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Portugal’s Coffee: A Sumptuous and Delectible Treat

Portugal, like most southern European countries, is no stranger to the almighty espresso. In fact, café is so ingrained into the Portuguese lifestyle, culture and history that without this dark and robust beverage, the country would most certainly come to a complete halt – or at least a short metaphysical pause. In part, this passion for goes well beyond a small caffeine jolt, as the flavor and quality of Portuguese coffee have been touted as legendary.

How does such a fine cup o’ joe find its way to Portugal? After the age of conquest, circa the 15th century, most of Portugal’s colonies turned out to be some of the great coffee bean producing regions of the world to which their trade connections still thrive today. The Portuguese are partially responsible for the universal success of coffee, when Francisco de Mello Palheta was sent from Brazil to French Guiana to fetch a coffee plant in 1727. In the following years, the Portuguese colonists initiated the first coffee plantings in Brazil. Throughout the rest of the 18th century, Brazilian coffee beans were hauled back to Portugal for roasting (torrefação) and enjoyed by the royal court and noble houses. After the great 1755 earthquake, the Marques de Pombal incented the inauguration of the first public cafes in Lisbon, which were held in high regard as centers for debate and educated thought. These esteemed cafes became the meeting point for both famous Portuguese artists and politicians alike. For the next century, coffee became the main export of Brazil, founding many of the legendary Portuguese companies that still exist today.

Currently, there are approximately 12 leading coffee companies, and several small regional companies dotted throughout the country. As mentioned before, you can’t meander down a stone street without passing at least a handful of cafes.

With the exception of that first, morning espresso, if you ask most Portuguese why they drink coffee, they espouse its intense flavor. Consequently, it’s enjoyed throughout the day including: as a mid-morning as a break, one after work as a way to meet up and socialize with friends, and one after each meal. Thus, on average, one might enjoy around 3 bicas a day.

The term bica,  is used by the Portuguese to mean a regular (short) espresso and “bica cheia” if you want a long one. Bica is not actually a real word in Portuguese and there are many theories as to how the term was coined originally. Mind you, the term “bica” is used in Lisbon only. In Porto, it’s called “cimbalino“.  The term came from the first espresso machines in Portugal, which were branded, “La Cimbali”. Therefore, cimbalino means “little cimbali”.

According to the famous Café A Brasileira in Chiado (or Majestic Cafe in Porto), there are two versions. The first version references a man who received a poor cup of coffee when visiting the cafe one day. He then asked for a bica, meaning that he wanted the coffee to be made from freshly roasted beans, as opposed to bulk, mass produced coffee. The second version is that on one, very cold day in the early 1900′s, a man by the name of Luis Gama came from Ribatejo with a large group of men for coffee. At the time, the single espresso style coffee didn’t exist and until 1920, filtered coffee was brewed in bulk and kept in large, wooden cafeteiras in which the waiters had to fill each cup one at a time. But before they would bring the cups of coffee to the table, the waiter would first set down the silverware, the sugar container, and the milk container and then would finally bring the coffee, which by the time the last cup arrived, was practically cold! Albino Goncalves was the known waiter at the time and everyone called him Albino. So when Luis Gama yelled for him to bring him a fresh, hot coffee, he yelled “O Albino, vai mas é á bica!”  Which meant “Albino, go to the bica!” and was apparently heard by everyone in the café.  Afterward, people would use Gama’s saying  jokingly “O Albino, para o senhor Gama, é bica!” or “Albino, for Mr. Gama, it’s bica!”, and thus supposedly, bica was designated for the future espresso.

Some still say that bica is just an abbreviation for “Bebe isto com açucar”, which is Portuguese for “Drink this with sugar”. And from my observation of coffee drinking habits here, this theory sounds more plausible. If you didn’t get the hint already from my past articles on Portugal’s pastelerias and regional pastries, the Portuguese adore sugar, as further exemplified by the sugar packet that come with chocolate milkshakes. Hence, when you order a bica , it always comes with a packet of sugar, which is by the same brand as the coffee sold, as are the cups and saucers and logo on the front awning of the cafe. However, the Portuguese don’t seem to have a preference for any particular brand of coffee, claiming they all taste “fine.

