"Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink" —Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sailor stranded at sea must resonate with the residents of Malta.
The tiny European archipelago sits alone in the Mediterranean Sea, 90 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily and 120 miles north of Africa. At just 122 square miles, it is a nation surrounded by water but without any of its own. Across its three islands—Malta, Gozo, and Comino—there are no pure water sources. Malta has no permanent lakes, nor any serviceable rivers.
With water accounting for up to 95 percent of beer’s makeup, Malta is not the most likely place for a craft brewery. But Italian Samuele D’Imperio set one up anyway.
“I made a business plan and realized it was a good time to open a craft brewery, but not in Italy,” D’Imperio tells October. “Since my family has been coming to Gozo on holiday for 25 years, I said, 'Why not Gozo in Malta?'”
Fueled by a passion for homebrewing (discovered during a year in Australia) and a nose for business, the former Deloitte-chartered accountant set up Malta’s first craft brewery, Lord Chambray, in 2014.
Named for a nearby fort, Lord Chambray is tucked away in an industrial complex near Xewkija, a village of 3,000 famous for its grand church with a 246-foot dome. The brewery produces six permanent beers including a special bitter, English IPA, and golden ale, while winter and brown ales are among the seasonal varieties. The beer is unpasteurized, with a second fermentation occurring in the bottle and keg.
Malta’s second biggest island with a population of 37,000, Gozo has long lured tourists and movie crews thanks to its picturesque villages, ancient temples (which even predate Egypt’s pyramids) and dramatic clifftop scenery. But craft beer was something new.
The Maltese are not big beer drinkers. Research from The Brewers of Europe put Malta in the bottom third of European countries for per capita beer consumption. In 2016, people in Malta consumed an average 53 liters a year, more than the French and Italians, but nearly half as much as Germans.
D’Imperio called on renowned Italian master brewer Andrea Bertola for a craft beer education, learning everything from brewing and bottling to packaging and promotion. They spent two years working on production.
One of the first challenges was getting the right water.
“Water is the most important ingredient for a beer and Malta and Gozo are not famous for their water. The water is very strong here,” D’Imperio says.
“To solve this problem, in 2014 we installed a machine for reverse osmosis to purify the water. We treat all the local water with this machinery—we neutralize the profile of the water, and then we recreate the profile for each style of beer by adding different mineral salts.”
Another issue was tempting local tastebuds to try something different. In Malta, the beer market is dominated by Cisk, the local ubiquitous lager made by the Farsons Group. Farsons Brewery uses well water, water from Roman aqueducts, and desalinated seawater.
“It took more or less two years for locals to understand the meaning of craft beer,” D’Imperio says.
“I remember in 2014, 2015, you were talking to a Maltese person and you said in English 'hops,' meaning the flower. In the Maltese language, ‘hops’ also means ‘bread.’ So it was very difficult to explain.
“First of all, why craft beer is more expensive than industrial beer. And secondly, the taste. Cisk lager has been dominant for the last 90 years, so to approach the local community with a stronger taste, a different body, and different carbonation was not very easy.”
Lord Chambray found favor through local flavors.
“From the beginning, we have tried to involve local farmers as much as we can in the beer,” D’Imperio says.
Though the brewery’s hops are imported from all over the world, Lord Chambray beers utilize local ingredients like coriander, honey, white fennel, and wheat. Flinders Rose, based on a German gose, adds fresh, native caper flowers to the mash, while the winter ale uses local honey, ginger, and pepper.
Beyond satisfying a growing local market, the brews are also quenching thirsts internationally. The brewery exports 30 percent of its product, 25 percent to Italy and 5 percent to other countries, including the US. It also has proven popular with the international beer community. Within four years, Lord Chambray claimed 12 awards.
With sales increasing every year and a flagship store open in Valletta, Malta’s capital, Lord Chambray plans to expand its premises and production. Not bad for the only craft brewery in a country with fewer people than Atlanta, Georgia.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner suddenly seems less appropriate for Malta than Homer Simpson’s version, misquoted when he is stranded on a broken dinghy in the ocean.
“Water, water, everywhere,” Homer begins, “so let’s all have a drink.”