I recently returned from a trip touring through Portugal and Spain. Aside from the sightseeing and relaxing, I was determined to explore the specialty coffee scene in each city and see how coffee itself was integrated into the culture. Below are some of my notes and observations from visiting Lisbon, Porto, Évora, Monsanto, Monforte and Covilha.
Espresso reins supreme
When I personally think of coffee, espresso is the first drink that comes to mind and those in Portugal share the same thought. In nearly every cafe, restaurant, bakery and shop, there’s an espresso machine, usually a Cimbali, and decent quality grinder to go along with it. Espressos are ordered, and then promptly enjoyed at the counter-level — most people don’t bother to sit down. Drip coffee isn’t really found anywhere and the closest you will get is an americano.
Process, what process?
Brewing espresso is a harsh process. Water is forced through the coffee at high temperatures and pressures with the end result being a concentrated cup of coffee; small adjustments make a big difference in flavor and taste. Most coffee in Portugal is of unknown origin, and roasted fairly dark — it’s the coffee of coffee, if that makes sense.
Despite the quality grinders and decent machines, baristas don’t seem to follow much of a process. Rather than grind the coffee fresh, they fill up the dosing hopper to 75% and merely lever out grounds when ordered and compact the coffee with the built-in plastic tamp. There’s no measurement, no timing, no yield weights and typically no purging of the machine. The end result is what you would expect with blind brewing — extremely hot and over/under extracted coffee that has poor taste.
It’s was no surprise to learn that many espresso drinkers use several sugar packets with their espresso or order a milk-based drink. Similar to the espresso, frothing of milk gets little attention and is often under temperature or slightly scolded.
Diamonds in the rough
With 95% of all coffee being poorly executed in Portugal, there is hope for the future. A few specialty coffee shops have cropped up in the larger cities with the mission to educate the locals on what good coffee is and where it comes from. In speaking with several shop owners, I was able to understand a bit of what their up against.
Unlike commodity coffee which may be full of defects or come from less desirable regions, speciality coffee is graded and held to a specific standard; this means a more complex taste, a higher quality cup and a more expensive purchase on the coffee shop’s behalf. In procuring and serving these specialty coffees, many shops are forced to roast their own beans in order to maintain freshness which translates to a more labor-intensive process.
One of the many challenges shops face is getting clients to recognize that quality means spending slightly more — something that hasn’t quite caught on yet since most people don’t care where the coffee comes from. Assuming the consumer is willing to spend a bit more, the next major hurdle is taste. Speciality coffees are generally roasted lighter in order to preserve the nuanced flavors of the bean and have a very different taste when compared to a darker, charred roast. Several speciality shop owners told me that some customers would refuse to pay because what they received was “not coffee” or was too sour.
Coffee futures in Portugal
Traveling through Portugal and exploring the coffee scene there was a lot of fun. I got to meet a lot of new people and could really see the passion they had for introducing higher quality coffee into the region. I believe these shops will be successful, especially the ones that highlight other local producers of food and drink like pastries, desserts and beer. In the meantime, I suspect more automated machines like Nespresso to replace the bulkier group head espresso machines in most shops. If you’d like to see some of the specialty coffee shops I visited on my trip, check out my Google Maps list or follow me on Instagram.