I read, ‘the Hole In The Wall has Potential Top Bar of 2017 written all over it’. Okay, I know it’s 2018, but only just, but how right the Lovin Malta website were, in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s the best bar I’ve ever visited in Malta, simple as, end of story.
I remembered the bar (est. 1922) as a bit of dingy run down place. Ian Schranz who fronts up the project, told me it was like that when they bought it from the family of the previous long term owner. He’d seen an ad on FaceBook so they got in touch, almost as a bit of a laugh, 48 hours later him and his brother David had bought the place. The notary (solicitor) told them they were crazy when he saw the books, but that was two years ago and from what I’ve seen over a couple of weeks, it’s doing pretty well now.
They kept the old place as it was for a while before closing and renovating it. Ian worked behind the bar for the first 6 months to gain some experience as he’d not got a scooby about how to run a bar. One area where he does have some experience is the music industry, Ian’s a founder member of BEANGROWERS a Maltese based three piece who’ve had some success, notably in Germany, and New Zealand. They’ve even played at Mixing Tin on Albion Street in Leeds.
This sort of explained why everyone behind the bar is musically inclined, most of them playing in bands themselves, as well as being Ian’s friends. He told me they’d had dozens of CV’s from really experienced bar staff, but he preferred to keep it intimate and friendly. It’s a strange philosophy, but it’s working, everyone behind the bar is unbelievably friendly and professional.
It’s the same with the gigs, rather than go out looking for bands they just let the musical itinerary evolve. You’re very likely to see new emerging local bands, or Ian’s friends playing their own music, but not semi-professional musicians knocking out covers. The background music follows a similar theme, think indie, think non mainstream modern classics. Mercifully, there’s no inane euro-pop belting out at the Hole in the Wall.
There seemed to be a lot of crossover with the UK scene, when I spoke to barman Sam Christie (pictured below) he was flying out to the UK the next morning to record an album at the University of Sussex with some British based sound engineers. He told me this second recording would be more focussed than his first album which only sold moderately well in Malta.
The UK connection doesn’t stop there neither. Yews, aka sound artist Yasmin Kuymizakis (pictured above) and founding member of Malta Sound Women Network is closely linked with well known UK artists, notably the Yorkshire Sound Women Network. I don’t think there was one of the staff that hadn’t spent time in the UK or Berlin, or both.
Okay, the big question for me was the inspiration behind everything? Ian told me the bar was more of a philosophy than a business, he wants it to be about having fun. He hopes people get it? I think they do mate, I think they do.
One of his anchors was the ‘Berlin bar’ feel, Ian’s spent some time in Berlin and he wanted to replicate what they had going on there. I’ve never been to Berlin, but if all the bars are like this then I’m going!
I reckoned the cast concrete bar top and it’s ‘fashioned from off cuts of timber’ front were straight out of Brewdog’s style catalogue. Apparently Ian had never heard of Brewdog, let alone been in one of their bars, but this led the discussion nicely onto the beer.
The lack of space ruled out draught ales, but in Malta these would only be Farsons products and mainstream mega-brands so it’s bottles all the way. To be fair, I reckon the local Cisk is a little sharper and more refreshing in bottles anyway. It wasn’t the local lager that interested me, although at €2.50 a pint bottle it was very reasonably priced. No, it was the selection of, I don’t like the term, but it’s ubiquitous out here, ‘craft beers’.
Star of the show; Inhaler and Cannon Ball from our very own Magic Rock (€4.00/330ml can). The rest of the ‘craft beer’ fridge contents were Belgium centric and everything was priced between €4 & €5. I thought the pricing quite odd, a can of Inhaler coming in at €4 but a Gulden Drakk at 10.5% was only €4.50. I guess the fact that everything has to be imported affects prices disproportionately. Mind you, Ian acknowledged I wan’t the first person to tell him he needs to sort his pricing out. Either way, I still think this is probably the best value, quality bar on the island.
I’m not sure whether it was my influence, or they just liked Magic Rock, but while I’ve been over here High Wire has appeared on the menu. Apparently they had Salty Kiss on at one point but no one got it and the staff had to drink it all! I guess that’s a fair measure of where the evolving Maltese craft beer scene is at the minute.
One beer I’d never seen went by the name of Stretta. Ian said it was brewed by a young local lad who approached them. As soon as he found out it was Maltese inspired beer he just had to stock it. The Stretta story is entirely a different tale, which I’ll deal with specifically in another post, suffice to say, it’s decent beer.
One idea Ian has is to start brewing their own beer. I can visualise a bit of a collaboration with a brewer, Ian and his staff coming up with ideas for an in-house beer. Only thing is the scope for this is limited in Malta, so if there’s anyone out there who’s got a brewery and a potential new market ..?
I’d been told that Ian (pictured above) had drawn a lot of the artwork on the wall. He said he’d maxxed out the budget during the refurbishment so he drew shed loads of people on the wall; portraits inside their own frame. Some were family, in memory of his mother, one of his daughter, the people who worked in the bar, a few friends and an odd celeb or two. There’s still some empty frames … just waiting.
As well as the modern influence there’s a collection of ships emblems saved from the old bar; names like Centaur, Crossbow, Wakeful, Bulwark and Scorpion. Another nice touch are the photos of all the previous tenants and war time naval photographs, in fact everything they could salvage from the old place.
The toilets are excellent, one for each gender with a shared basin, their USP being the stage is on top of them. Well, where else would you put a stage in such a small bar? Continuing the low budget decor, Ian printed out reams of his favourite posters and magazine covers and stuck them on the wall of the toilet block.
There’s seems to be scant regard for copyright over here and they’ve even knicked some well known album covers for the bars t-shirts (only €10). Ian reckoned it would be quite a coup if he got sued, think of all the free advertising. The He Man poster on the wall however, is genuine, a mate bought it for Ian from a car boot and it hangs there in the original battered ‘who framed a He Man poster in a gilt edge frame like that’ frame.
I could have chatted with Ian all night. What a lovely bloke, so enthusiastic, so passionate. A guy who empowers his staff who strives for quality with an accent on local. Okay the coffee is from Tuscany, but they know the people who supply it and the cakes are made by a lady who lives a couple of streets away.
Malta can be a bit polarised with it’s drinking establishments; football bars/pubs, young bars, older peoples bars, upmarket bars and never the twain, so to speak. Ian set off purposefully not to screen live sport and to create a space where anyone can blend in regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they think.
You might think it’s all a bit art house, but it isn’t. Early doors in the week and it’s full of multi national professionals from the island based gaming companies. At the weekend it’s local people, topped up with some older tourists like me who know a good thing when they see it.
Looking at what some of the bars in Valetta set off to do a few years ago (and then stalled), Ian seems to have picked up the baton and taken it further. If they keep going this way my prediction is it will be the Maltese bar of 2018 … 19 … 20?
The Hole in the Wall, Triq il-Kbira, Sliema, Malta.