The Malta drink experiment

Sep 2, 2009

Alcohol consumption in Malta is low compared to the rest of Europe. In fact, this study from the World Advertising Research Centre shows that alcohol consumption per capita is only one third of that of Luxemburg, the Czech Republic and Hungary.  Only the Swedes seem to drink less than the Maltese. The Malta government’s own figures show that 36 % of the adult population drinks alcohol at least once a week.
This goes up to 60.2 per cent for people aged between 18 to 24. Beer accounts for around half of the total alcohol consumption, whilst wine accounts for a third.

The beer market is controlled mostly by Simonds Farsons Cisk, which was founded in 1928.  Cisk is the flagship brand, with two spin-offs, the Cisk Export and the Cisk Excel.  Farsons also offers the Blue Label, the Hopleaf, the Lacto, and the Strong Ale.  They also have a Traditionnal Shandy, and they brew under license Skol and Carlsberg.  They are also in charge of most Imports and also control the soft drink market.


Here is the first drink we bought upon our arrival in Malta.  We had to go with the “National” beer, a Cisk.  A lager, it is fresh, crisp, rewarding.   It was selected as the World’s Best Standard Lager in 2007 by Beers of the World. It quickly became Melissa’s beer of choice in Malta, while I was a little more adventurous.  Our first Cisk was enjoyed in the Upper Barracca Gardens on our first full day in Valetta.


Most Maltese Wines are quite young, especially if the grapes are grown in Malta. (They import a lot from Sicily and other parts of Italy.)  A few vineyards are trying hard however to establish some quality products, 100% Maltese wine, but it is a challenge. Since the vines are still young, the quality varies a lot  and even locals tend to prefer Italian wines.
Our first lunch at Cocopazzo was chased down with a bottle of white from Medina Vineyard.  The ancient walled capital of Mdina passed from a vibrant, lively place to a sleepy “city of silence” when Valletta was founded by the Knights.  The Medina Vineyards collection of wines is produced from grapes grown all over the island but predominately from those grown in the surrounding area beneath the majestic silent city. The wine was fresh and fruity, and was not too bad with our fish dishes.  It
was, however, too weak for the ravioli.


We had our first – and only – Kinnie while waiting for the Marsamxett Harbour Ferry.  Farsons developed Kinnie as an alternative to the American Cola giants and other soft drinks who were building huge market shares in Europe after WWII, and it became Malta’s “National” soft drink.  Kinnie’s colour is a dark amber orange.  It is made from bitter oranges and a blend of herbs.  It’s taste, in my opinion, is not very good.  Think Jägermeister without alcohol.


After another day under the baking sun, we decided to stop for a refreshment at a cafe on the Piazza Regina, at the corner of Republic and St.Lucia’s Steet.  Melissa decided to stick with Cisk, but I decided to go for the Blue Label, which is a stronger ale. It was one of the first beers launched by Farsons, back in 1928. The Blue Label has a nutty flavour, with a nice mild bitter finish. The drinkability level is not as high as Cisk, in fact, most locals consider this a “dark” beer, although by all standards it is only of a  slightly amber, light bronze colour.


In the Grotto Tavern,  I was able to sample Farsons’ Stout, the Lacto. A Milk Stout, it has the usual touch of sweetness you expect in that style of beer. A nice dark chocolaty brown body, with a light chocolate milk-like head on top. It has a silky smooth texture and next to no carbonation. Smoky roasted grain is the main aroma coming through, and you can taste it too.

I had a couple with my meal, and since it was fairly low in alcohol, I didn’t feel guitly at all. (3.8% abv)  It was, however, not easy to find elsewhere and this was the first time I had seen it available.


I have got to admit that I had not seen such a concept before, and do not know why we haven’t thought of it here.  Party offices with a bar where activists, supporters and members can quench their thirst while supporting Social Justice.  Genius! The Partit Laburista has a few establishments across the country, and in Valletta (above, left ) they proudly invite tourists to come in!

The MLP lost the 2008 General Election to the Christian Democratic Nationalist Party by one seat, 34 seats vs 35. The Nationalists also have some establishments.

So we walked in the Malta Labour Party headquarters, a prime location on Republic Street. Pictures of the workers’ struggle in Malta greeted us, along with portraits of the leaders over the years. This was no ordinary tourist trap. The menu, for one, was not particularly appealing:

But they had a fully stocked bar, and we took the opportunity to try the Cisk Excel. The place was not very busy – this was the end of the afternoon, and a few blue collars were occupying the tables at the back of the bar. The tv was loud, folks were watching what is no doubt a popular soap opera in Malta. Not the same atmosphere this guy faced. Maltese is a tough language, near-impossible to learn, so I quickly lost interest in the TV and decided to focus on my beer – and on the extraordinary stuff on the wall, from paper clippings to plaques to pictures.

The Cisk Excel is a Low carbohydrate beer. A very pale yellow color with a very clean, white foam. Quite creamy. The Excel is lighter than the Cisk. Balanced and boring is how I would characterize it. The low carbonation make this beer easy to drink, no aftertaste, no nuisance. But I’d rather stick with the real stuff.

We left, wondering when the New Democratic Party will open its own bar in downtown Ottawa.


To complete this review, let me point out to a few other beers we enjoyed.  The Lander Bräu is imported from Italy, although it originates from Holland and is meant to be a Czech pilsner.  A pale yellow colour, small white head. Some awkward sweetness, with malt and hop hints. Boring and quite unbalanced.   The Hopleaf Pale Ale, like the Blue Label, is one of Farsons’ classic brew from 1928.  A slightly dark copper colour under a finger white head with and decent retention.  A sweet hop nose, with a subtle tangy flavour.  A bit heavy in carbonation, it tasted very nice, with ample fruits (apricot?) and not a lot of bitterness. Enticing beer, again harder to find in corner stores. A nice brew though.  We also enjoyed some Skol, brewed here under license by Farson’s.  I had first enjoyed Skol in Guinea.


When it comes to wine, even though we did find a few good local Maltese wines here and there, but they could not compete with their Italian counterparts.  Not that the local bottles were offensive, but Malta does not have yet the conditions to produce top-of-the-line wine.  Prices were reasonable, although not as cheap as France or Belgium. Some South African wines were also easily accessible, but it was much harder to find French wines, let alone South American or Australian wines.

But, by all accounts, local vineyards are improving, and have made significant steps in the past decade.  You can taste the youth and impetuosity in the products of the most ambitious producers, but most of the local winemakers are gambling on drinkability, avoiding complexity in order to distribute their merchandise now.


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