Yet despite my Portuguese brethren’s lack of preference for their coffee brands, I was curious. So, I recently took the time to taste-test five of the most popular Portuguese coffee brands, giving each one a score of 1-10: 1 being the best and 1 the worst. Each was tasted as a short espresso with no sugar added; however I did make a note if the brand came with a memorable sugar packet. I also provided a little background information I gathered on each brand, including where they get their beans. I have also listed some of the other known coffee brands that I didn’t get a chance to taste test, but that you might want to explore during your stay in Portugal. However, please keep in mind that a poor coffee can also be a result of the machine, the person making the coffee or the quality of the water. Therefore, please read my notes with these additional factors in mind.

I hope you’ll have the chance to experience and enjoy this wonderfully warm coffee culture when you visit Portugal, as I look forward to having every day here. Stop in a gourmet store, or even a supermarket, before you leave and get some of Portugal’s delicious coffee to take home with you! What is your favorite Portuguese coffee brand and how do you like to experience it?

A Toast to the Roast,

Andrea Smith

Delta: Probably the largest and most renowned coffee brand in Portugal, Delta has graced Portugal for over 40 years and has gained its fame for its three high quality labels:

  • Delta Ouro (Gold)- selected from a lot of Arabica beans from the Americas and characteristic single vintage African Robustas. Intense and full-bodied.
  • Platina (Platinum)-from the best selected Arabicas and Robustas. Delicate aroma and smooth flavor.
  • Diamante (Diamond)- Taken from the best green coffee beans from the best origins and twice roasted in the Delta style. Rich aroma and incomparable flavor. This one is my all-time favorite, as it is of most Portuguese I asked who actually had a preference.

Taste Test: (Delta Regular) brewed well, strong aroma, light to medium bodied, somewhat smooth consistency; almost drinkable without sugar. Rating: 7/10

Nicola: This brand originated from Lisbon’s emblematic Cafe Nicola, popular with politicians and writers during the early 1800′s. It is now owned by Nestlé Portugal and the coffee beans come from Brazil, São Tomé and Principe. Nicola’s sugar packets have cute, motivational messages on them and “wish you a good coffee”.

Taste Test: brewed very well, balanced aroma, medium-full bodied, smooth flavor; can easily drink without sugar. Rating: 9/10

Café A Brasileira: One of the most famous cafes in Lisbon and a huge tourist destination. The brand has been around since the late 1800′s under different names, and the current name of the roasting and distribution company since 1906. The coffee beans come from (no surprise) Brazil.

Taste Test: brewed decently, bitter aroma, light bodied (thin), bitter flavor; cannot really drink without sugar. *Most expensive espresso by far at €1.50!* Not worth it. Rating: 5/10

Tofa: Been around since the early 1960′s and is also owned by Nestlé Portugal. Coffee beans come from Angola. Sugar packets talk about Lisbon’s appreciation for coffee and has a pretty sketch of the trolley going along the street.?Taste Test: Brewed decently, robust aroma, light to medium bodied, strange intense, charcoal flavor and almost chemical aftertaste. Cannot drink without sugar, however this seemed to blend really well with just a tiny bit of sugar and made for quite a decent coffee afterward. Rating: 4/10 w/out sugar; 7/10 with sugar

Sical: Been around since 1947, started as a coffee importer from Porto of pure roasts. They were acquired by Nestlé Portugal in 1987. Sical is the only brand that has cafes located down in all the Lisbon Metro stations as grab and go baristas without any seats. Coffee beans come from Angola.

Taste Test: brewed well, robust aroma, medium bodied, balanced, roasted flavor; can drink without sugar. Rating: 8/10

Look for these other well known Portuguese coffee brands as well: Buondi, Bicafé, Chave d’Ouro and Camelo.

  • steve

    From what is available here in Toronto, Delta is the best, but I must admit I am not sure which of those 3 blends it is. There is nothing better than a nice fresh pastel de nata and a good bica. Can be the most satisfying desert.

