A cold beer in Portugal has traditionally meant one of two things: Sagres or Super Bock. These two everyman lagers, created during military dictatorships, have dominated the country's beer landscape for decades.
But a hop-heavy suds revolution is brewing in Lisbon and beyond. Europe's oldest independent capital city is finally embracing the craft beer booze-fest.
Portugal's tyrannical two-brew past
Although its beer history isn't as famous or marketed quite as well as that of some of its European neighbours, Portugal-produced beer predates the country itself, going all the way back to pre-Roman Lusitania. But foreign influence was heavily muted during the Estado Novo, the totalitarian dictatorship that ran the small Iberian nation from 1933 to 1974. Two rebel-rousing domestic brands, Sagres and Super Bock, flowed freely from the taps with little competition. Coincidence that Lisbon-speak for a draught beer is imperial? Not likely.
"During the dictatorship, society was so nationalistic; they didn’t want to import or export, or the influence of anything coming in," says American chef/brewer Adam Heller, who recently opened Chimera Brewpub in Lisbon's industrially hip Alcântara neighbourhood. "They wanted to preserve their identity."
The taps they are a-changin'
Fast-forward a few decades and Lisbon is emerging from the crippling global financial crisis with guns blazing: the city is suddenly finding itself in the unusual position of European tastemaker. Booming on the backs of returning waves of creatives, many of whom left the country to explore opportunities abroad during the thinnest years of the recession (and were no doubt exposed to imperial pale ales, porters and saisons along the way), today, Lisbon is hungry for hops and thirsty for choice.
Lisbon's first craft beer bar, Cerveteca Lisboa, opened its doors in 2014 on leafy Praça das Flores, thus opening the cerveja artesanal floodgates. Just a few years later, Lisbon now counts two brewpubs, at least five dedicated craft beer bars, nearly a dozen established microbreweries and numerous contract and home brewers among its craft arsenal.
Rui Bento, founder and head brewer at Amnesia Brewery, is a shining example of Portugal's new generation of hopheads. At his day job, Bento keeps the peace as a police officer in the Lisbon suburb of Oeiras. Off-duty, his homebrews are changing Portugal one police officer at a time. "A lot of my fellow officers have tried some of my beers and liked them lots," he says. "They now understand the difference between craft beer and industrial beer, and realise why I drink craft. I'm trying to show them that there’s another life beyond industrial beers!"
Bento won Portugal's National Craft Beer Contest in 2015 for his Juniper Smokin', a Baltic Porter-based smoked beer brewed with juniper berries, the likes of which most Portuguese have never experienced.
Ironically, the same sort of "Buy Local" movement that was prevalent during the dictatorship is driving Portugal's craft beer scene today, albeit not dictatorially forced; the country's newly installed national confidence has extended to its suds. "I want to keep things local," says Bento. "Craft beer only makes sense for me this way. Sure, I would love to sell my beer all over the country, and maybe outside Portugal, but my focus is, and always will be, local."
Craft brew breakdown
"The craft beer explosion is happening in Lisbon for basically the same reason it's happening everywhere – drinkers are demanding better quality and more variety in the beer they drink," says American Scott Steffens, who in 2015 opened Dois Corvos, the first Lisbon brewery with a taproom (bar on the premises). "When we started, the scene was nearly a blank slate with only a few styles represented. In our first year we introduced 26 beers!"
But where to find them? Here's the latest rundown of where to quench your thirst for cold cerveja artesanal.
The original and still the best, Cerveteca devotes 12 daily-changing taps to a mix of American, European and Portuguese craft beers (the latter indicated by an asterisk on the traditional chalkboard beer menu) in a casual, living room-like atmosphere on a picturesque plaza along hip Príncipe Real. This is Lisbon's lupolomaníaco (hophead) gathering point, led by the city's nicest and most knowledgeable staff.
Lisbon's first brewpub opened its 10 taps in spring of 2016 and is devoted 100% to local craft beer. Lisbon-area suds from local brewers Bolina, Dois Corvos, Passarola, Oitava Colina, LX, Musa, Mean Sardine, Against the Tide and Amnesia are well represented on draught (and many in bottles), along with Duque’s latest proprietary creations under the banner of Cerveja Aroeira. With hardwood tables and hessian-draped stools, it fosters the most conventionally bar-like atmosphere of Lisbon's craft beer venues, and the outdoor seating on an inviting Chiado staircase alley is hard to beat.
An 18th-century coach tunnel in Alcântara, once leading to Palácio das Necessidades, has been transformed into a cinematic stone-walled drinking den (with a sous-vide machine churning out rarely-seen bar grub like pastrami and Reuben sandwiches). Chimera is co-run by American Adam Heller, who brews tipples such as Belgium Blonde Ale, Imperial Pale Ale, American Dark Lager and Chocolate Porter in the basement. Twelve taps in total.
Cavernous Lisbeer is the least beer-geeky of Lisbon's craft beer options, but this vintage-sofa-strewn spot mere steps from the city's Sé (cathedral) is ideal for indulging in the pursuit of hops. There are six taps (two more coming soon), usually carrying a mix of local and European beers, and a 200-strong bottle menu with a noticeable emphasis on Belgian brews.
Despite Dois Corvos' off-the-beaten-path location in Marvila, Lisbon's best craft brewery draws a healthy legion of local devotees to its artsy taproom, which is open daily from 2pm. The hop-heavy IPAs – most notably the Matiné Session IPA, Stardust and Fuzeta options, along with the sinisterly-good Finisterra Porter and one-off barrel-aged offerings – are worth travelling for.
At its heart, Zymology is an excellent craft beer shop, owned by Rolim Carmo (the head brewer from Mean Sardine brewery), and focusing on artisanal beers from Portugal, Northern Europe (Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia) and the American Pacific Northwest. Shoppers can crack open their newly-purchased wares and drink them on the spot, or pop in for a variety of special events (exclusive beer launches, tastings with brewers) and training courses. It's another epicentre for local and visiting beer nerds.
The Beer Station
This Argentine-Peruvian affair is the smallest and newest of Lisbon's craft beer joints, but The Beer Station's (facebook.com/The-Beer-Station) privileged position on an open-air plaza outside Rossio train station is pretty idyllic as far as urban drinking goes. The four taps are devoted to Dois Corvos – Avenida (blonde ale), Metropolitan (pale ale), Galáxia (milk stout) and Fuzeta (double IPA) – and bottles from Musa, Sovina, Bolina, Post Scriptum and Mean Sardine are available, among others.