The Portuguese Coffee Pioneers

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14th November 2016

When I think of Portugal I think of Lisbon’s old yellow trams, tiny coves along the coast, barbecued sardines, hearty red wine and…Cristiano Ronaldo, which is unfortunate for a Barcelona fan like me.

I certainly don’t think about speciality coffee.

But guess what? The times they are a-changing, and Portugal’s coffee scene is changing with it – thanks to the work of innovative businesses like the Combi Coffee Truck and Luso Coffee Roasters.

Portugal coffee scene

But before we explore their role in the emerging speciality coffee scene, let’s take a look at the past -and acknowledge Portugal’s key role in bringing coffee to Europe.

The Portuguese first got their hands on coffee beans in 1727 thanks to the cunning work of a soldier named Francisco de Melo Palheta. At that stage in history the Portuguese Empire included territories in India, Africa and the Americas – including Brazil, where Palheta was stationed.

Legend tells us Portuguese leaders recognised the importance of the coffee industry in neighbouring French Guiana – but the governor there was unwilling to export seeds to a rival. Undeterred, Palheta seduced the governor’s wife during a diplomatic visit. As a parting gift she gave him a bouquet of flowers in which she’d hidden coffee seeds. Just like that, coffee was introduced to Brazil – and it’s been one of the world’s biggest coffee producers ever since.

Portuguese colonists developed extensive plantations across the country during the 18th century then sent the beans to Portugal for roasting and distribution. Cafes started opening in cities like Lisbon and Porto, attracting artists and politicians who would debate the issues of the day while drinking short, sharp coffees. The habit spread across the nation and today the Portuguese population consumes vast quantities of coffee every day, traditionally served in one of three ways :

  • galão, espresso with steamed milk
  • garoto, espresso with a little milk foam
  • bica, an espresso

The common denominator is a base of very dark, very bitter coffee. So bitter, in fact, that some claim the word bica is an acronym for the Portuguese phrase Beba Isto Com Açúcar – drink this with sugar.

So is there a place in Portugal for speciality coffee with complex aromas and absolutely no sugar?

The Coffee Universe believes there is.

Another believer is Porto-based entrepreneur Diogo Amorim, who launched Luso Coffee Roasters six months ago. He admits it is challenging to change habits which are so ingrained in the Portuguese coffee culture. “There are still many people who prefer the coffee that is the most available in Portugal – a bitter, strong espresso, with a lot of crema.” But he says customers are “surprised and curious” when they try speciality coffee for the first time.

Luso Coffee Roasters Specialty Coffee Ethiopia

He says, “It goes without saying that I only listen to the ones who don’t add sugar. The majority of them enjoy it – they get really excited for the taste and want to know more about our coffee and what we are doing. For customers to have a better idea about specialty coffee, I compare the underlying logic of it with artisan beers. I know it is not a perfect example but it helps people to better understand since craft beer has become really popular in Portugal during last years. There are currently only few specialty coffee roasters and we all do our best to spread information and raise awareness that there is more than just coffee.”

Diogo has been surrounded by coffee his whole life. His father worked in the coffee distribution industry for 40 years and Diogo studied a masters in Coffee Economics and Science. But it was a trip to the coffee plantations in Ethiopia that inspired him to launch Luso Roasters.

Luso Coffee Roasters Specialty Coffee Ethiopia 02

He says: “I could see and feel the birth of the magic bean that changed our world. It was an indescribable experience to be in the country where all started, to walk in the farms, and to meet the hardworking and incredibly dedicated people there.”

He started planning the business on his return to Portugal and remains hugely passionate about his work.

“Each coffee roaster gives a special passion to the coffee. It’s the activity which makes me the happiest – the possibility of controlling the change from green coffee to roasted, seeing the Maillard reaction happening in front of your eyes, hearing the first crack, creating blends and profiles. It is an incredible feeling.”

But does his hard work pay off?

“It is a constant fight,” he says. “What seem to be the first factors at the Portuguese market are price and the known name of a coffee brand.”

He says speciality coffee is at “a very early stage” in Porto. He says increased tourism is helping boost its popularity as new cafés and restaurants open their doors – but says the city has a long way to go before it can emulate the coffee scene in other European cities.

“Developments have not been as visible when it comes to opening coffee houses, or cafeterias with hip and relaxed atmosphere like the ones you see in other European countries. In Porto you can still see only very few of those.”

The good news is – there’s one more on the way.

Coffee connoisseur Gonçalo Cardoso launched the Combi Coffee Truck in September last year with two business partners and they’ve been roasting and brewing coffee on the road ever since. On the back of their success with the truck they’ve decided to open a new speciality coffee shop in the historic centre of Porto.

Combi coffee Porto

But in such a challenging market, what’s the secret of their success? Simple. Good coffee and a smile.

“We have spent the last year and a half working on the truck and on finding the right green coffee beans and the perfect roasting. We are not done with that but we are pretty happy with our coffee now – and so are our customers.

“There are two very satisfying moments. First, getting the perfect blend, the perfect roast and the perfect brew. The second moment comes naturally after the first one – seeing and hearing the feedback from our customers. It satisfies us to know that the little details in preparing coffee matter and our customers realize that.

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“Because we move around a lot, it is very rewarding to see a customer come back specifically because of our coffee. If someone had the trouble to check where we are and go all the way to meet us at our location, that shows us that we are on the right track, that the coffee is good and that the costumer enjoyed our service. That´s our moto – good coffee and a smile equals a happy costumer.”

But will they park the Combi Coffee Truck forever once they open the café? Not a chance.

“Our truck will still be open for business. The shop will not modify our spirit. On the contrary, it will enhance it. We will keep our informal and friendly attitude along with our best coffee. And everyone will always know where to find us every day.”

Despite having two coffee businesses in one city, Gonçalo admits it can sometimes be difficult convincing locals to try something new.

He says: “We always explain everything about our coffee to our customers. The Portuguese tend to be a little surprised with our detailed explanations but in general, tourists and people from other countries are more into coffee and already know about specialty coffee.

Combi coffee Porto

Portugal is a place where coffee and espresso are synonyms, so all the Portuguese care about is a full bodied creamy espresso shot regardless of the origin or variety of the coffee beans. We are actively trying to change that. Slowly but steadily.

In my experience, slow and steady wins the race.

And if other companies share the energy, passion and innovative spirit of forerunners like Luso Coffee Roasters and the Combi Coffee Truck, Portugal’s coffee scene is definitely on the right track.

To conclude, there’s more to Portugal than fish and famous footballers.

And there’s much, much more to Portuguese coffee than bitter, black bica.