There are ever fewer decent-sized European cities left untouched by the explosion of ‘good’ beer over the past couple of years. Specialist beer bars, nano-breweries, and ‘craft extensions’ of well established brands are the name of the game from Belfast to Athens and most places in between.
I asked on Twitter a couple of weeks ago if anyone had a recommendation or two for good beer in Lisbon (or Portugal more generally) and got bugger all in return. Now, I’m not endowed with multiple-thousand followers, but a simple question like “where does a man go for a good bevvy in a city” usually gets a couple of responses. “Ah shit”, I thought (well, not really, bucketloads of decent Vinho Tinto at less than a fiver per litre isn’t the worst eventuality, is it?). Even after relatively substantial googling, I couldn’t find a “where to drink good beer in Lisbon” post other than the ever-handy Ratebeer Places page, which yielded a couple of spots to get me started. So, in a rampant return to travel/beer writing, here’s one for all you future thirsty Lisbon visitors.
First, let’s start with a sense of realism to manage your expectations. In terms of pushing the boundaries of beer production or selection, Lisbon is not Vermont, London, Brussels or Copenhagen. “Big Beer” still has a very, very firm grip on what locals (and tourists) pour into their glasses and down their necks. Indeed, even the epitome of Lisbon’s craft culinary scene, The Time Out Mercado da Ribeira (which houses 30+ permanent stalls of the best food, wine, and spirits the city has to offer) is sponsored by local mega-brand, Super Bock, who have done a careful job of making their logo tough to avoid on each and every stand. So, in 99/100 bars in the city, asking for a cerveja will get you a short glass of Mediocre Bock or its slightly-more-palatable mate, Sagres, rather than a waiter handing you a beer list. This said, there’s a rumbling in the beery underground. Lisbon already has a fine reputation for its general drinking scene, with some of the friendliest and most-hospitable bars in Europe. So, with its great climate, affordable prices, throngs of visitors, and a nascent start-up scene (Web Summit 2016 will take place here – quite a coup for the city), I’m glad it’s not only me who thinks that Lisbon is a place primed and ready for a decent beer revolution.
The key players in the Lisboan good beer movement
As with all culinary/cultural sea changes, there are always a few brave trailblazers who take the jump and start building the foundations of “the new scene”. Lisbon is a city in early-pioneer mode, with visitors being able to see the beer-equivalent of the first conquistadors donning armbands and doggy-paddling towards the South American beaches from their anchored ship. Over my ten days in beautiful, bloody-hilly Lisbon, I was lucky to get to meet a couple personally and to drink the early batches of the rest.
Let’s start with the biggest “do not miss” of this article: Dois Corvos and their fabulous taproom. This place ticks a lot of boxes: a large range of well-made beer across diverse styles, a friendly team, and housed in aesthetically beautiful surroundings. Dois Corvos also have the handy bonus of being located right by one of the public bus stops en route to the world-renowned Océanario from the city centre. A few beers, then going to stare at some massive sharks: weekday afternoons don’t get too much better.
Highlights of the Dois Corvos range were certainly the pale ales on offer: all clean, bright, juicy, and displaying an (very welcome to this drinker) aversion to crystal malt. Starburst IPA (7% ABV) was the winner, with all the zest, tang and juice you’d expect from its heavy new-world hop bill, framed perfectly by a light shortcake-like malt profile. Away from the pales, an Imperial Porter, a Chocolate Milk Stout and a beefed-up Scotch Ale all impressed, as did the prices. Happily, tasting flights and growlers-to-go are available and business seems to be flourishing. Dois Corvos is open 1-6pm Monday-Thursday, with hours extended into the later evening on Friday and Saturday. Pretty generous and extensive opening times for a small brewery taproom, you’ll agree, but as co-founder and head brewer Scott said of his team “we’re all here sweating away in the brewery every afternoon, so you guys may as well come have a drink and watch us from the bar!”
(Dois Corvos. R. Cap. Leitão 94, 1950 Lisboa, Portugal)
Away from the delights of the Dois Corvos taproom, I was glad to find several other Portuguese breweries knocking out some good gear. Oitava Colina have a cracking IPA, full of grapefruit rind and proper resinous bitterness while remaining clean and light-enough in body. Although the IPA really sang in keg format, I saw bottles of this (and the rest of their core range) at plenty of restaurants/cafes even in the most touristy of areas, so they’re clearly doing something right.
As well as recently collaborating with leading Dutch outfit, De Molen, local crowd Mean Sardine have come up with a very refreshing citrus-heavy American wheat ale / Weissbier hybrid called Tarrafa and a medium-bodied sappy, sprucey Black IPA, Voragem. Definitely worth adding to the list if you can seek them out.
