Blue Label, Calders, and Cisk: Beer & Malta at War
The Royal Navy and the army’s garrison were no strangers to the occasional (or daily) drink. In 1875, a local agent of the brewer H & G Simonds was set up in Malta. From then onwards the local British garrison had access to Hopleaf pale ale. In 1928, at the village feast of Qormi, Farsons, hitherto producers of CO2 under the name ‘Farrugia and Sons’, distributed its first beer, storming the market. Less than a year later, beer would be produced on the Island under the newly formed company ‘Simonds-Farsons’, besides the Malta Export Brewery which was famous for its ‘Cisk’ and its eventual post-war merger with Farsons. Before and during the second world war, there was also a third brewer; James Calder & Co, albeit having the smallest output of the three.
As in other mediterranean countries, the island was more accustomed to the fruity, sweet-dry taste of wine. The garrison’s pale ale was alien in taste, but eventually gained popularity. Beer and empire were intertwined. In ‘The Saga of Simonds Farsons Cisk’ Sammut notes that the brewery was already exporting beer to Egypt and Palestine in the 1930s, especially after the fall of Tripoli and the failed attempt to open a bottling plant in Alexandria in 1936. Kenneth Thomas was right to say that ‘Wherever the armed forces went, Simonds’ beers were never far behind’ (Micallef p. 89-90). Where other industries suffered terribly in war, Simonds-Farsons found themselves essential producers of the British military’s tremendous need for beer.
In Malta the local pallet slowly oriented and aligned with that of the empire’s military machine. However, by the Second World War, Hopleaf and Blue label co-existed with Cisk lager, a German influenced drink. It was not the only indirect influence of Germany in the local industry at the time. In 1938, Simonds-Farsons’ head brewer left for his home in Austria as the looming war became a certainty (Micallef p. 93). This was also a time when the Brewery braced and prepared itself for the oncoming conflict.
Besides the early war debates on beer duties, at some points throughout the war Simonds-Farsons could not make beer; its absence a stark reminder of Malta’s dependence on convoys. As early as November 1940, ‘special consideration’ was given to the importation of malt to Malta, in recognition of the importance of beer to the growing number of troops stationed there and the dwindling stock of materials required to produce it. A letter from Simonds-Farsons to the local government urgently requests shipping space in convoys before stocks run out in April the following year. It also declares that they were lending stocks of Malt to the other local breweries, and their request to import more from America and Canada had not been accepted.
Meanwhile, Farsons’ limited sources of Malt kept being narrowed down as more countries fell to the axis forces. By 1940, four Czechoslovak exporters could no longer send their Malt to Malta. However, almost 5,000 of their jute bags were acquired from enemy captured property stocks by Farsons for refugees’ needs such as bedding, pillows, and as sand-bags by the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) in Rabat, the Parish Priest in Zebbug, and others who requested them, such as Hamrun and Floriana, throughout the war. To assist the war effort Simonds-Farsons also sold bales of straw used to ship glass beer-bottles to the government for use by evacuees (2630/1940).
After the war, Czechoslovakian suppliers asked for their jute bags back, which were in short supply. Some were lost to enemy action on Farsons’ stores in Marsa, and a substantial amount were used for the war effort, which was awkward to explain when relations were re-established. The scarcity of jute bags was already problematic in 1940. One Hungarian malthouse would not export unless its bags were returned which were, of course, impossible to deliver. Farsons suggested that the precious bags can be re-utilised to ship to Malta from neutral countries, despite the fact that they were marked with the names of enemy firms. Since Italy had not entered the war yet at the time, the scarce jute bags were sent to Hungary via Trieste instead, resolving the problem. (1037/1940)
The kettles kept on brewing, but Beer was already rationed and in short supply by June 1941, in some cases as low as ‘two bottles per man per week’. A letter from the Camp. Commandant of the St. Paul’s bay rest camp, on behalf of the owner of a local hotel, desperately asks for extra beer as troops were forced to indulge in wines and spirits. The director of Simonds-Farsons replied that they were “inundated with letters and verbal requests not only from Barkeepers but also from from Military Units, who write to us in the same strain that you have done” (1606). A lack of beer was deemed too dangerous to prolong in bars and ‘beach and other isolated posts’ because of the fear that soldiers would go for stronger drinks and slip into inebriation. This was not an unfounded fear. The war diary for 1940 of the 8th Batt. Manchester regiment records that on the 29th of June “four public houses in St. Paul’s Bay were […] put out of bounds to troops. This is to try and reduce the number of cases of drunkenness” (WO 169/913). More so, it was preferable to have well stocked N.A.A.F.I canteens within camps and bases so personnel would not have to disperse and take up leave to head to civilian bars.
