The Brewery Tour

SFC brewery

As work on Farsons Brewery reaches a major milestone, Dan Anderson reflects on Brewery Tours worldwide

I caught up with an old colleague recently who told me that he was now doing some consultancy for a biscuit factory in the Midlands.

What do they do there,” I asked.

He looked a bit bemused when he gave me the unlikely response:  “they make biscuits there.”

Imagine that.  In this day and age.

It was a nice reminder though that – once upon a time – factories were for making stuff.  We made things in the factories, stored them in a warehouse, sold them in the shops.  We went to work in offices, had a pint or two in pubs, hung art in the museums and went home at night to sleep.  It all seems a charmingly antiquated notion.   Today, it seems, we are all working in our homes, sleeping in warehouses, shopping in factories and hanging art up in the pubs.  And just for the symmetry of it all, heritage destinations like The Old Royal Naval College, the V&A, Somerset House, and Ironbridge are attracting new audiences by – of all things – making stuff.

It’s into this upside down world that we wandered when we first started working for Simonds Farsons Cisk over a year ago.  As Malta’s pre-eminent brewer prepared to relocate operations from its original brewhouse into a new and modern facility, the company wrestled with the question of how to get best value from its vacated buildings while still respecting the history and heritage that they represent.  It has been a fascinating journey that reached a gratifying milestone last month, when Farsons presented its vision for the historic estate to its Annual General Meeting.  The plan is to comprehensively redevelop the old brewery buildings as a vibrant new office district and mixed use environment.  It is an ambitious statement of intent, unique in Malta for its quality and forward thinking.

Fourth Street was introduced to the client by Richard Tibbott who has been acting as the company’s main property advisor.  We prepared the original business plan and development appraisal for the destination, which helped to inform the concept that is now taking shape.  We then managed the design team procurement that ultimately led to the appointment of Ian Ritchie Architects.

It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Ian and his wider team – including TBA Periti, The Exhibitions Team, Butterfield Design, Equals Consulting and Doug King – as well as the local office of PwC.  If brewing quality beer on an industrial scale is the weird alchemy of craft, passion and commerce, then it is fitting that the whole masterplanning process has been a finely balanced mixture of visionary design, creative engineering and the economics of transformational development.  From the very first meeting, it was clear that the design team grasped the essence of what the client was hoping to achieve and with every new iteration they challenged us all to think more creatively about the project.  The architect responded with ingenuity and imagination to every obstacle that market, finance, planning, and operational constraints inevitably presented along the way, not only taking every challenge in stride, but as the inspiration for some new and radical solution.

And rarely have we worked with an in-house project team so dedicated to the brand and so passionate about protecting its integrity and values.  It is the stuff of esteemed family businesses, of standard-bearing export brands, and of companies that knowingly embody the whole industrial heritage of a nation.  Farsons is to Malta what Heineken is to Holland, Guinness to Ireland, Carlsberg to Denmark.  You don’t mess around with brands like that.

The resulting concept – inspired by the walled gardens of Malta and taking cues from the art deco colonnade of the original 1950s brewery – envisions a set of highly efficient and environmentally sustainable offices, punctuated by a sequence of landscaped courtyard gardens.  It will be anchored at one end by the transformation of the original Brewhouse into a whole new type of destination that blends beer garden, brewery, exhibition and workspace.

The ‘brewery tour’ has become a fascinating subset of the destination business.  It was fantastically lampooned by The Simpsons, with the first 10-minutes of the episode Duffless providing a crash course in every brewery tour cliché you can think of. Once synonymous with ‘free beer’ in concrete sheds, the traditional brewery tour was the working class cousin of the more refined winery tours of Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Tuscany.  In recent years, however, the brewery tour has become much more diverse and sophisticated.

Guinness Storehouse is the most popular visitor attraction in Ireland, converting an historic building into a 7-storey pint glass, full of interactive exhibits that tell the rich history of the brand and culminating in panoramic views from the Gravity Bar.  The Heineken Experience famously takes you on a multimedia journey where you actually ‘become the beer’ – shaken, stirred, baked and bottled along the way.  It is a much more spiritual experience at the Chimay monastery in Belgium, where Trappist monks have been brewing since the 1850s; while the Tiger Brewery in Singapore simply overwhelms you with the industrial scale of its brewing, bottling and canning plants.   The Brooklyn Brewery in New York proves, however, that you don’t need to have a hundred year history to provide an authentic and enriching experience.  It was founded just 25 years ago by a couple of home-brewers who refused to accept that New York ales could not compete with the national beers of the big Midwest breweries.  Far from a nostalgic trip down memory lane, the Brooklyn Brewery tour became a cool, contemporary feature of the successful marketing strategy that put a whole new beer brand on the map.

While ranking alongside all of these experiences, the Farsons destination will be totally unique.  It will feature the ‘staples’ of the traditional brewery visit, while seamlessly blending these with a contemporary working environment for other start-up businesses – where the next generation of Maltese entrepreneurs will be inspired and encouraged by the ongoing achievements of one of the country’s most respected brands.  And, of course, the core business of brewing Malta’s signature beer will go on all around it – as well as, I assume, a fair degree of consumption.

It will be the type of place that I can proudly describe years from now when somebody asks me about Farsons Brewery and says, “what do they do there?

I can look a little bemused myself when I say: “They make beer there”.