Big shout out to the folks at Passarola for a pair of very decent (if a bit malt-heavy for my tastes) pales, Blind Date IPA and their eponymous IPA. Someone’s even got in on single-hop territory, with tiny outfit Cerveja Bolina nailing a catty, dank, mango-heavy (and very fashionably murky) Nelson Sauvin IPA.
The above were certainly the best of the bunch and painted a very positive picture of the incumbent brewing talent in and around Lisbon. Yes, a few other brews I tried lacked finesse or had minor flaws, but overall I’d say 70%+ of the Portuguese microbrews I sampled wouldn’t have tasted out of place in the taprooms of some of Europe’s leading brewers and none of them were complete write-offs. Not bad for somewhere that seems to be a beer desert at first glance, eh?
The best places to drink the good stuff in Lisbon
Hearing good things about the local beer is one thing, but what about the bar scene?
Well, happily, the more established of the decent local brews (i.e. the core ranges from Oitava Colina and Dois Corvos) are available at a surprisingly wide range of bars, cafes, and restaurants, the majority of which aren’t even trying to pretend they’re anything to do with craft beer (many places dotted around the castle and wider Alfama area, for example).
While this certainly bodes well for the future and shows that Portugal’s early craft beer pioneers are not 100% confined to a tiny niche, there are two Lisboan bars (at opposite ends of the city centre and with polar-opposite vibes), which cater for the real niche-dwelling beer enthusiasts out there.
A bar clearly influenced by the new-age Nordic beer scene: light colours, open space, and minimalist design (apart from a couple of very welcome comfy couches thrown in for good measure). Cerveteca walks the walk in terms of beer selection, too, with 12 rotating taps of gear both from Portugal and further afield (with around a 50/50 ratio). When I popped in, there were a couple of great pale ales pouring from Oitava Colina and Bolina alongside the remnants of what must’ve been a mini De Molen tap takeover, with big-hitters such as Rasputin, Hel & Verdoemenis, and Vuur & Vlam all in great form (and available in 150ml pours as part of one of their 5-beer flights). Add to this a fantastic selection of well-priced bottles – including a dedicated sour and wild ale fridge – and you have a recipe for a top beer bar, regardless of location.
(Cerveteca Lisboa. Praça das Flores 62, 1200-192 Lisboa, Portugal)
At the ‘other side of town’ in Alfama (just 2km as the crow flies, but you try getting that crow to walk up and down those bloody hills) we have a place with a very different aesthetic and vibe: LisBeer. More grunge than finesse, more spit-and-sawdust than Nordic-chic, but with an equally good focus on local beer. Set sprawling across the cave-like bottom floor of a Christ-knows-how-old building in the castle district, this place makes more of an imposing impression than its modern cross-town cousin. In the perennial twilight of LisBeer, lives a really great bunch of bartenders who clearly give a shit about decent beer and good service. Smiles, conversation, table service and “don’t worry guys, settle the bill when you leave” get things off to a favorable start. It’s a place in which to linger, with raucous conversation from the mix of locals and blow-ins, a good indie playlist, and pretty cheap pricing. The selection is more limited than Cerveteca (6 taps and 70-ish bottles, so more-or-less half the range), but that’s no bad thing. LisBeer seems to be really focused on pushing local stuff, with a Portuguese-only beer menu thrust into the hands of anyone approaching the bar and the aforementioned friendly staff more than willing to offer guidance to the uninformed. What stands out from the healthy-looking Portuguese beer list? Definitely worth checking out the full Mean Sardine bottle selection here, as I didn’t come across their stuff anywhere else in the city – some top beers.
(LisBeer. Beco do Arco Escuro 1, Lisboa, Portugal)
In summary, Lisbon’s beer landscape is in a very exciting place. There’s lots about today’s scene that reminds me of the early days of my time in Ireland in the late 2000s – when the acclaimed likes of Galway Bay, Eight Degrees, and The White Hag were all but twinkles in some entrepreneurial eyes – just when the beer scene was starting to get creative. However, while Ireland had a beer heritage for new brewers to resurrect and play around with (the country’s biggest tourist attraction is housed in a giant pint glass at St. James’ Gate, for Christ’s sake), Portugal does not. For the most part, the Portuguese mentality towards beer is uncomplicated: “it’s warm out there, I’m thirsty, I’d love a [insert your brand preference] lager”. Thus, what we’re seeing here is this new age of Portuguese indie brewers having to shop abroad and copy the works of their American, British, Belgian and Scandinavian counterparts. No bad thing, as this article hopefully confirms, but the one missing ingredient from my trip was a brew of true originality, reflecting what Portugal is all about. Maybe when I go back, someone will have whacked a batch of imperial stout in Tawny Port barrels, or will have aged a sour ale on ginjinha-soaked cherries? Or maybe some of the talented Portuguese brewers featured here have already tried the above and the results were bloody disgusting? If that’s the case, then I’ll shut up and get back to enjoying some very well executed and well-priced Portuguese pale ales, as should you…