In January 1941, Hop-Leaf Magazine, Mr F.A. Simonds states: “send a message of greeting and congratulations to our associated company in Malta, Simonds-Farsons Ltd., who, as you know, are endeavoring to continue operations in most arduous and perilous surroundings. We are doing everything in our power to keep them supplied with the requisite brewing materials. The gallant defence of the population of Malta against the Italian brigands has won the admiration of the whole Empire.” At the time, Simonds-Farsons had just enough malt to last until the end of the year. Nevertheless, a letter from the N.A.A.F.I. headquarters in St. James calculated that Malta hosted, on the 12th of June of 1941, 16,000 personnel; 3000 Navy, 11,700 Army, and 1,300 RAF (Royal Air Force). “To provide one bottle of Beer per man per day” it was estimated to require 9334 doz. a week, 3736 doz. short of what they were receiving from the local breweries at the time. This newfound shortage sparked talks with the three breweries to increase their production and supplies. Four days later, the rations for beer such as Blue Label almost doubled.
By August of 1941, the military accepted delivery of beer in quart as opposed to pint sized bottles to address the scarcity of the latter. They were also brewing at night three times a week as suggested by government to save precious coal (1606). In January 1942, Simonds-Farsons supplied half its production of beer to the N.A.A.F.I, which was 9,000, but overall production was lowered from 18,000 to 14,000 to economize on electricity for the war effort, which meant that the services only received 7,000 dozen boxes of beer. In July of 1942, the brewery was ‘totally suspended’ due to a lack of malt which was sold to the government (561). Just a month earlier, the N.A.A.F.I. required ‘12,000 dozen bottles a week’, 8,200 of which from Simonds-Farsons (1606). James Calder & Co Brewery sold all of its product to the N.A.A.F.I due to the fact that Calders could receive their raw material through their supply lines on that very condition. A similar agreement for the shipment of Malt was also held by Simonds-Farsons, although they could produce enough beer to address both military and civilian demands. Meanwhile, the Malta Export Brewery eventually resorted to a Yugoslavian malt exporter, but still managed to supply 2070 dozens to the canteens and 1674 doz. to other “messes and clubs” around Malta, totalling 100% of its output (1606, 975-1941).
Although rare, there were times when beer was completely absent on the island, particularly in the latter part of 1942. An official report by the 10th Heavy Anti-Aircraft regiment for August states that “Beer and spirits are still unobtainable” (WO 169/7412). Even so, this shortage was often due to a lack of fuel-oil to power the Brewery’s generators, rather a lack of material. This contrasts greatly with the atmosphere of Operation Husky the following year.
Beer production and consumption skyrocketed in the months leading up to the allied invasion of Sicily. This would explain why, after the British and allies entered Tripoli in January of 1943, Simonds-Farsons were responsible for utilizing the then ex-Italian ‘OEA’ brewery to produce beer for thousands of troops in North Africa and the Mediterranean. This is attributed to Farrugia’s scouting on behalf of N.A.A.F.I in North Africa and subsequent suggestion (Micallef p. 107), although other researched explanations exist. It would be reasonable to suggest that the drink was staple among the ranks, however the brewery was still struggling to go into operation in October, let alone keep up with the demand.
The dream of creating a new company and site in Mriehel was already brewing in Farrugia’s mind during the war (Micallef p. 108), made possible with the prestigious N.A.A.F.I. contract in Tripoli. Soon after, the impossible was achieved when the breweries merged to form Simonds-Farsons-Cisk in 1948 occupying the most advanced brewery in Malta at the time. The old brewery still stands and has been recently restored to its original splendour. It is, arguably, a monument to the beer industry during the Second World War.
John Micallef, ‘Lewis V. Farrugia: A Man of Substance’, Farsons Foundation, 2001.
Sammut, Edward ‘The Saga of Simonds Farsons Cisk’, Simonds Farsons Cisk Limited, 1988.
Simonds, F. A, 1941, The Chairman’s Speech, The Hop-Leaf Gazette: The Monthly Journal of H. & G. SIMONDS, Ltd. , ed. By Charles H. Perrin.
Simonds Family.me.uk, ‘ The Maltese brewery Of Simonds Farsons Cisk Ltd.’, Acessable Online.
National Archives of Malta:
Permission for Anthony W. Zarb to proceed to Tripoli. CSG-01, 7030, 1943.
Supply of Beer to the N.A.A.F.I. BY Messr. Simonds-Farsons Ltd. for consumption by troops, 1606
Use of bags belonging to Enemy Firms for Importation of Malt from neutral Countries, Simonds Farsons Ltd, 1940, CSG-01-1037/1940.
Government assistance to secure importation of stock of hops purchased in Yugoslavia by the Malta Export Brewery and at present detained at Haifa, CSG-01-975-1941.
Purchase of Bales of Straw from Messr. Simonds Farsons for use as bedding by evacuees, 1940, CSG-01-2630/1940
Brewery for Tripoli, CSG-01-535-1943
National Archives, UK:
War Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, 1940-1943.
War Diaries of the 10 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery, July-December 1942.