Finding Craft Beer in Portugal
A recent trip abroad proves that the craft beer movement has taken hold nearly everywhere
Even the tiny town near Colares, Portugal had its own craft beer brew pub. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
Traveling abroad can be stressful. You have to speak (or try to understand) another language. You have to make travel connections while you navigate unfamiliar cities and roads. What if you get lost? What if you find yourself in a place you hadn’t intended? And, worse yet, what if they don’t have any decent beer there?
My recent trip to Portugal had some of all the usual stresses, except the one about lacking for good beer. Much to my delight, I found that Portugal not only has a thriving craft beer scene, it has some darn good mass-produced stuff as well.
I believe you can tell a lot about the tastes of a country by how good their most common beer brands are. In Portugal, there are two “big beer” brands that can be found almost everywhere; both are well made, easy-drinking lagers (around four percent ABV) that work well with nearly every kind of food, especially seafood. Sagres (pronounced “SAH-gris”) and Super Bock are admirably full-flavored, with pleasing notes of toasty bread, honey, and just the right amount of crisp German-style hops to balance it all. I would say both these beers are closer to a classic Pilsner Urquell than they are to the ubiquitous corn/rice-sweetened plonk that drenches our fair land. Score one for the Portuguese.
The light brews were good, but I was surprised to find that the light-bodied dark lager from Sagres (also widely available and very popular) delivered beautiful toasty, malty, chocolate flavors, with a perfect dose of hop bitterness to keep it refreshing. If I ordered a schwarzbier here in San Diego and was handed a cold glass of that beer, I would not be disappointed. Kudos to Sagres for doing a beer this good on such a large scale.
As good as the mass-produced stuff was, it was even more enlightening to see how the modern craft beer movement has reached some the most remote areas of the globe. In Portugal, you can find serious craft beer bars in many small towns and out-of-the way neighborhoods. We were staying in a small beach village that was an enclave of Colares, with a great “brewpub” less than a quarter mile away. Set in a remodeled lighthouse, this place had about ten craft beers on tap, including a hoppy black IPA, a rich, caramelly dubbel, a tart, fruity sour, a wheat beer, a hoppy pale ale, and a hoppy IPA. All of them were excellent, and all of them reflected the obvious influence of modern American craft beer styles, especially from the West Coast. The town couldn’t have been more than a few thousand people, but the place was hopping on a Tuesday evening around 6 p.m.; more proof that, if you build it, they will come.
In other small towns, like Ericeira and Mafra, the story was the same. Plenty of establishments offered an impressive variety of well-made craft beer; more hop forward in style, well balanced, and made to be interesting.
In Lisbon, as one would expect, the choices and variety were greater, but the quality and hipness of the styles being made were no less surprising. I found my way to a tiny bar on a back street that featured about five or six small-batch, handcrafted brews that looked like they were also labeled and bottled by hand. Just like their counterparts here in the States, these beers had cool, clever names and indie-style graphics. One was an oat pale ale, another was a raspberry sour, another was a Pilsner; my favorite was a red session IPA called Red Zeppelin that could easily hold its own alongside Pizza Port’s Shark Bite or Port Brewing’s Shark Attack.
It’s not really a big surprise that West Coast–style craft beer has made inroads seemingly everywhere outside the US. Lots of San Diego breweries have significant accounts exporting their beers all over the world, especially to Asia and South America. Stone is killing it in Berlin. Great beer is happening all over. It’s just nice to see firsthand that—even in a small beach town in Portugal—high-quality, small-batch, artisanal beer has become part of the everyday landscape. I guess knowing that just makes the world feel a little bit smaller. Felicidades! (That’s “cheers” in Portuguese.)