war on the rocks

Liege of Malta: Microbrews in the Med

May 6, 2016

In real estate, it is all about location. The roughly 122 square miles of mostly weather-beaten limestone that makes up the Maltese archipelago bears this concept out, as the islands just south of Sicily have been conquered and re-conquered by just about every regional power looking to leverage control over the Mediterranean. Much of the evidence of multiple prehistoric civilizations—including still-standing temple ruins that predate Stonehenge and the Pyramids—has been covered with graffiti, repurposed, and/or otherwise obscured by a parade of foreign rulers: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Ottomans, Hospitaller Knights of St. John (a Catholic religious order drawn mostly from western European countries), the French, and the British. In World War II, the Axis Powers failed to take the islands, despite dropping more ordnance on Malta in just two months of 1942 than they did on London during the entirety of the Blitz. For their resilience, King George VI awarded the George Cross—Britain’s highest civilian honor for gallantry—to the entire Maltese population, a representation of which appears on Malta’s modern day flag. Independence finally came in 1964, with Malta becoming a republic in 1974 and acceding the European Union in 2004.

Malta’s latest would-be conquerors (if you exclude the tourist groups from northern Europe) are a group of Italian microbrewers led by Samuele D’Imperio, managing director of Lord Chambray Ltd. After missing my bus one afternoon, I accidentally wandered into the country’s one and only microbrewery, where D’Imperio’s business partner—and Italy’s leading master brewer—Andrea Bertola was holding court along with Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove, noted international beer judge and co-creator of the TeKu beer glass. Bertola was showing off the Lord Chambray portfolio, anchored by an English IPA, an American-style blonde, a cloudy blanche, and now expanding with a special bitter and a stout. At a four-seat tasting bar, from which the gleaming fermenter tanks are just barely visible, the half-dozen Italians debated the merits of different ingredients and processes into the night. I noticed, though, that both this group and the earlier handful of brewery visitors appeared devoid of locals.

In a country of only about 430,000 people, with virtually no endemic bar culture and one macrobrew label (Simonds Farsons “Cisk,” whose parent company represents a dozen international beer brands), Lord Chambray would seem to be at a disadvantage. D’Imperio has to first create the craft market in Malta before he can fill it, but his commitment to the product is obvious. Ingredients include expensive Belgian & English malts; reverse-osmosis water; and hops from as far away as New Zealand, Japan, and the United States. Instead of taking shortcuts that could technically allow him to brew and ship in just over a week, he allows up to a month for fermentation/lagering, plus an additional two-to-three weeks of bottle conditioning. A microbiologist works part-time in a dedicated, on-site lab to assess the yeast and quality control. The payoff, D’Imperio insists, is not just a better-tasting product when it leaves the facility, but also a significantly longer, more consistent shelf life.

D’Imperio’s gamble seems to be paying off. Though their product regularly sells for double the price of competing macrobrews, Lord Chambray already produces 90 hectoliters (close to 2,400 gallons) annually, putting it on the decidedly larger side of European microbrews, despite only having started operations in 2014 and employing just four people full-time. Last year, their English IPA won gold at last year’s Brussels Beer Challenge and their blanche earned gold from European Beer Star. The beer names, derived from places around the Maltese archipelago, are a bit of a mixed bag, with “Golden Bay” and “Blue Lagoon” sitting alongside “Fungus Rock.” Naming conventions aside, the brewery has made considerable inroads with local restaurants and Malta’s one higher-end grocery chain.

If a high-end microbrewery getting off to such a good start in a country so seemingly lacking in fundamental beer appreciation seems a bit odd, Malta is full of such mysteries. The Maltese language is, on the whole, quite distinctive, even though half of the words appear cribbed directly from English, French, Italian, Arabic, and even Greek. Many locations have multiple names or titles that sound nothing alike but get interchanged in everyday use. Though it is a small, island nation, the national cuisine celebrates rabbit and a local cheese (ġbejna), not seafood. WIth a population estimated to be around 97% Catholic, divorce wasn’t legalized in Malta until 2011, but the country also has some of the strongest and most progressive LGBT protections in the world. The churches are often grand (sometimes extreme) monuments to Baroque stylings; for example, the Rotunda church of Xewkija village (population: 3,300) has a larger dome than London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. This all means there is something of a steep learning curve for a foreigner on their first arrival.

Malta is both the name of the republic and of its largest island, where close to 92% of the population lives. Lord Chambray is brewed on Malta’s second-largest, and more rural, island of Gozo. Its residents, Gozitans, may correct you if you refer to them as Maltese—even, confusingly, if you mean it in the national sense. The third largest island, Comino, offers developed tourism infrastructure around one of Malta’s most scenic beaches, but has a permanent resident population of only four people. Meanwhile, some of the smaller, uninhabited islands are strictly off-limits without prior authorization, in order to help protect vulnerable ecologies.

Fortunately, no two locations in Malta are very far apart and the bus system, sadly depleted of much of its old idiosyncratic charm by a modernization push in 2011, offers a very comprehensive network. With transfer time, one end of the big island to the opposite corner takes a couple of hours by bus (the same can be done on Gozo in half that), and the twenty-minute ferry ride between islands runs every 45 minutes, opening up virtually every spot in the country to visitors for just a few euros. Of course, if you do miss your bus, you might just find yourself quaffing microbrews with Italian beer celebrities instead, which itself is a wonderful alternative.

 

Tim Choate works in Washington, D.C. as a consultant to nonprofits. He is also known to cook, take photographs, run for beer, and frequently find himself in unusual or bizarre circumstances abroad.

Image: Author.