Despite Portugal’s prominent historical role in the development of the coffee trade (for example, they introduced coffee production to Brazil), and the degree with which coffee is “interwoven throughout Portugal’s social, literary and economic history”, I’ve found surprisingly little written about the espresso in this small-but-influential coffee nation. Last month I took advantage of some time off from my “day job” (and it didn’t hurt that my wife’s first language is Portuguese) to visit the country and learn a bit more about the current state of quality coffee there.

They say Lisbon is like SF, but it's more like a South American colonial city However, Lisbon does have its own Golden Gate Bridge - albeit with a Rio-esque Cristo Rei

Portugal Coffee Culture

In daily life, the Portuguese are at least as addicted to the single espresso as the Italians — if not even moreso. Whereas Italians use the ti offro un caffè excuse to socialize for a few minutes over a cup, the Portuguese drink it like clockwork. It’s an expected way to finish every meal. And unlike the U.S., restaurant espresso is as good as anything you can get in a café.

One difference from Italy is the cappuccino. While available most everywhere in Portugal, it’s an interloper in Portuguese coffee culture. (It also invariably comes with cocoa or cinnamon.) As a result, milk frothing is generally primitive and poor. However, the Portuguese do add milk to their coffee. As with the Italians, it is practically unheard of outside of mornings, and then it typically takes the form of a galão — literally, a “gallon” — which consists of drip coffee cut with a lot of milk. I ordered a couple cappuccinos that were literally no different than the house galão.

The Magnólia Caffé chain in Lisbon tries to get fancy with their cappuccino - always with cocoa A 'sit down' at Pastelaria Suiça on Lisbon's Rossio

One popular word for the Portuguese espresso shot is bica. While use of this term somewhat marks you as a Lisboan, it is understood throughout the rest of the country. Antonio Machado, the proprietor of the fantastic Casa Mariazinha in Porto, tipped me on the little-known origin of “bica”. There still is a bit of debate about this, but the term is actually an acronym, and it’s a holdover from when the first espresso machines came to Portugal with newbie instructions for how to serve from them. BICA (according to some legends) apparently stands for “beba isto chávena aquesida” — Portuguese for pretty much “drink in a warmed cup”. (Tell that one the next time someone serves you a shot in a paper cup.)

The espresso shot is ubiquitous in Portugal. It’s available in restaurants, cafés, and even stands within shopping malls so that you never have to walk more than a block to down one. They are generally inexpensive — typically from 0,50€ to 0,60€ a shot (less than 75¢) — other than what you can get at the few remaining European grand cafés that are making something of a comeback from extinction.

Pastelaria Versailles - a grand café in Lisbon This one didn't make it: the Imperial Café in Porto is now a McDonald's

As a word of caution wherever you get your coffee, the Portuguese can smoke like chimneys. In some cities, such as Lisbon, we were the only non-smokers in the place. But there are towns like Braga where smoking is more the exception than the rule. However, today there are signs that Portugal could soon follow Italy’s shocking suit in anti-smoking health laws, as government anti-smoking programs seek to curb the enormous health care expenses coming for generations of aging smokers.

Fadisto Crossing in Lisbon's Bairro Alto Sidewalks of the Rossio square, Lisbon

Portugal Coffee Quality

As I touched on in a recent CoffeeGeek post, Portugal seems to have the reverse problem of, say, a Seattle. Whereas Seattle has a handful of outstanding cafés to counter a baseline that’s pretty lousy, in Portugal the baseline standards are high enough that it seems the notion of seeking out exceptional coffee is kind of pointless. As a result, you don’t find a culture where people say “Café Blah blah blah” is the best place to get an espresso in town. But then anybody need only walk down the block for a good shot of espresso.

Overall, I found the Portuguese espresso shots to be pungent, with a darker brown crema that means business, and occasionally with a slightly thinner body. A tendency I discovered is that the average espresso seemed to improve the further north I travelled in Portugal [map]. Around Lisbon, a number of places served a somewhat weaker body than what I would typically find further north in places like Coimbra, Porto, or even Braga and Guimarães (with a few exceptions).

Some Portuguese recoil at the thought of a bica, despite the fact that I generally didn’t find it bitter or overly potent. Yet the Portuguese seem to put more sugar in their espresso than any nation I’ve seen. (I always drink it straight. To which one elderly Portuguese gentleman characteristically responded to me years ago, in Portuguese, “I have enough bitterness in my life.”) Another leading theory behind BICA is that it stands for “beba isto com açúcar”, or “drink this with sugar” — but I dismiss that as redundant, given the national sweet tooth.

The tourist-laden 28E trolley in Lisbon's Alfama district Braga's Bom Jesus

Portuguese Brands

Imagine a world where everyone lives for their coffee, and there’s a place that serves it on every corner. Now imagine a world where virtually no one has ever seen a Starbucks. How’s that for Halloween spooky? But given that Portugal is one of the European Union’s top four coffee consuming nations, Starbucks can’t hold back forever. Which is why there are recent reports of Starbucks’ intentions of coming to Portugal.

But until Big Green moves into town, Portugal is brimming with a variety of competitive coffee brands and café chains. Delta Cafés and their coffee is the dominant force, though less so in the north. Some Delta cafés are fully owned & operated and come with full branding, while many others simply carry their coffee service and some limited branding.

While Delta is pretty good, my favorites of the national chains were Nicola Cafés. The simple Nicola-branded owned & operated kiosks you can find in shopping areas, for example, are excellent. I found that they served some of the best espresso in Portugal.

Nicola Café kiosk in Porto's Santa Caterina mall Break out the white lab coats at a Delta owned & operated at Lisbon's Vasco da Gama

So as a first pass, here’s my weak attempt to force rank ten of the various major coffee brands I sampled more than once in Portugal:

  1. Nicola Cafés
  2. Delta Cafés – Can be particularly good if you get Delta Platina or even Diamante
  3. Beira Douro
  4. A Brasileira – A Portuguese institution, but espresso at Lisbon’s main Chiado café pales compared with the one at Braga’s Praça da República
  5. Chave D’ouro
  6. Cafés Christina
  7. Sanzala Cafés
  8. Magnolia Caffé – This chain brings a cosmopolitan, modern edge with salads, etc., but the espresso could be far better
  9. Buondi
  10. Sical – One of the weakest of the bunch, but still not bad by world standards

Note: Buondi, Cafés Christina, Sical, and Tofa are all under the Nestlé umbrella. For a comprehensive list of Portuguese café chains — along with photos of each their sugar, or açúcar, packets — check out this fine homage to a collector’s obsession.

Inside Braga's A Brasileira Serving Nicola coffee from a small café in Monsanto

I once read that residents of Porto call espresso the Cimbalinho — a reference to the apparent popularity of La Cimbali machines. However, I predominantly found mostly Brasilia machines in use throughout the country (Porto included). Following these were La Spaziale and then maybe La Cimbali machines. Occasionally I encountered a few Magister Kappa machines, the likes I’ve never seen before.

Coming up next: CoffeeRatings.com-style ratings and reviews of a few Portugal cafés of note, complete with the usual espresso porn photos. Stay tuned…

The Port port of Porto Roman ruins in Évora

UPDATE: November 13, 2006:
Some follow-up posts on this topic: