Coffee in Portugal — a family story

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coffee shopPortugal surprised me with its coffee. My coffee experiences–at breakfast, on break or after dinner–were generally great, all over the country. From Guimarães and Porto in the north to coastal Algarve in the south, I enjoyed the coffee. Even small Cafés boast an impressive Italian espresso machine, and with apologies to Italy, a Portuguese espresso often seems to better its Italian namesake.

It was a special treat, then, to meet the father-daughter team responsible for one of the country’s leading family-owned coffee companies, and learn more about Portuguese coffee.

Cafés Negrita
Carlos Pina and daughter Helena Pina, owners and guiding hands behind production and distribution of Cafés Negrita products.

Cafés Negrita was founded In 1924 by Anibal Antunes, in partnership with several friends, including the father of Carlos Pina. They housed the company in a former horse stable that belonged to a mansion in the heart of Lisbon, after the family acquired its first car, and the space was no longer needed for carriages. Cafés Negrita continues to operate from its original location. Its primary activities are roasting, grinding and packaging coffee and grains, such as barley.

Carlos Pina, still vital at 88 years of age, has been involved in coffee, and with Café Negritas, for his entire career. His daughter Helena trained as an environmental engineer, and worked in a bank before joining the family business almost two decades ago. Innovations under the leadership of the father-daughter team have included automating the roasting process and revamping business lines for the company. Some lines of business, such as sales and delivery of fruit and vegetables, have been discontinued. Others–packaging of durable food items, such as sugar–have been expanded. The company also mills and markets an array of spices, from cinnamon and curry to piri-piri and peppers.

A taste for robusta

For many years prior to the 1974 revolution, Portugal’s palate for strong, full-bodied coffee was trained by almost exclusive use of robusta beans sourced from Portuguese colonies. As a consequence, the Portuguese long favored the distinctive earthy flavor and slight bitterness of robusta over the smoother taste, lower acid and rich flavor of arabica. With internationalization of coffee practices, though, this is changing, albeit slowly.

Coffee sacks
Coffee sacks from suppliers of coffee beans line the walls at the Cafés Negrita roasting and packing facility. Nowadays, both arabica and robusta beans are imported from former colonies and other sources.
Café Negrita
Café Negrita produces 16 types of coffee: six robustas and 10 arabicas. Here, packed coffee is ready for delivery to local customers around Lisbon.

Cafés Negrita processes up to 2,000 kilos of coffee beans per day. The time required to roast the beans varies according to the season and humidity, the target temperature individually specified for customers, and the type and maturity of the beans. About 20% of the weight of the beans is lost in the roasting process, with 60 kilos delivering 48-50 kilos of beans for packaging.

Coffee roaster
Carlos Pina shows us the automated roasting tumbler, programmed to monitor the work through three defined roasting points. At the end of the roasting period, the beans must be spun and stirred, so as to cool quickly and not lose flavor.
coffee beans
Helena Pina samples the beans as they roast, monitoring with a human eye, what the roasting engine is up to.

 Balâo de café

Coffee stores around Portugal offer the balâo de café for sale. These revered instruments have been used for generations to brew coffee slowly, cup by cup. As automated brewing devices have become ubiquitous in Portuguese homes, the old way of preparing coffee with a balâo and sharing it with family around a holiday table after a feast has receded into a childhood memory for many people. Carlos Pina invited us to join him in a cup of coffee, which he prepared with the balâo, and we happily accepted.

coffee beans
Our host roasts beans and readies the balâo de café for brewing coffee, as it has been done for generations, over a flaming wick. Nowadays, this method of brewing coffee is primarily for family holidays, such as Christmas.

Our host chose Costa Rica arabica beans for our tasting. They roasted for six minutes, the aroma deepening as they whirred in the little machine. First came a whiff of chocolate, then caramel, then the aroma of toasting flour as the hue of the beans darkened. Just before the beans reached the cool-down phase necessary for grinding, a powerful aroma evoked “Breakfast!”, a scent that promised a full-bodied cup.

coffee beans
The balâo is at the ready, as beans roast. In a matter of minutes, the color of the beans changed from green to brown, and as they took on a darker hue, the aroma of fine coffee permeated the air.
the balloon
It takes a few minutes for the air in the balâo to warm and expand, pushing water up the tube into the ball above, permeating the finely ground coffee. When the flame is removed, the air in the bottom ball cools, and coffee drains into the bottom ball, and is ready to serve.
Carlos Pina
The end product: several cups of coffee, brewed to perfection. Thank you, Carlos Pina, for helping us experience balâo de café and a little bit of a family tradition!

Stay tuned for more about coffee in Portugal!

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Thank you to Aptece, the Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economic Association, and Turismo de Portugal, for making our travels in Portugal possible. Thanks too to AICC (Portugal’s commercial coffee association) for introducing us to Carlos and Helena Pina!

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To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here

 

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. After reading this post, I really gained some knowledge and gathers some tips about, how to make coffee dist, from coffee beans.

  2. I’m a bit of a coffee addict (hey, we all have to have one vice, right?) and love sampling coffee from different countries and cultures. It was interesting to note that Portugal’s coffee flavor has been changing. European countries are known for their very strong coffee. Portugal sounds like they are offering a more diverse selection of coffees that will appeal to both locals and tourists.

    • Portugal is definitely a go-to place for anyone who enjoys coffee…available everywhere, and most is very good! Nothing quite as exotic as your experience in Bali, though…

  3. I love the look of the balâo de café even though I don’t see myself mastering it (actually I can see myself breaking it). Those Costa Rican arabica beans sounded wonderful. Thanks for finding out about this interesting family-owned company and sharing it. I just adore Portugal!

  4. I was fascinated to learn that the Portuguese coffee palate is changing toward the arabica. I believe I have tasted Cafe Negrita or seen it in a Spanish grocery? Could that be right? It sounds familiar. Love the balao process, too. The ritual with coffee, no matter what it might be, is so much a part of the appeal.

    • Many Portuguese products cross the border into Spain, so you may have tasted Cafe Negrita there, Betsy. I really don’t know. I do know that the balâo tradition is something of a rarity nowadays, so felt quite lucky to have a chance to try it! It was really cool to be there for the roasting-on-the-spot, as well.

  5. It seemed that every restaurant and cafe that we stopped at in Portugal had some elaborate and glistening enormous machine dedicating to the ritual of making a perfect cup of coffee and we quickly developed a taste for the tiny cups of strong brew. I don’t think I saw a balâo de café during my time there but, when we return to the country, I’ll have to hunt one down. I love the tradition and history behind it and the history of the Pina family was very interesting!

  6. I’m so excited that I’ll get to taste Portuguese coffee for myself soon! Surprising to hear that you think their espresso beats the Italian kind. I won’t tell any of my Italian friends. 🙂 Enjoyed reading about your visit with Carlos and Helena and learning about their coffee making. I’m imagining the wonderful aromas inside Cafés Negrita.

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