One of the highlights of the week was meeting John Pullicino, brewer at Farson’s Cisk, and a lovely man. As we walked out of the brew house our guide, Isabelle, pointed out this important looking bloke, saying we might want to speak with him as he was one of the brewers. Too right we did, and what a bloke he was. You could instantly tell that he was comfortable with himself, in all things, a clever man, contented.
He told us they used British hops for the darker beers and German ones for Cisk – Hallertau for aroma and H. Magnum for bittering, and that all the malts came from various sources in Northern Europe. John explained that you can’t really grow Barley on any scale or quality in Malta, the island is too arid and too small at only 17 miles long by 9 miles wide.
It was the little things he told us I liked, and the more you were interested the more he told you. He explained that originally the brewers were mainly British, with some German and Spanish brewers along the way, and it wasn’t until 1970 when the first Maltese brewer, Joe Naudi, was appointed.
John was very proud of the fact that he was the longest serving brewer at the company, where he’d worked for 32 years in the old brewhouse. He didn’t say anything, but I got the feeling he thought the old brewhouse was superior to the shiny, soulless modern one? A bit more hands on, an art more than a science.
All the companies brewers go to Heriot Watt to complete the four year degree in Brewing and Distilling, unless like him you are a double honours degree holder in Chemistry and Biology, when you only have to complete a one year course. John reckoned it was pretty tough to get into Farsons as a brewer these days. His son was currently studying for the same degree he took at The University of Malta, and having seen how much work was involved, John didn’t think he would be able to complete it himself. I think he was modestly underestimating his capabilities there!
He did say though, and this was the mark of the man, that when recruiting a new brewer he would rather see someone with enthusiasm, passion and dedication whom he could coach and mentor and allow to develop into their own style, as opposed to taking on an out and out academic performer.
One anecdote he related was about Joe Naudi’s son, Pierre, who followed his father and went up to Edinburgh to study at the companies expense, never to return, going to work at Tolly Cobbold instead! Looking back at past brewers, he said there was a newspaper advert in the company archives regarding a British brewer who was returning to the UK and selling his household effects, lock, stock and barrel including chickens!
John’s current role is principally developing specific projects these days. One of these included the management of the brewery water treatment plant. We all know how important water quality is in brewing, something even more critical in Malta as the islands scarce water is all obtained by reverse osmosis from sea water. If you’ve never drank Maltese tap water the best way I can describe it is just to say, you don’t really need to add much salt when boiling your veggies!
Because the public supply is the only source of water, this givers the brewer a big problem. Farsons operate their own reverse osmosis plant to turn tap water into a suitable brewing liquor. This isn’t exactly cheap, hence they operate on a 95% recovery of all waste water on the site, as well as generating 7% of their own power from solar panels on the roof, and producing their own CO2.
Looking forward, John was hoping this season’s hop prices were going to improve. Farsons buy on the ‘spot market’ and have no growing contracts. He thought the outlook and potential prices looked a bit gloomy. So much so, he and some of his colleagues were experimenting by growing their own hops at home. They hadn’t had any rain for over twelve months, and so far only the plants in John’s garden had survived the hot summer. He didn’t ever think it could be a commercial option but he was hopeful he could eventually get enough to do a small scale brew with.
Chatting to John and seeing the immense pride that he, Isabelle, and everyone we spoke to had in the company, sort of restored my faith in big brewing companies. Well … Farson’s at least. They might not brew any real ale, but they brew something that’s pretty nice to drink and different styles of beer. They also seem to be a very good company to work for. The sort of company where neighbours comment in hushed tones that, ‘He works for Farson’s you know – ’ Enough said.