Coffee culture

From seeds that were smuggled into Brazil to statues of frequent café visitors in Lisbon, Enjoy the Algarve explores the world of Portuguese coffee. Next time you’re drinking a bica in your local restaurant (or having a capsule-brew from your machine at home) read this instead of the newspaper.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2016

Intro picture by Ewan Munro


First of all, a bit of a disappointment maybe, there’s no coffee actually grown in the Algarve. Or in the rest of Portugal, apart from a small plantation on the island of São Jorge in the Azores. Portugal’s former colony Brazil, however, is the world’s largest coffee bean producer. The story goes that Francisco de Melo Palheta started it all back in 1727, when he planted the first coffee bush in Brazil with seeds he smuggled into the country from nearby French Guiana. A couple of centuries later, there are about 220,000 coffee farms in the South American country, making Brazil responsible for a third of all the coffee that’s drunk in the world (picture below by Fernando Mafra). Another former Portuguese colony that produces a lot of coffee is Angola.

Logical, as the absolute majority of coffee beans are grown in countries around the equator (in a belt from 25˚ south to 25˚ north of the equator to be precise). These countries have a similar climate and an average monthly rainfall of about 15cm. Portugal, especially the Algarve, is simply too dry (and mostly too hot) to grow coffee. It is roasted in this country though, albeit not on a major scale. At Lisbon’s Cafés Negrita, up to 2,000 kilos of coffee beans a day are roasted, packaged and distributed. Also the small family business Flor da Selva in Lisbon still wood-roasts coffee the old-fashioned way. (Want to see them in action? See the original article in the magazine and click on the side note for a video.)

Despite not growing the stuff itself, the Portuguese are a coffee drinking nation. Popular brands include Delta, Buondi, Nicola, Bicafé, Chave d’Ouro, Sical and Camelo. On average, about 4.3 kilos of coffee is consumed per person per year. Although Portugal isn’t on top of the coffee consumption per capita list (that place is reserved for Finland), they are passionate about the stuff. Especially the Robusta variant, which usually makes up the largest part of Portuguese espresso. Coffee comes in Arabica and Robusta beans (marked ‘a’ and ‘r’ in the picture below, while ‘m’ means mixed/both). Robusta produces stronger coffee with an earthy flavour which needs more roasting time, whereas the slightly more expensive Arabica needs less roasting time and produces a smoother, more aromatic coffee. It is thought that Portugal’s taste for strong coffee comes from the almost exclusive use of Robusta beans prior to the revolution of 1974.


Let’s meet in the café

In most countries, people normally drink coffee at home or at work. Not in Portugal: here, coffee is usually drunk in cafés, kiosks and restaurants. Logical, as there’s a café on nearly every street and a culture of dining out instead of eating in (Portugal has about 10.5 million people, but over 40,000 cafés and restaurants). The coffee house is an institution. This coffee culture was first started by the Marquês de Pombal, who introduced public cafés in Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755. These cafés soon became the meeting points for politicians, musicians and other artists. A Brasileira, which opened a bit later in 1905, was the first one to offer bica, and still does so today (see intro picture and picture below; both by Ewan Munro). With a bronze statue of its frequent visitor, the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, sitting outside the coffee shop, also the memory of the café as a hangout for artistic (and coffee drinking) intellectuals is kept alive.

In the old days, coffee was made in a balâo de café (see side note picture in the magazine by Bachelot Pierre J-P), a glass instrument that looks like a cross between a water pipe and a distillation apparatus and slowly brews the liquid cup after cup. Now, every café has an espresso machine. Plus a newspaper or two. Because drinking coffee isn’t just about drinking coffee; it also includes the social aspect of meeting friends, talking, gossiping, reading, and debating. Coffee as a social lubricant, which fits in perfectly with the unhurried Algarvian way of life. More often than not ‘meeting up for a coffee’ is an invitation to meet at the local café, not in someone’s house (which usually lacks a proper espresso machine anyway). When entertaining friends at home, you’d offer them (port) wine.

