Travel Stories

Beer Hunting in Portugal — The Wisdom of the Hunt

Beer hunting in Portugal seemed like an exciting journey. But that’s because I didn’t do my homework. 

I chose Portugal over many other potential European destinations because of its literary history (Pessoa, Saramago, etc), rustic landscape, and isolated culture compared to the rest of the Mediterranean and Western Europe. And all these hopes proved true. But what I didn’t account for was how this might affect the beer culture. Also, it turns out that decades of rule by Salazar’s nationalistic regime wasn’t great for beer culture either.

That’s not to say that Portugal doesn’t care for beer. In fact, they’re one of Europe’s biggest producers. 

From Wikipedia:

Beer in Portugal has a long history, going as far back as the time of the ancient Roman province of Lusitania, where beer was commonly made and drunk. Portugal is among the 11 largest beer producers in Europe, and is the 7th largest European exporter of the product.

The word for beer in Portuguese is cerveja, coming from the Latin word cerevisia. Modern Portuguese breweries were started in Portugal in the 19th century. Portugal’s Estado Novo regime, headed by António Salazar, protected national industry from foreign control, including the beer sector, during his time in power. Brewing in Portugal was long dominated by two companies — Unicer - Bebidas de Portugal, S.A. and Sociedade Central de Cervejas, S.A. They were created from the remains of well-established Portuguese brewers after the 1974 military coup, when the industry was nationalized. Both were privatized in the 1990s. Between them, they control more than 90% of the Portuguese beer market.

What this very productive history of beer in Portugal lacks, however, is a fundamental lack of innovation and basic variety. In short, there’s a suspicious love of the norm. There’s just no romance. This is immediately evident in the way bars are described. There are no “gastropubs” or “beer halls” in Portugal. Instead, there are innumerable “bar tipicos” — typical bars.

There are two major brands in Portuguese beers: Sagres and Super Bock, with over 90% of the market between them. Despite the head-to-head competition, you don’t order these by name. Each bar usually serves only one, and so you simply ask for a cerveja. Asking for a beer by name only inspires confusion in the divier bars. Sometimes you need to specify wether you want a small or large glass, but that’s as far as it goes. 

Between the two, Super Bock is the far better choice. Slightly malty but clean and pale, it’s a solid lager for a dry, arid climate. It pairs perfectly with Portuguese foods such as salt cod, spicy clams and seafood stews. Super Bock is loved by the English who frequent Portugal during the football season, and apart from their flagship ale, they also offer a decidedly British-style stout. Thin in body, but with plenty of malty, caramel and toasted notes, it’s a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, it’s just not that common in most of the bars and restaurants. 

On the other hand, Sagres, also a pale lager, finishes with a slight hop flavor, but the bitterness can sometimes turn against it, leaving you with a metallic taste and off aroma. Sagres is the most popular brand, especially in the south of Portugal, including Lisbon. This really did start to feel like a Bud Light vs Miller Lite debate after a while. 

Sagres has one interesting feather in its cap, however: Bohemia. A bit fruity and nutty, Bohemia seems like a bizarre portfolio piece for such a straightforward brand. Some say it’s a form of Marzen, a darker, Bavarian style of lager usually reserved for the Fall. Overall the recipe seemed a bit uneven, almost like a gruit, and didn’t pair with food very well. On its own, though, it was a nice, heady brew for the cooler evenings. 

And then it happened. Long after I’d given up on discovering and big beer game in Portugal and taken up Port Wine and Vino Verde, I walked unwittingly into Cervejaria Trindade, the oldest brewery in all of Portugal. Cervejaria Trindade is part of an order of monks that created their monastery in 1294. But it was about 600 years later, in 1834 that the brewery was established. 

At first, Cervejaria Trindade seemed to only serve Sagres brands. Convinced I was missing something, I asked a young dishwasher if there was any original Cervejaria Trindade beer available. “Sagres,” he said, “Sagres makes our beer.” Thinking I was not understanding, I pressed for more information, only to learn that the brewery doesn’t make their own beer anymore, at all. 

It’s unclear to me when the brewery stopped producing — whether the earthquake of 1755, Salazar’s rule, or simple economic reasons, Cervejaria Trindade dried up. It’s now more of a historical relic that anything resembling an active brewery. Even the restaurant part, impressive space that it is, lacks the true beer hall vibe it seems to be going for. There’s just no spirit of brewing left in the place. And that’s when the dishwasher explained more completely — Sagres makes the former Cervejaria Trindade house recipe. Hundreds of years of independent brewing, and Sagres buys the rights, and calls it Bohemia. Bummer. At least I got to snack on some Lupini beans

Portugal proved to be mostly barren, beer hunting ground, but I’d be happy to have another Super Bock on a hot, dry day. And the lack of beer made me a bit more open to some 40 year old Tawny and Vino Verde now and again, which I’m thankful for. After all, who goes to Sonoma or Napa for the beer, right? Right.

Michael Kiser