Any coffee lover who has traveled in Portugal knows that nothing makes Pastel de nata go down better than a good cup of coffee–uma bica in Lisbon or um cimbalino in Porto. But do you know why this is? Having enjoyed coffee around the country for several months, I set about finding out.
Teresa Ruivo of the Portugal’s Industrial and Commercial Coffee Association (AICC) readily answered my questions, gave me a primer on Portuguese coffee history, and introduced me to one of the top Portuguese coffee producers, Carlos Pina of Cafés Negrita. He and his daughter Helena toured Tom and me through their production facility, and Carlos Pina showed us how to use a balão de café. But long-standing traditions such as these are just part of the Portuguese coffee story.
The country’s coffee-drinking habit was imported from Brazil, as was artisanal coffee-making, now a global phenomenon. According to Teresa, high-quality machinery from Italy (Cimbali was the first Italian machine in Portugal) has been adapted to Portuguese temperature and water-pressure norms and is still used almost exclusively.
During decades of relative economic isolation under the Salazar regime, Portugal sourced virtually all of its coffee from its colonies. The beans were Robusta, which ingrained in most people an enjoyment of strong, bitter coffee. According to many people, Bica, the term used in Lisbon for a cup of coffee reflects this: B (Beba) I (isto) C (com) A (açucar), or “Drink this with sugar”! There are a number of explanations for the term, but I like this one best.
The traditional Portuguese coffee brands–Sical, Buondi (under the Delta/Nestle umbrella), Nicola, Tofe and Cristina–all practice a slow roasting of coffee beans that differs from the Italian method. Slow roasting at low temperatures, a blending of Arabica and Robusta beans and brewing with higher water pressure conspire to produce a distinctly Portuguese cup of coffee. Portuguese espresso is also served in larger cups (30 ml vs 20 ml for Italian espresso).
Coffee culture in Portugal
Portuguese coffee culture brings people together. “Let’s go for a coffee” is a Portuguese tradition, similar to Sweden’s “Let’s fika!” Mid-morning and after lunch are the traditional times for taking a coffee break.
Until just a few years ago, 80% of coffee drinkers enjoyed the brew in cafes and bars, but now, home consumption of fine coffee is increasing. In the north of the country, with its long winter, an even greater proportion of the populace–up to 90%– has coffee at home or in the office.
The Portuguese like to linger at the table after a meal, drink coffee and talk. A relatively recent development, however, is the extension of coffee-sharing to the evening, late evenings by my standards. Teresa says that friends often invite others over for a coffee after dinner, as late as 10:30-11:00 pm, as a way to get together without going out for the evening, or making a dinner production of it.
Investing in the future
Academia do Café® is a training and consulting company in Lisbon, specialized in bespoke training courses, workshops, lectures and events about coffee. Academia sells coffee beans, offering only Arabica beans, and working only with specialty, single-origin coffees. Beans are roasted in-house and coffee is brewed in a top-line La Marzocco machine at a minimum water acidity of 6.8 pH. Under the auspices of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, Academia offers various courses for professionals (roasters, baristas, coffee shops and restaurants), and trains aspiring baristas from Portugal and around the world.
Established as a coffee import cooperative after the 1974 revolution, and re-branded as AICC in 2007, Portugal’s association of employers in the coffee industry disseminates information about coffee, and supports companies involved in all aspects of coffee production and marketing. Its activities in include a range of events, awareness campaigns and promotion of the health benefits of coffee.
As I write this, I’m looking forward to my next trip to Portugal, next week’s World Food Tourism Summit. A pre-conference return to Alentejo will give me a chance to enjoy both the specialty confections and biscuits of that region, and plenty of great Portuguese coffee!
If you go
Visit coffee shops and restaurants that showcase the best of old and new traditions:
- Casa Pereira in Lisbon’s Rua Garrett is a shop that seems stopped in time (it was founded in 1930). Shop for coffee and coffee-making equipment, and make your own blend. The shop also sells a variety of biscuits and chocolates.
- Café Portela, with eight locations in the Lisbon area, has been serving up coffee, cakes and a limited menu since the late 1970s. Its Caps Portela coffee blend is available as beans or in capsule form at its various outlets and online shop.
- Filipa of Taste of Lisboa and André of Taste Porto Food Tours can be your guides to coffee traditions of Lisbon and Porto. Read about our food walks in Lisbon with Filipa and in Porto with André, then book a walk for yourself!
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