With breakfast, mid morning, in the afternoon, after dinner; coffee is drunk and served at every possible moment of the day. However, mostly in no-nonsense cafés. There aren’t that many Starbucks in the Algarve. And although the amount of quirky and cosy coffee houses with tastefully decorated interior is growing, these can still only be found in major cities such as Faro or Lagos. No, in the Algarve it’s a roadside café, often kitted out with plastic tables and chairs, the TV blaring in the corner. However, the coffee is great, as is the selection of pastries, usually including the famous pastel de nata. The prices aren’t too bad either: a standard small coffee sets you back 50 eurocents in a normal café – instead of a couple of euros in its fancy counterpart. Another plus: in Portugal, you won’t get ridiculed if you order a cappuccino late at night. You might, however, be served a meia de leite or galão.

Beba isto com açucar

What coffee to order in Portugal? Depending on the desired caffeine boost, you might want to try a bica if you’re feeling brave and in need of a pick me up, or a garoto if you’re not that keen on palpitations. Beware, when asking for ‘um café’ you’ll be served something that closely resembles a very strong espresso in your home country. This small coffee is called a cimbalino in Porto and a bica in Lisbon. The literal translation of bica is waterspout, which might have something to do with the way the coffee flows from the machine into the cup. However, the most popular legend goes that bica stands for ‘beba isto com açucar’ (drink this with sugar). A logical explanation, seeing as the Portuguese always serve a sachet of sugar next to the small cup (picture below by Ulrika).

Those wanting something more like a normal cup of coffee should ask for a café cheio, which is an espresso with some hot water added to it. If you’re thirsty, order an abatanado or café Americano, which is a classic large black coffee. Adding milk to your coffee is done by ordering a café pingado, a meia de leite, a galão or a garoto, depending on the amount of milk you want. A café pingado is a coffee with only a few drops of milk, whereas a meia de leite consists of 50% milk and 50% coffee (that’s why it’s called meia de leite). Latte macchiato lovers should stick to a galão, which is one part coffee and two parts milk and is traditionally served in a glass instead of a cup. If you want the taste of coffee without the caffeine jitters, go for a garoto, which is warm milk with a dash of coffee, made from grounds that have already been used. Or just order decaf.

Soy milk skinny latte anyone?

Popular Portuguese custom, and a brilliant idea if you want to party all night long, is to add some booze to your coffee. This is called café com cheirinho, which literally translates as coffee with scent. In other words: have a sip of aguardente de medronho or figo (fruit or fig brandy) with your espresso to start the day. Yes, you read that right, to start the day. Traditionally, farmers in rural Portuguese areas would have a shot of Medronho as soon as they’d get out of bed, in order to ‘wake their spirits’. Cup of coffee optional.

Nowadays, a shot of liquor with your coffee is still common, but not so much anymore at breakfast time. Customs are changing, but a 2016 report by Euromonitor shows that coffee sales and consumption in Portugal is still growing, both in terms of value and retail volume. A reason for that growth lies in the fresh ground coffee pods, which are relatively new on the coffee scene in Portugal. They’re pretty integrated in the rest of the world– you probably know them from the ‘Nespresso, what else?’ commercial with a smooth and sultry looking George Clooney.

In 2014 Nestlé (the leading player in Portugal’s coffee scene with a 37% value share in 2015) launched three limited edition Nespresso flavours for Christmas: Hazelnut Dessert, Chocolate Mint and Apple Crumble. Nice and novel, but not something an Algarvian will order in his local café. They focus on a decent espresso machine instead of on capsules and they certainly don’t care about skinny lattes, soy milk or vanilla-hazelnut shots. Like the Algarvian lifestyle, the coffee here is not too complicated either. Three sips and some sugar, a bica will do just fine.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2016

Posted in Features, Food.