I was looking forward to going back to Malta after ten years absence, and hoping that, in terms of beer, things might have moved on a bit? It’s not that there aren’t any decent beers on the island, there are, it’s just, apart from the mainstream continental type lagers, the only brewer is Simonds Farsons Cisk, and even then they produce many other brands under licence.
I tried every permutation I could think of on Google – beer, real ale, craft beer, you name it. The only new thing that got thrown up was a new brewery on Gozo, Lord Chambray and a blog about craft beer which was little more than a list of a few bars that had a few bottles of Belgian beers in the fridge.
Clearly a little more digging was required, some hands on environmental scanning and research. This, essentially, turned into a series of blog posts, a sort of beery round up of the island. A bit of history about Malta’s pubs, brewing – past, present and future, Malta’s first craft brewery and maybe their second, as well as the archipelago’s first brew pub and the green shoots of a Beer Revolution.
A bit of background is probably required, as there’s an undercurrent running through everything that happens on the islands. Basically, Malta is a very conservative sort of place where the old ways and traditions are still strictly observed. There’s definitely a clear hierarchy, which sometimes is obvious, and at other times goes unseen by an outsider, it’s only when you start talking to people that it begins to become clearer. Okay, it doesn’t manifest itself in the extreme violence that Mario Puzo describes, but … well lets say doing business in Malta can be complicated. Although it was never the intention to write about this aspect, you may detect evidence of these customs in the half dozen or so posts that will follow.
The colourful history of Malta has always fascinated me, particularly the period of British occupation (1800 – 1979), and I can’t visit the Malta WWII museum or consider the summer of ’42, Pedestal, Ohio and the brave islanders without significant amounts of Kleenex. So, I’m going to start with the Pub in Malta because amongst the myriad bars and restaurants there is actually a history of pubs. Places that call themselves pubs, which look and feel like pubs, and function like British pubs.
There isn’t, that I can find, any literature outlining the history of the British pub in Malta. I did however, manage to get a copy of Strait Sreet – Malta’s red light district revealed by John Schofield and Emily Morrissey. This fascinating, academic text, outlines the history of the eponymous street, but essentially their theory of the island providing a diversionary release for thousands of British servicemen, and occasionally women, over nearly two hundred years, translates to why there are British style pubs across Malta.
When I say pub, there is a clear distinction between the café bars and what essentially are British style pubs. There’s also a distinction to be made between what may call themselves pubs, but are actually café bars. Unlike British pubs in other holiday locations, especially on Spanish territory, these pubs are all run by Maltese families and I doubt you will (you won’t) find one that is in British ownership. Hence, I would propose that the Pub in Malta is a wholly Maltese phenomenon that arose out of a Maltese/British alliance over an extended period of time.
The first example is simply called The Pub, Archbishop Street,Valetta. There’s no fancy web site or anything just a Facebook page; around 95% of the population have a Facebok account, I was told. There are numerous online references to The Pub being the place where Oliver Reed tragically died whilst filming Gladiator. Some would maintain that it’s become a shrine to Reed? There are a few photos, but it’s not overwhelming.
The stand out for me are the naval cap tallies and other contemporary Royal Navy memorabilia that adorn the walls of the small downstairs bar. You can see from the colour of some that they have been there for some time. There is also an upstairs room which although undoubtedly a complex social archive of many years graffiti, is best avoided, especially what are meant to be the toilets.
The main bar itself is a bit jaded too, but it would probably be instantly recognisable to Matelots of the 70’s, 60’s and possibly earlier. On a late Thursday afternoon (tea time) there is a nice mix of British ex-pats and tourists with more people sat around the room and at the bar than there are on the tables outside, which is unusual when it’s been 28 C all afternoon. This distinction is clearly one of the factors that sets it apart from a bar where everyone seems to sit outside whenever possible. The tables on the pleasant Valetta side street seem reserved solely for smoking at The Pub.
The beer is the usual choice of Farson’s brands, their own, John Smith’s, Strongbow, etc and Cisk was €2.60, the ex-pats were all drinking the cheaper Marten’s at €2 per 50ml can, a Belgian beer best described as a Lidl/Aldi own brand type lager.
Despite it’s run down appearance there is no doubt that The Pub really is a pub, a place with atmosphere, where people can go and sit on their own or join in with a bit of friendly craic with strangers and friends.