October 23, 2015

Specialty Coffee in Portugal: Without Sugar, Please!


It was a Monday morning and I landed in my newly-adopted country, Portugal, exhausted from a ten-hour intercontinental flight. All I wanted was a velvety, hot coffee to welcome me with arms wide open. Can you blame me?

I went to a picturesque bakery close to my new house, confident that they would give me the drink I needed after my stressful move. How wrong I was…

Me: “Can I have a cappuccino, please?”
Barista (awkwardly):  “We don’t serve cappuccinos.”
Me (surprised): “Why? You have coffee and milk, right?”
Barista: “Yes”.
Me: “So… if you steam the milk and mix it with espresso, you have a cappuccino”
Barista (dismissively): “Oh no, this is too hard. We have meia de leite, which I guess is the same thing.”

It wasn’t. At all.

Meia de leite is an attempt to steam milk into oblivion; you are left with no foam and singed lips.

SEE ALSO: The History of Brazilian Coffee & The Story Behind ‘Daterra Full Bloom’

Discovering Portuguese Coffee

While that disastrous first experience with coffee in Portugal was the worst thing after that long flight, it left me curious to learn the way people usually prepare the drink – so I took a couple of free days just to get to know the local coffee scene.

My results were disheartening. I found café employees that didn’t know how many grams you need to grind, or the amount to put into a filter cup to extract an espresso. They didn’t even use a real tamper, defaulting to the one that’s already inserted into the grinder. They didn’t flush their equipment. EVER. And even worse, because they were unaware of how many grams to load, the coffee came out like a roaring waterfall in an astounding five seconds.

I tried to offer tips on how to do it better, but mostly I was viewed as slightly insane. So after about a dozen attempts, I just stopped and  resigned myself to meia de leite.

Coffee Roots That Run Deep and Very, Very Sweet

Portugal has a traditional style of coffee that is a source of pride for locals. The clue to it is the Lisbonese name for espresso: bica, an acronym for beba isto com açúcar, or “drink it with sugar”.

The origins of this name? It was apparently invented around 1905 in a famous café, A Brasileira, in Baixa Chiado. Their customers disliked the bitter coffee and were forced to add sugar. Most commercial coffee in Portugal is roasted with 40% Arabica and 60% Robusta beans at a dark roast (Agtron 35), which goes some way to explaining the importance of sugar. 

The Emergence of Third Wave

Making coffee is more than just pressing a button and waiting for the hot water to drip down. There’s a story behind it: the way it is planted, picked, cultivated, treated and roasted, and every single part of that story is important. It’s a relationship and you are drinking it. That’s why the professional behind the machine needs to spread their love of coffee to the customers and stimulate their curiosity, not as an obligation, but naturally and full of energy.

Everything is a question of education; people just don’t know that behind the espresso machine there can exist a professional person who specialises in coffee. They have no idea that the barista knows how to extract a perfect shot; how to steam milk to silky sweet perfection; and how different origins affect the fruit, the processing of the beans, the roast, and the flavor profiles.

Despite most Portuguese people going out everyday to drink coffee and socialise, in Lisbon it’s unusual to have a specialized coffee shop that’s devoted to coffee alone. People here aren’t accustomed to going out solely to appreciate a nice AeroPress from Kenya and or hear the barista talk about the new natural yellow bourbon from Brazil that just arrived.

So I decided to change that. I worked with a third wave coffee shop (Copenhagen Coffee Lab), and I’m really happy with how my new Portuguese customers are responding to specialty drinks. I’m touched that people are coming every day just to try a V60 or a flat white with a cute heart, or to buy bags of whole beans to take home. I had a customer who was so happy with her AeroPress purchase that she returned every day to share her experience with her new toy. I gave her a few recipes and told her to feel free to tweak her grinds/water ratios. She came back super excited, saying that she watched a lot of videos on YouTube and now she’s getting into it.

Parallels with Brazil

Brazil, my home country, had a similar transition to third wave. Even now, you’ll find bad coffee being served in cafes – and people go crazy for it. But it’s a cultural thing. I remember when I started working in a coffee shop in Brazil and customers used to complain about the “short” espresso that I used to extract. “Short” to them, because it was 30ml, give or take. They were so angry paying 2 euros for 30 “miserable” millilitres of coffee rather than a full cup.

It took more than five months of explaining that it’s not about quantity but rather quality – but I succeeded. I explained how coffee could be amazing if tasted in another way, giving out coffees for free until that fateful day the same customer started drinking a doppio ristretto instead of the usual full-sized cup of drip coffee. It made me feel like my job was done because my customer was happy to expand his horizons. And now, I feel the same here in Portugal: I see a big future with really good coffee on the horizon.

Third Wave Blooms in Lisbon

For now, there are three coffee shops in Lisbon that will not disappoint. There is a Danish coffee house called Copenhagen Coffee Lab, an enclave of Scandinavia in an absolutely charming area of Lisbon. You’ll find a V60, an AeroPress, cinnamon rolls, a delicious breakfast, and even fresh beans to bring home. Every week they have different types of beans from around the world – and all of them are light roasts. It’s a comfortable place with a great vibe, conducive for working, meeting friends, or studying.

latte at Copenhagen Coffee Lab in Lisbon, Portugal

Copenhagen Coffee Lab, a cornerstone of the Lisbon coffee scene. Credit: Claudio Corallo

Close by is a cacao and coffee shop called Claudio Corallo. They have a small roaster where they roast coffee and cacao regularly. You will probably experience the best chocolate of your life in this place. And although it’s a small family-run store, there’s enough space to make you stay and sample almost everything – especially the ice cream made from 100% cacao. If you still have room in your belly, try the brownie with a cappuccino. You won’t regret it.

Window of coffee shop in Portugal

 Street-side enclave extremely conducive to sipping on a fresh roast. Credit: Isabela Seabra

A few months ago, Fábrica Coffee Roasters opened with the aim of introducing specialty coffee culture to Portugal. They have a lovely Probat roaster and a beautiful La Marzocco combined with amazing grinders. They also have different beans from Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia and Brazil. Personally speaking, one of the best has to be the espresso blend. It has an amazing body combined with 70% sweetness from Brazil and 30% acidity from Ethiopia.

iced coffee in jar

 Iced coffee seems to taste better in jars, wouldn’t you agree? Credit: Isabela Seabra

Academia do Café is also extremely important for the Lisbon coffee scene.  The owner, Sandra Azevedo,holds courses on roasting, green coffee, barista skills, brewing, and cupping – all of which have been certified by the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe). You can find different types of coffee that are roasted on a daily basis. The courses, which range from Basic to Intermediate, are held in English or Portuguese and most of them last two or three days. It’s basically like a coffee university equipped with the best equipment and guided by an amazing professional.

All signs point to Portugal embracing third wave culture with enthusiasm and vigor, and I’m more than happy to be a part of it. No matter how awkward things might have been during those initial days in my adopted country, I’m extremely pleased to be doing my part to raise the bar for this beautiful city’s coffee scene.

Edited by T. Schrock.

Feature Photo Credit: Anna Filosoho

Perfect Daily Grind.