A SLIGHT departure this week as this column goes international but there are parallels with the brewing industry here.
I am just back from a week in Malta, a favourite place, although not one in which I expect to find any beer I particularly want to drink.
Before I went, I googled microbreweries, Malta without much hope or expectation – but there is just one, on the small neighbouring island of Gozo, and I duly paid the Lord Chambray brewery a visit.
More than anything else, I was struck by the boldness, you might think craziness, of launching a small brewery in a place where very little beer is drunk.
Launching one in this country, you know that there’s a market. Although there are 1,285 breweries listed in the latest Good Beer Guide, and Britain has more breweries per head of population than any other country, the market is still growing and there’s still room for growth.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy – but it does mean you have a chance.
However, in Malta, a different story. The main brewer is Farson’s, who put a lager called Cisk into everywhere. It’s more palatable than much of what passes for lager here but it’s still a gassy, pasteurised, bland drink.
The Lord Chambray brewery, therefore, is an outpost in a beer desert. Why? Well, one answer is because the owner of the company is an Italian, Samuele d’Imperio.
I hadn’t realised that there is also a craft brewery revolution happening in Italy. The country is not famous for beer (let’s not mention Peroni!) although one of the foremost brewers in Britain, Stefano Cossi, is an Italian, the man whose innovations made Thornbridge Brewery an industry leader when he first came over here.
Samuele, an accountant, had been visiting Gozo with his family for 25 years and they fancied a property on the island. When he also decided he wanted to brew beer, he took the view that the Italian market is actually reaching saturation point in terms of breweries. That’s why he’s where he is.
It’s a mind-boggling challenge, a bigger one, albeit on a different scale, than persuading consumers to turn back to real ale in this country, where at least beer drinking was a tradition.
Samuele needs to persuade people to think of beer as they might wine. He needs to convince them that not all beer is a pale lager.
You can’t just wade in with porters, stouts and traditional bitters, therefore two of Lord Chambray’s initial three core beers are pale.
Golden Bay uses American hops and is floral and citrussy, fairly strong at 5%.
Blue Lagoon takes things on a little, a wheat beer with coriander and orange peel flavours at 4.8%.
And then there’s San Blas, an amber ale with a blend of hops at 5.5% and the only one you could describe as at all malty. This is the one, so far, that’s a real departure for the Maltese palette. It’s just won an honourable mention at the 2014 Brussels Beer Challenge, an accolade of which Samuele is understandably hugely proud.
His next plan is a stout. That really will be a departure. But Samuele takes lots of advice from Andrea Bertola, a master brewer revered as the godfather of Italy’s craft beer explosion.
“We want people to drink different,” he says.
“We want to share our pride and passion for brewing artisanal beers.”
Visiting the bright, new brewery (Lord Chambray have been in business for a little over a year, brewing only since June), you could be in any new microbrewery in England. It’s on a small industrial estate, it’s fronted by a neat bar with merchandise and beyond it you can see big, new gleaming brewing equipment.
We were made very welcome by Samuele’s partner, Valentina Rosetto, who also has a strong knowledge of the product.
The website for the company – www.lordchambray.com.mt – is sharp and informative and bursts with pride in what they are doing, which reminds me of so many of the best small brewers here.
Lord Chambray beers could make it to England, too. I’ve put Samuele and Valentina in touch with a distributor here.