Flavours are one of the strongest suits of this nation that I call home. Whether it’s the tangy, fishy taste of cuttlefish and its ink, a strong, robust Douro wine, or the fragrant aroma of aged chouriço, flambéed in aguardente, you’ll be hard pressed to visit Portugal without the gastronomy making an impression on you – for better or worse. “And what about the beer?” you might ask. Hmmm. Well, like much of southern Europe, beer in Portugal has served pretty much one single purpose over the past century and more. It’s cold, it’s light, it’s refreshing and it instantly makes you feel cool on the many long hot days. As for the flavour, it was something they never really thought about.
Go to any bar or café in Portugal and ask for a beer and you will be presented with Super Bock o Sagres. The former is, in my view, superior by far and neither are as bad as the UK’s stock offerings of Carling and Fosters – perhaps the world’s worst beers outside of the USA. That being said, I can’t imagine anyone trying to tell me that Super Bock is the best beer in the world. Even if they work for Super Bock. In the past, both of these brands did make some attempt at introducing variety. Both have a black lager – Super Bock call theirs a stout, but it’s certainly not a stout – and they also had another range, based on northern or eastern European beers, called Sagres Bohemia and Super Bock Abadia. Both were better than the originals. Neither were particularly inspired.
Then, in 2015, during my first winter here, something happened. A number of small scale breweries, up and down the country had been brewing beer for a year or two. Real beer. Beer with flavour. Beer with variety. But not that many folks had taken much notice. I hadn’t even heard of many of these purveyors and I’m a Brit who was sadly in need of some decent beer. But then, in January, Lisboa’s Camara Municipal put on an event in Santa Apolonia’s Feira de Ladrões called ‘The First Lisbon Winter Beer Festival.’ I’ll admit to feeling a small sense of scorn about it – how many could there possibly be? – I wondered. But along I went with a few friends and colleagues to check it out. What I found there was a huge surprise. There were around 45 beers, from nine or ten different breweries from up and down Portugal, many of which were excellent. There were enthusiastic owners and brewmasters, both from abroad with an interest in bringing real beer to Portugal and from within the country itself. I tried around ten to twelve beers and left with my eyes open to the growing trade and on the look out for more opportunities to try this growing trade.
Fast forward fourteen months to the second Lisbon beer festival, hosted at LX Factory in Alcanatara, over three days and the industry had exploded. In place of the dozen brewers from the first festival, we were presented with more than twenty – including one from Spain – and instead of 40 or so beers, we were offered more than a hundred. The number of visitors, too, had swelled immeasurably. I visited on two of the three days with friends and was seriously impressed by the number of people of all ages and backgrounds, coming to see what it was all about.
So where do you find all this beer? Well, in Lisbon there are plentiful options now. The supermarkets Continente, Jumbo and El Corte Ingles have committed to stocking a range of beers from smaller breweries, as well as the big boys now. Some of these are imports but, if you want to support local brewers, there’s a decent arrange in mid-sized markets and up. Three breweries are Lisbon based and offer tours of their facilities and tasting packages. Check out Dois Corvos and Oitava Colina – two of my absolute favourites and make a booking. You can also learn more about Musa, whose music themed brews are all excellent, but whose pilsner – Mick Lager – might just be the best lager I’ve ever tasted. And I lived in Poland, people. An honorable mention must find its way up the coast, too, to Mean Sardine, of the glorious Ericeira, whose beers are also great and who are really pushing the boundaries with experimental beverages – their recent Yellow Submarine-based, single hop IPA was astonishingly good.
If you don’t want o visit a brewery, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, there are also some establishments in Lisboa who are making a point of stocking excellent beer all of the time. You can find Oitava Colina’s beer on tap all year round at Trobadores, a medieval themed bar who also sell mead, cocktails and decent food and the daddy of beer halls in Lisbon, Lisbeer has to get a mention. They always have a wide variety on tap, as well as a huge raft of bottled beers from Portugal and around the world. The staff are knowledgeable and can recommend something for (almost) every palate, and they can usually provide you with a glass to match the beer you’re drinking. Finally, one of my favourite places to eat in Lisbon, Ground Burger, not only produce the best burgers I’ve eaten in my life to date, they also stock more than 70 craft beers, the majority of which are domestically produced. I’ll drink to that!
So, the next time you’re going for a beer with your friends in Lisbon, or even if you’re just visiting for a weekend, rather than taking that 1 euro imperial of bland fizzy stuff, why not reach deeper in to your pocket and have something you’ll really enjoy? Cheers! Saúde!