Lord Chambray definitely has to go down as the brewery with the nicest, most glamorous, friendliest tour guide ever! Valentina was an absolute star, she really made us feel at home. She’s passionate about the brewery and her role in Administration and Marketing for the company. I guess she would be really, her boyfriend Samuelle is both owner, director, and assistant brewer.
When I first looked to see if there were any new brewers on Malta, I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to find anything, Farson’s have pretty much had things sewn up for a long time, so I was pleasantly surprised when Google enlightened me about this new craft brewery on Gozo.
Just to save all the cask ale diehards the trouble of reading further, they don’t do any cask ale, sorry. They do however produce excellent unpasteurised, bottle and key keg conditioned beers; sounds like real ale in my book.
When I visited there was only Valentina around, the rest of the team had gone to a beer festival in Genoa and had all their return flights cancelled, owing to tragic incident at Luqa airport. They offered to meet up later in the week when they got back, but my busy schedule meant I only had one window of opportunity to get over to Gozo.
To some visitors, the fact the brewery is on a small industrial estate, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on the island of Gozo, may seem problematic. Don’t let it put you off, you can get a 7 day unlimited travel bus ticket for €21 and the ferry to Gozo is only €4.65 return. Make sure you are first off the ferry though, because the 301 bus which stops straight outside the brewery isn’t quite as big as the huge ferry, as soon as it’s full the doors shut, off it goes and you have to wait over 30 minutes for the next one! Me? We got Joe Baxi to take us to the brewery, €12 one way, and then continued on public transport. It’s only the buses at the ferry terminal that get rammed.
Brewery tours are available Tuesday to Saturday, between 1000 and 1800hrs. They’re currently free, but you have to book, and any beer you drink in the modern tap room has to be paid for although I thought the prices were reasonable. They have four draught beers on at any one time, plus their full range of bottles, along with a natty range of Lord Chambray merchandise.
I quite like the sense of being a pioneer and sussing new things out? That soon disappeared when the CAMRA branded leaflet display full of the latest ‘Swiggin in Wiggin’ magazines on the bar told me that Wigan CAMRA had beaten me to it! Valentina explained they get quite a lot of UK visitors and she was well versed on the CAMRA ethos. The Lord Chambray team had recently been at the GBBF and Valentina said she’d had a field day doing, first her own Cascade hop trail (mainly IPA’s), and then a separate dark beer trail.
On the brewing front, they mill all the malt on site, most of which is sourced in Belgium and the UK, although I spotted sacks of German produced (Durst) Vienna malt lying around. All the hops are purchased on contract from Worcestershire based hop merchant Charles Faram and the liquor is corporation tap water that has been through their own reverse osmosis equipment and revitalised using the Grander technique. Currently they are using Belgian and Danish yeast strains, but they are looking to culture their own yeast in house. They already have a small, but state of the art laboratory, and biotechnician, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a large modern beer factory. Very impressive, as was the shinier than shiny centrifuge which they use to recover as much water as possible from the spent grains, as well as for the filtration process, a feature in general of the Maltese islands. In fact if I hadn’t seen the beer store and some labels still in the bottling machine then I wouldn’t have believed they’d ever used any of the kit. They’ve been open and brewing since June 2014, and everything still looks all shiny bright and brand new.
The head brewer is Andrea Bertola, an Italian master brewer, best known for his brewing exploits in a prison. He acts in a consultant role to Samuelle who is also Italian. In fact everyone’s Italian, even the Spadoni brewing kit, at Lord Chambray which the D’imperio family named after the iconic Fort Chambray where they made their Gozo home after having holidayed on the island for the last twenty seven years. Signor D’imperio must have some serious dough if he can afford to set his son Samuelle up in an enterprise like this. I’ve seen it described as a micro brewery, it’s not, it’s bigger than that and certainly as big as North Brewing, or the original Northern Monk set ups. I bet you wouldn’t have got much change out of £60K for the brand new bottling machine alone.
In terms of brewing, there didn’t appear to be any short cuts. The brewing process takes around 45 days with a 12 – 15 day fermentation, then conditioning and further bottle conditioning for 15 days before labelling and despatching.
So, what’s their beer like? Pretty decent I thought. We started with the Sans Blas (5.7%), it’s billed as an English IPA, but it’s not, it’s much more hop forward, more a US craft style IPA. It was very nice though and was tasty, but well balanced. The second we tried was the Special Bitter (3.8%) which comes with a Union Jack styled label. Again, it was very nice, but it wasn’t really a typical bitter. Light in colour, clean, crisp, citrus and a little hazy because Valentina got carried away talking to Mrs C, and poured the bottle bottoms. Tell you what, I didn’t mind, I tasted a bit out of Mrs C’s glass, she got the top half, and there was no discernible difference. The brief notes in my book summed it up, ‘Not really a bitter, but stunning!’
There’s also; Wheat beer, Blonde ale, and a Dry Stout. I tried the stout (5.5%) in a trendy bar in Valetta a few days later. Like the others, it’s not a typical stout, it’s sort of a cross between a stout and a Black IPA, again it was very nice, apart from the price. At almost parity between Euro and Pound it worked out at about £5.40 for a 330 ml bottle. Nice but not that nice, I’m afraid. That’s the issue here for me. The brewery’s good, the people are good, the beers good, it’s just that the market isn’t there in Malta yet. It’s coming I reckon, and Farson’s have just released some stronger, dearer, premium beers. Even in the southern Mediterranean they realise that they can upscale the prices on the craft niche.
At present they are turning out about 1500 bottles, and a small amount of kegs on four seperate brews per month, although they have the capacity to produce around 20,000 bottles a month. Most of the kegs go to Italy and more recently to Tallin, but the bulk of their production remains in the Maltese island. It seems to be proving a bit of a difficult nut to crack and they’ve had to appoint separate distributors for both Malta and Gozo. I asked the obvious, but it seems supplying to bars direct is a non starter. Most bars won’t take anything except through their established distributor and Farson’s own 99% of the dispense equipment, so, apart from one bar in Marsaxlokk, it’s bottles or nothing.
I really hope that Lord Chambray crack the market, and then maybe get the prices in the local bars down to something more reasonable, yet still reflecting the fact they are making a premium product. If you’re interested then I would recommend a trip to the brewery and if you’re really interested, they are currently looking to team up with UK based distributors.