I was watching out for a bloke with a dog. He’d texted me saying he was running late and asked if I was alright with him bringing the dog? Course I am mate. I was quite surprised when someone leaned over and said, ‘That’s him Rich, that’s the Stretta guy.’ What, no dog?
Okay the dog didn’t come, shame I quite like Alsations. Drink? Rude not to. So the first of what ended up being quite a few was a Stretta Transatlantic Pale Ale Muzajk (6.0%). Had to be really.
John Borg Barthet seemed confident, yet initially quiet and reserved, I think he was bit wary at first but we soon developed a rapport. He told me Transatlantic Pale Ale was the beer he wanted to brew, with his favourite ingredients and his favourite Mosaic hop. As opposed to his first commercially available beer, IPA No 1, which was brewed after endless blind tasting panels to get the recipe just right.
Maltese born and bred, John started home brewing when he was about thirteen, making fruit wines with his mother, later progressing to brewing beer using the same equipment. After a few years he started to get serious about brewing, reading, researching and painstakingly fine tuning his recipes.
To develop his IPA No 1 John used a tasting panel of friends and people whose judgement he respected; all of them beer lovers. Brewing several slightly different variations of the recipe, seeing what his tasting panel thought, refining the recipe and repeating the process until he achieved a beer everyone liked. Essentially the same process he employs in his day job as a lab based chemist.
Being a home brewer in Malta isn’t easy, everything has to be purchased online from abroad and shipped over. In the summer it’s hell, brewing at home in 37ºC temperatures which causes immense cooling problems. So much so, John ferments the product of his 20L brew kit inside a converted fridge freezer.
Likewise setting up as a brewery isn’t easy on Malta neither. John did lots of research but couldn’t really gauge how big the emerging craft beer sector might be on the island. It certainly wasn’t big enough for him to give up his day job and invest significant sums into a brewery start-up. He remembered reading somewhere that outsourcing was a good alternative to setting up a brewery. This lead to him becoming the farthest travelled regular Gypsy brewer that I’ve spoken to.
John’s first travels led him to a small brewery on a hill in Abruzzo, Italy, called Opperbacco, run by the owner, his wife and a handful of staff. John says they’re a pleasure to deal and work with, and he really enjoys brewing there. Initially he flew out for every 2000L brew. Repeated fights started to get a bit costly and after a while he implicitly trusted Opperbacco, so he left them to get on with it. At present they are doing a run of IPA No 1 every 2 – 3 months, most of it bottled but some goes into kegs and is available OTB in a couple of bars in Valetta.
IPA No 1 is a hoppy, citrussy, flowery, 6.3% brew that is dry hopped with Citra, Cascade, Centennial and Chinook which is also the bittering hop.
To be fair, I think it’s quite a brave step, despite the careful research and development, for a newcomer to go from a 20L pilot brew straight to a 2000L run in a foreign brewery with the intention of going straight to market. Although John isn’t going to retire anytime soon, his product took off well and has been a commercial success.
Transatlantic Pale Ale might be better off called Transeuropean, because John travelled to Belgium to brew his second commercial release. Why? He fancied a change and wanted to try different options. John thinks that if he’s going to travel to brew then he is going to go to the brewery with the best equipment and conditions for what he wants to produce.
After first trying elsewhere, he plumped for Brouwerij Anders in Halen, Belgium, a brewer John describes as being very technical. Initially John flew out to supervise the brew, using grains he had sourced himself. As they brew either 4,000 or 8,000L per brew they only produce Transatlantic Pale Ale every 6 months or so, all shipped to Malta in temperature controlled containers.
My favourite? IPA No 1, by a country mile, nice hop aroma, almost orange in colour, hazy, hoppy, citrussy, you can taste the malt, quite bitter and very drinkable. Best beer to come out of Malta to date and on a par with those coming out of Gozo.
The Transatlantic Pale Ale is pretty good too, it’s juicy with a lot of Mosaic fruitiness, and a greater complexity of flavour than what I’d normally expect in a UK style single hopped pale bitter. As soon as I was handed the bottle I knew from the aroma it was brewed in Belgium, there’s that sort of funky tartness to it, not sour, but nicely refreshing. Mrs C who’s tastes tend towards sour, thought it was a definite winner.
What set off as a drink and a chat, sort of morphed into a close on 3 hour session, it would have been longer but I needed food before the Rhinos game on TV. We took it in turns choosing the beers. I think my choice of Magic Rock High Wire and then Rapture went down quite well and we had er … quite a few of both. John was quite disappointed that they didn’t have any of the dark beers from Huddersfield’s finest.
I asked him what his inspiration was? He thought quite long and hard. IPA’s from Firestone Walker. Stone’s Ruination makes him envious, he wishes he could achieve a beer like that? When prompted for a UK brewer he quickly came back at me with Kernel.
Unfortunately beers like this are still not widely available in Malta. A selection of Belgian beers in bar is still quite progressive. I think things are changing though and quite a few bars have local, Italian and even British craft beers for sale and of course the two Stretta brews are a regular in anywhere half decent.
With people like John, and a few others, pushing the boundaries I think things will start to move on a bit in Malta. Mind you I said that 18 months ago! I’ll stick my neck out though with my prediction that it won’t be too long before John achieves his dream of setting up his own brewery on Malta.
Acknowledgements to Stretta for the interview and the image of John brewing.