    • Andrea

      Steve, that was my favorite thing to have with my coffee in the afternoon when I first came here, probably because the Pastel de Nata was the only thing I knew the name of! Haha, but it's still a satisfying dessert indeed :)

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  • Ben

    I’ve used Sical, the basic Delta and one or two others at home. If fresh, they are consistently very good and make an espresso that’s not as dark as the Italian variety we’re used to in the US.

    I stand out from the native Portuguese because I like my espresso with dessert (not after) and without sugar (that’s what the dessert is for!).

    In the Portuguese lexicon, the mark of a good bica is an abundance of “espuma,” the golden foam on top. I don’t know if the term has the same nautical connotation in Portuguese, but it always makes me think of the spume-flecked ocean that connects the Lusophone world.

    • Andrea

      I agree with you Ben that dessert is supposed to be the sugar substitute for your espresso here, although I like mine strictly after I've eaten it, otherwise I'll crave more coffee with the sugar taste again! :)

      And yes, the mark of a good bica is definitely the espuma or "espresso foam", that is my favorite part, so much that I scrape it off the sides with my spoon just to get all of it up!

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  • http://twitter.com/vitormendes77 @vitormendes77

    Great article Andrea! Great research!

    • Andrea

      Thank you Vitor!

  • http://www.BrevilleEspressoMachine.com Timothy

    I haven't had one, but after reading your post, I now am more than eager to have a taste of Portugal's coffee. Hmmm… after I post this comment, I'll go see where I can buy one online. Thanks for this post!

  • Sócrates

    Also we have to take into account the coffee machine that is used (if it burns the coffee or not) and the water (Lisbon's water is rather poor in terms of 'taste'), although the quality of the coffee influences the taste a lot more.

    By the way, 'bica' is actually a word which can stand for the tube from where the water falls in a public spring. ( http://www.priberam.pt/dlpo/default.aspx?pal=bica ) ;)

    • Andrea

      Yes, those factors do effect the quality of the coffee, which is why I mention in the post that they should be taken into account. But as far as the water in Lisbon, I actually think it's quite good! The tap water I had back home in the States tends to be full of fluoride and chlorine and has a horrible taste so I was surprised to find the tap water water here so drinkable that I drink it every day. Maybe it's not filtered as well for commercial places….

      Ah, I didn't know about that definition for 'bica', it must not be known by many Portuguese as no one could tell me another definition for the word other than it's used to refer to espresso. But that makes more sense now as to how the term came about, I though the theories that I had read about were a bit strange :) Thanks!

      • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton Fontes

        The definitions by Sócrates and José Eduardo justify why we call "bica" to the espresso. Before the espresso machine appearance, coffee was made in pots so you couldn't see the coffee falling to the cup through a spout. This difference distinguished one type of coffee from the old one hence the name "bica".
        All the other explanations are just popular stories.

        Bica is a very known word besides the definition for espresso. Outside the cities I would bet everyone knows what bica is.

  • http://epicureanways.com Jane Gregg

    Your photos are beautiful!

    • Andrea

      Thank you! They are actually all mine taken from the past 2 years of memorable coffee experiences here :)

  • http://blog.sig9.net Nuno Loureiro

    Delta FTW! Despite that Delta has the best coffee (in my opinion) in the world, the family owned company is also a social responsible company and embraced the fair-trade commerce.

