The Malta Independent 22 October 2018, Monday

Cospicua’s beer in Poland

Simon Mercieca Monday, 1 January 2018, 07:51 Last update: about 11 months ago

This time of the year is normally associated with alcohol consumption. It plays an important part and is today’s main protagonistof this festive season. Directly related to the production of alcohol in Malta,I recently received an interesting email from Poland which I would like to share with my readers. This email reveals that following a recent discovery in Poland, Cospicua must have been a pioneer in producing beer locally.Today, no one would associate Cospicua with beer production.

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Andrzej Kuczkowski,a Polish archaeologistfrom the museum in Koszalin (Northern Poland) has shared this interesting discovery with me.He was also kind enough to also send me photographs of thisteam’s interesting find. In his own words, ‘During excavations, we found a glass bottle with inscription, M. CALLUS&SONS/COSPICUA”. It’s a unique find in whole Poland. We believe that bottle was made for brewery in Maltese city Cospicua.To this I add that this find is also of great interest to Malta’s industrial history.From the photograph, I tend to agree with the archaeologist that from its beautiful brownish colour, thisparticular bottle was used for beer. This type of colour isnormally associated with beer bottles.

Italso goes to show that the Callus family was so strong economically that it could have its glass bottles personalised by having its name embedded in the glass. And so proud were the Callus of their origin that they even included their hometown Cospicua.

Today, the name Callus bears no association with beer in Malta and very few know anything about this family and its business interests. What has come as a great surprise is the fact that this bottle ended up in Poland. How and why didit endin northern Poland still needs to be established. Were the Callus exporting their beer or was it taken there by someone as a souvenir? The fact that this discovery is unique for Poland points to the latter explanation.

Most probably, the letter M stands for Michele but there again,this is just a conjecture. Preliminary research shows that the Callus family was notthe only family from Cospicua producing beer. I am told that Farsons, that is Farrugia & Sons, also originated from Cospicua.During this period, Farsons, Cisks and Simmonds were three separate and different companies, each one with its own separate production of beer. In Cospicua, Farsons had its stores next to St. Therese Convent, in what appears to have been one of the magazines built in the late eighteenth century by the Order of St. John as a store for its ships-of-the-line, known in Malta, as vascelli.

My father’s uncles, known as Ta’ Żabbett, used to distribute Farsons beer at Cospicua. The Żabbetts were chandlers from Tarxien. I still have a photo of their horse and cart loaded with wooden crates containing Farsons’ beer. The photo was taken at Verdala Bormla sometime around the First World War.

In fact, Cospicua, at the turn of the twentieth century, was a thriving town and in terms of business ventureswas competing with Vallettafor commercial predominance. Proof of this can be found in Allister Macmillan’s book, Malta and Gibraltar, published in London by W.H. & L. Collingridge, in 1915. Macmillan edited the book which includes a number of interesting articles and contains an interesting overview of the main businesses operating in Malta at the turn of the twentieth century. While Cospicua takes pride of placein the book,however it carries no information about M.Callus & Sons.

I have tried to figure out where the main beverage factories were situated in Cospicua prior to the First World War and I have asked a few elderly persons hailing from the town. They do not remember the beer as such but do recall  where the beverage factories were situated.It appears that there were two main factories producing beverages in the area. The first one was literally situated beneath Bormla’s Conservatory. Today, this area has been taken over by Cospicua’s Old People’s Home. Except for the church and the façade, the Conservatory was pulled down some decades agoto allow for a modern building to house the elderly. The magazines were situated directly below. According to Fr. Mark Cauchi, who hails from Cospicua, these stores were used for brewing  beer. They were also used as stores. In fact, it seems that from brewing, the proprietors moved on to distribution.

Fr. Cauchi also remembers a big oval sign painted on the wall of one of the stores. Among the drinks being advertised in this advert wasbeer produced byAtkinsons.I have also asked Mr. Lorenzo Zahraabout the Callus brewery. He remembered this store as a depot.He recallsit as the main distributor of beer and other drinksfor the Cottonera area.

There was also another factory producing beverages at Cospicua. It was situated near St. Helen’s Gate, in the area that leads to Fgura. However, information  here becomes confusing. I had been told that it was here where the beer was brewed but according to Fr. Cauchi, this factory produced only soft drinks, in particular, a type ofginger drink, possibly what is known as ginger ale. This type of drink gave the nickname to the family that produced it: everyone in Cospicua knew them back then as “Tal-Ginger”.The bottles used for these soft drinks werethose typical of the 1920s and 1930s. They were sealed with a glass marble. In Malta, these type of bottles were known as ‘Tal-Boċċa. Boċċa is the Maltese word for marble. To open these bottles, a specific bottle opener was required. These ‘marbles’ were used by children for their games.

Then, at Bormla, there was also a famous grocery store. This was run by Lawrence Calleja. This store figures in Macmillan’s book. This business was so successful that the owners opened another store in Sliema but the Cospicua one, situated next to the Rialto,continued to be popular to the extent that four photos of this outletare reproduced in Macmillan’s book. The brief snippet thereon statesthat it also sold spirits. This was a very big store, dating to the time of the Knights and many of its patrons were English families and officers living in the area. On top of the stores lived Feliċ Magro, an electrician. Today, he would be defined as a contractor. He was the person who lit up the streets of Cospicua for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was such a success in those days, that he started to be contacted by village feasts organizer to light up their streets.

I have been told by a retired businessman that the Callus family was somehow related to the Callejas. However, when I asked a descendent of Lawrence Calleja, who today is a success story with his productTwistees, he denied any connection. Perhaps, this is another area that requires further study, as business persons were often found marrying off their children within their own social class.

Fr. Cauchi does remember another businessman by the surname of Callus. He had a store in St. Therese Street. He was an importer of tobacco and manufactured cigarettes. 

This is just a preliminary survey triggered by the unearthing of an empty beer bottle bearing  a family name and a locality. More ground work needs to be done to establish the identity and business ventures of M. Callus & Sons. Government Gazettes need to be researched as labels were published in this gazette. I wish to invite anyone who has any relevantinformation about this family to kindlyshare it with me, either by writing in the comments section of this blog or by sending an email to:[email protected].

I seize this opportunity to thank all my readers in advance while wishing  a Happy New Year to all

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