Drawing a long drag from his cigarette, he leans back, smiles and takes a gentle sip of his espresso. Despite the bitter chill, he revels in the bright winter sun, offering just enough warmth to tan his weathered cheeks. Gypsies draped in mismatched layers of multicolored apparel bow their heads for loose coins, while mothers sip their milky coffee between gentle coos to their babies. The neighborhood cafe is his jaunt, his place of respite from life’s pressures, a place where he can detach and let life’s chaos happen around him, rather than in him. For João, this is his second home.
Like much of southern Europe, the cafe is the heartbeat of the community. It’s where neighbors, grandmothers and businessmen convene to catch up on neighborhood gossip or banter political distress. It can also be one of the most intimidating places on earth as a foreigner for two reasons. One, every cafe has their own tribe, and finding one that speaks to you is a serious act of patience. And two, knowing what to order, or how to order it, is a regional affair in Portugal. So regional, and so very very personal, that it’s difficult to have two people agree on the definition of any one coffee style!
Now, although we can’t particularly help with the first – that’s all you baby – we can absolutely help with the second! For coffee lovers visiting Portugal, let this be your comprehensive guide to enjoying outstanding Portuguese coffee!
COFFEE WITHOUT MILK
Served in a 6 oz cup, it’s made like an espresso but allowed to run long to extract heaps of earthy goodness from the beans. If you’re looking for a creamy smooth texture, this may not be your desired coffee, but perfect for those who adore the flavor with a touch less viscosity.
UM AMERICANO (um café de saco)
For Americans, this might be a good fit. Ground arabica beans are placed inside a cloth bag and steeped in hot water until the desired intensity. The only drawback is that it’s usually made with the same beans as your espresso; hence, the flavor is less nuanced than you would find in a lighter roast. While you can enjoy a full cup that’s lighter than an espresso, the flavor might not be what you’ve come to expect.
UM CAFÉ (um cimbalino / uma bica)
A shot of espresso (2-3 oz) is the most ubiquitous style of coffee you’ll find in Portugal taken in heroine addict quantities – we’re talking 3-4 times a day! – and often paired with a pão simples or pão caseiro (crusty roll) or a Portuguese pastry. But if this isn’t enough to soothe a late night hangover, double it with a “um café duplo” (double), “um café lungo” (long), “café comprido” (long) or a “café cheio” (full). The opposite is also true if you’re just needing a taste without the commitment. Here, ask for a “um café curto” (half shot) or “um café cheio com agua” – espresso watered down with a shot of hot water.
UM CAFÉ EM CHÁVENA ESCALDADA
Coffee purists will adore this request, as will people with frigid hands on cold winter days. It literally translates to a scalding coffee cup. Your demitasse is first warmed in scalding hot water prior to the addition of espresso. It’s a great way to enjoy the warmth and flavor over a longer period of time. For steamy hot days, feel free to ask for the reverse as well “um café em chávena fria”
UM CAFÉ ITALIANA
This is the name for a very short shot of espresso, what might be known as a ristretto in other countries: normal quantity of grounds but extracted with about half the amount of water. If you’ve been to Rome, you’ll surely recognize the style.
For a Brazilian, this is the name for someone who lives in Rio de Janeiro. In Portugal, however, it means a very weak espresso. It’s the second shot of the last espresso the machine has served – or put another way, the leftover of “uma sem ponta”.
I’ll be honest, I have zero idea who would ever want to drink instant coffee in a country that prides itself on its gorgeous beans, but for those of you who enjoy the “flavor”, be sure to ask for “um nescafe”. For the rest of you, avoid it at all costs.
UMA SEM PONTA (sem principio)
If you love the flavor of espresso but need a touch less caffeine, this is the drink for you. The espresso is drawn without the first few drops, which some say, contain the greatest kick. In reality, the second half of the shot is simply a little less bitter, not necessarily less caffeine. As caffeine is slow to extract, the longer the draw the more caffeine you will get. Either way, you may very well adore this!
For the milk lovers among you, this warm latte-esque beverage is served in a tall glass with a shot of espresso and 3/4ths milk. For an even milkier version, try a “um galão clarinho” – or clear.
A close cousin to decaf, “um garoto” (little boy) is weak, milky espresso that’s commonly given to children. Served in an espresso cup, or 6 oz coffee cup, it’s made with either the first half or second half of the espresso shot (varies by region), then topped with milk.
UMA MEIA DE LEITE
Paired with a uma torrada (grilled bread smothered in butter) this is your typical morning fare. Served in an 6 oz coffee cup with a handle, expect a shot of espresso in a heap of milk. If you need a little more kick, ask for a “meia de leite escura” (dark)
If pure unadulterated coffee isn’t your…ahem…cup of tea, then why not add a drop or two of milk. Served in an espresso cup, it’s a great way to tame the intensity of the rich espresso. Most people will know this as a macchiato. For something even creamier, ask for…
UM CAFÉ PINGO (um cortado)
For something a touch creamier, ask for “um pingo”. It’s served with half espresso and half milk in an espresso cup.
Ordering Coffee (or just about anything in a café):
“Bom dia! Um café, faz favor.” -“Good Morning! One coffee (espresso), please.” Then, when the coffee is served, say: “Obrigada!” – “Thank you!” with an “a” because I’m female. For you gents out there, say “obrigado”. On your way out, make sure to say good day or good afternoon, because it’s your default phrase in every situation to just be a kind human being. (Bom Dia/Boa Tarde)
As for the bill? You can always make the international sign of tracing something on the palm of your hand as if you’re signing a check, but why not get all crazy and practice your Portuguese?! If you’re standing at the counter, ask: “Quanto é?” – “How much is it?” And if you’re sitting at the table, you can call over your waiter and ask: “Pode trazer a conta, se faz favor.” – “Could you bring the bill/check please?”
Done! You’re now proficient in Portuguese cafe culture! For the historian and foodie buffs around you, take a moment to read our backstory on Portuguese coffee. It’s a great read for people keen on understanding how and why coffee became a Portuguese mainstay. And if you happen to be in the area, why not check one of these 8 fabulous Porto cafes?!
Thank you to Café Guarany for helping us with our research, not to mention our caffeine levels!