The meteoric growth in consumer demand for espresso has placed immense downward pressure on the skills of the average barista. Many coffee retailers (most notably Starbucks) have responded to this gap between supply and demand by introducing more automated machines and processes, enabling them to hire a wider availability of less skilled workers at lower salaries. Yet others are responding by trying to raise the bar — increasing the training and education of the average, or available, barista.
As reported here in a previous post, Australia is planning to address the problem, in part, through formal barista accreditation and licensing. But according to Rob Forsyth, barista and chairman of the AustralAsian Specialty Coffee Association, there is also the lost art of listening to customers — especially for a new crop who think they know it all: Coffee industry experts spill the beans on baristas – National – smh.com.au (from tomorrow’s Sydney Morning Herald). A little knowledge truly can be a dangerous thing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…
In the growing list of international coffee chains looking to set a foothold in the U.S., Mokarabia (based in the Bologna, Italy area) has announced plans to open their first U.S. café location in suburban Phoenix: Italian coffee bars pick Verrado for first U.S. location – The Business Journal of Phoenix.
As a coffee, Mokarabia does not carry any more appeal to me than, say, Segafredo Zanetti. Some swear by it (including their Super Bar line), but I am not as convinced yet. But while I have not been to any Mokarabia owned & operated cafés before, I welcome alternatives … and any attempts to infuse cultural influence around espresso from overseas. (Word has it that the Mokarabia cafés plan to introduce their espresso drinks made with liquers and their gelato.)