.
The latest investment is the impressive €27million bottling and canning plant. On three separate production lines they can fill bottles, cans, or PET containers. I never realised that PET bottles start off as hard, almost solid, vestigial miniatures of bottles, before getting blown up, into what is the end product, on the production line. The bottling plant had quite a mesmeric effect with the bottles of Cisk clinking around, and it was only the promise of some free beer that got me out.
The only beer they didn’t have in the company bar was the one I’d been searching for all week, Cisk Strong (9%). There isn’t much about because it’s specifically made for the Italian export market. Have to go to Italy next then! They had all the other Cisk variants, Excel – low carb (4.2%) , Pilsner (5.5%), Export (5%), Lemon and Berry (4%). If I’m honest, none are as good as the original (4.2%), a nice cold beer for a hot climate in a beautiful country, they recommend all the Lager beers are kept at between 4 – 7 0 C.
That’s not the case with the top fermented ales which are recommended to be kept at 12 – 14 0 C, although you’ll see them sitting alongside the Lager bottles in most outlets. I tried a Double Red (6.8%) a strong ale and it was nice; deep amber and not quite red in colour, malty, fruity, nearly fruit cake fruity, it’s one of three recently launched, along with a proper English style IPA (5.7%) and the re-branded Blue Label (4.7%). The latter is causing some concern amongst the older Maltese drinkers who like a few on Sunday mornings, effectively their Sunday lunch session. Previously this, slightly darker, softer and maltier than Hopleaf, ale was only 3.3% and ideal for session drinking, and they prefer it to the stronger version. Lacto milk stout (3.8%) completes the line up, and Isabelle told me it was making a bit of a comeback, although Cisk had dominated the market since the 1970’s (incidentally, around when the British service personnel started to leave) the more traditional beers were certainly becoming more popular.