I spent the last week in Malta. It being a warm Mediterranean country, my beer expectations were pretty low. There wasn't even a ropey brewpub making vinegary lager to drag the wife to. It was a week off from beer geeking as well as everything else. Well, almost.
I didn't set out to tick all the beer in the country. It just kind of... fell my way. That there's only one national brewery helps with that: Simonds-Farsons-Cisk founded in 1928 when Malta was still a garrison island crawling with thirsty British troops and sailors. Cisk is their flagship lager, deriving its name from the Maltese for "Czech". It's typically pale and fizzy, 4.2% ABV, but packs a bit more lemony bitterness than others of the genre. As a result it works wonders when cold, clearing the dust from any parched throat with aplomb. It does get a little sweet and sickly when it warms and, unfortunately, it's too fizzy to down quickly so my top Cisk tip is to eschew pints for smaller measures.
Let's talk brand extensions: we have the cruelly misnomered Cisk Excel, a low-carb lighter version which tastes of almost nothing. And for the real men, and the homeless ones, there's Cisk XS: a hot and gloopy 9% ABV version, packed with the golden syrup flavour of classic Churchillian special brew, plus an interesting sort of pineapple flavour that emerges as it warms. And in between there's Cisk Export: at 5% ABV it lacks the refreshment power of standard Cisk but makes up for it with its fuller body and deeper bready malt flavour. A Cisk for the evening session.
And if all this is too classy for you, there's also a budget lager: Skol, brewed under licence from Carlsberg-Tetley in England. 4% ABV and as watery and hollow as you might expect. About €1.50 will get you a half-litre can in lots of pubs. Worth it? No.
Mystery beer of the trip was 1565, named for the year of the Great Siege and branded in a suitably patriotic manner. I suspect they're overcompensating for the fact that this probably isn't brewed in Malta at all, produced at location-unknown for a would-be rival of the national brewery. Full marks for trying, but I can't see it working too well for them; not with a thin and quite musty product like this.
Like several other former British colonies, Malta maintains traces of a more northern European brewing heritage, one which has gradually evolved to suit the warmer climate. Lacto milk stout is still around, though only in the off-trade. I reviewed it some years ago here. Brand leader among the ales is Hopleaf, usually sold bottled or canned, though I understand a draught version also exists. It's 3.8% ABV and usually arrives cold and fizzy. Refreshing, in its own way. In the background it's just posible to detect the English hops, waxily bitter with a trace of fruity orange pith. For me it just wasn't full-flavoured enough to suit me as a bitter, nor refreshing enough to have the beatings of Cisk. Nice for a change, but I found it hard to like.
And then there's Blue Label. First time I spotted this it was on tap and arrived nitrogenated, a pale red shade. It was sharp, a bit sickly, and just not pleasant drinking. How much of that was down to the dispense I don't know. So on the last day of the trip I picked up a can of it and the Hopleaf to give them a proper side-by-side back at home. Blue Label is certainly darker than Hopleaf and half a percentage point weaker at 3.3% ABV. And it tastes darker too: brown sugar and treacle. The hops are restrained to a very slight tang at the finish. Not something I'd go running to, and I think Hopleaf has the edge on it, but a hell of a lot better than the keg version.
So that's Malta in beer. It's good to be home.
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