Outpost of British Empire harbours historic brewery

09 February, 2007

Malta is the home of Cisk, invented by former reading-based Simonds brewery, and this tourists' favourite is enjoying a UK revival. By Jeff Evans

More mature beer lovers will have fond recollections of a brewery in Reading called Simonds. It was founded in the late 18th century and taken over by Courage in 1960. The Simonds brewery in the centre of town was demolished at the turn of the 1980s and usurped by a state-of-the-art facility now familiar to travellers along the M4 .

Although Courage rapidly confined the name of Simonds and its hop-leaf logo to history, there remain s one place where you can still drink Simonds beer, thanks to its enterpris ing 19th-century management. It's on a small Mediterranean island with strong British connections.

I n 1880 Simonds began a drive to put the malt into Malta . In the days of the British Empire, our troops were stationed there or used it as a staging post. Spotting the market for good old British ale, the Simonds team set up their office, importing casks and bottles of beer to quench the soldiers' and sailors' thirsts.

In 1929 Simonds became even more integrated into the island's community when it merged its local interests with Maltese brewer Farrugia & Sons, commonly known as Farsons. Throughout the war, locally-brewed ales - a rarity in the Mediterranean lagerlands - maintained the spirits of Maltese and military alike, despite the bombing of the brewery.

In the post-war years a new brewhouse was constructed in striking art deco style in open countryside. At the same time, a third brewer joined the business. The Malta Export Brewery had been founded with the help of noted Munich brewery Augustiner, so its beers had a distinctive Germanic character. In essence, they brought lager to the ale party.

The family that owned the Malta Export Brewery was also heavily involved in banking and named its main beer Cisk (pronounced "Chisk") after local slang for the word cheque. Thus Simonds Farsons Cisk was born, although Farsons is the name most widely used today, with the Farrugia family still at the helm.

The twin portfolio of ales and lagers continue s to be popular in Malta. It's also caught the eye of British holidaymakers, who have been surprised to find British-style ales brewed locally. Now Farsons is looking to capitalise on the history and culture of the brewery to open up business in the UK.

"The heritage of the brewery and its British connections gives us a useful springboard for the UK market," says John Roblings, installed this year as Farsons' UK manager. "Malta has welcomed millions of tourists from the UK in the past two decades, so the brand is already well known to many British drinkers. Holidaymakers asking where they can buy Cisk back home, as well as the explosion in sales of imported Mediterranean lagers, have prompted us to set up our UK operation."

Leading the Farsons package is Cisk Export Lager, a 5 per cent abv beer added to the range in 1997. It's an upscale, more mildly hopped version of standard Cisk and was created to cater for Malta's younger drinkers who were finding the original too bitter . Between them, despite an influx of international lager brands, the two Cisk lagers maintain a high profile on the island.

John Roblings is looking for liaisons with regional brewers to take the beer into the UK on-trade and is also pushing hard at the off-trade, hoping to cash in on Cisk's reputation as a classy, refined lager with an unusual heritage, and building on numerous awards the beer has collected.

There are no major plans for advertising on a wide scale as Farsons believes in in-store promotion. "We'd rather build up an asset base of customers who taste the beer than work on image alone," says international business director Stephen Sultana.

Following Cisk into the UK trade will hopefully be Hopleaf Extra, a 5 per cent abv bitter based on the original Simonds recipes. Surprisingly, for a beer of such a vintage, it pours a bright golden colour - proof that golden ales were around long before the current trend started. In keeping with its name, the beer is crisp, toffeeish and hoppy, brewed with British malt and hops. Completing the Farsons package is a tasty milk stout called Lacto that, given a fair wind, could do some damage to the established Mackeson trade.

Malta is a tiny country in a state of flux. It has just joined the EU and within a couple of years will switch currency from the Lira to the Euro. Building work is taking place all over the island, with new infrastructure changing the landscape. It's a similar story at Farsons. It is just completing a new soft drinks plant and will next move on to a new brewhouse, due to open in 2008. It's being designed to cope with the export business . However, unlike at Reading, the historic brewing vessels are not being trashed: they will hold their place as part of Maltese brewing history when the current brewhouse is converted to a museum.

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