  • José eduardo

    bica
    (alteração de bico)

    s. f.1. Parte por onde a água ou qualquer líquido cai, de certa altura.
    2. Líquido que cai em fio.
    3. Fonte pública de água. = chafariz
    4. Café feito em máquina de pressão e servido geralmente em chávena pequena. = expresso
    5. Ictiol. Peixe da família dos esparídeos.
    6. Aveiro Caruma seca.
    bica aberta: processo de vinificação em que o vinho, logo depois da pisa, passa para a vasilha.
    em bica: copiosamente.
    estar à bica: estar prestes a ser servido.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/ryan7968 ryan opaz

      Nice! Now José after all the translation we've done for you, won't you help us translate for our readers! :) he he he

      I love the tie into Wine though….very interesting

      • José eduardo

        spout (change of nozzle)

        s. f.1. Part where the water or any liquid drops from a height.
        2. Liquid that falls into yarn.
        3. Public source of water. = Fountain
        4. Coffee made in pressing machine and usually served in small cup. = Express
        5. Ictiol. Fish of the sea breams.
        6. Aveiro Caruma "Pine needle" dry.
        spout open: the winemaking process where wine, just after pressed, goes into the a pot.
        profusely: copiously.
        be in the spout: about to be served.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/ryan7968 ryan opaz

          you rock! :

        • Andrea

          Very cool, thanks so much José!!!

          • José eduardo

            No need to thank me Andrea. Awesome post you have here ;)

  • Elisabete

    Hi Andrea! Very nice article! Good pictutes too!

  • http://www.cortesdecima.pt Carrie Jorgensen

    Portugal = Great coffee! Great wines! Great olive oil! Great cheese! Great presunto! Great fish! Great beaches! Great lifestyle! Great…..the list goes on and on……

  • Patti

    Hope to try all of them in a month when we visit with you! Can hardly wait!!

  • Sara

    Oh im portuguese, here coffee is so so GOOD!! Expresso in the morning makes my day ;). Coffee is good, nature is fine(except huge eucaliptus forest, historical places are so many and so interesting. wich is not portugueses but southern hemnisphere, and dries a lot the soil. if you want to check out nice forest, there are Margaraça and Sintra. Here people are nice to visitors, the food is very good. You foreign visitors are most welcome!! But our politics and economy is awfull and corrupt and we poor we suffer a lot. A lot os us are so hurted by life and low salaries…But still we will have enough smile to have you here, visit us : )

    • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton Fontes

      "But our politics and economy is awfull and corrupt and we poor we suffer a lot. A lot os us are so hurted by life and low salaries…" What an awful picture of Portugal, Sara! Are living in the same country I am?
      We are not the richest country in the world but for sure we are among the better ones to live!

      The human development index (way of measuring development by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income), created by the United Nations, ranks Portugal 34 th out of 182, within the 38 countries top list labelled with "very high human development".

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  • Aunt Do

    Good job Andrea. Uncle Harrie's favorite is the espresso from the coffee machine–French vanilla–I call it a vanilla milkshake. Yuk!! If we ever do visit Portugal, I will try one of their blends. Keep up the good work.

    • Andrea

      Thanks, I hope you do!!

  • http://bollywoodboldactorsnews.blogspot.com/ Nurit

    Hi,

    The secret of a memorable trip to Portugal remains on trying to escape the crowds and look for the out-of-the-way places. Many tourists still see Portugal as synonymous with Lisbon and the Algarve.

    –>

  • http://www.coffeeinspector.com roman

    I was twice in Portugal and the coffee i had in some Porto restaurants was great.
    Ok i love coffee so that is almost anywhere i go.

    BDW i have a coffe site that is dedicated to best coffee maker
    Cheers

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  • http://www.aboutcoffees.com/ K Cups

    A sugar packet with a milkshake? that is rich.

  • lebronjames

    All I know is that Portuguese women are hot..:)

  • http://www.aboutcoffees.com/ K Cups

    Portugal has such a great coffee history. The coffee there must be fantastic!

  • Jorginho

    About the Eucalypt…research has shown eucalypt are not nearly as bad as said over and over again by ecologists. Research instead of theory and prejudice (not unlike xenophobia in human culture) shows that many imported trees, like many spruces in The Netherlands are NOT ecological wastelands. I can vouch for that. They do well, MANY alsmost extinct funghi and fern species thrive in them. They are fantastic. In NW Portugal Eucalyptusforests are in fact rich. So are they in California, where it also has been touted as eco-deserts. Scientists need to inform people like unbiased researchers and not be so biased nationalistic unscientific people with clear preferences (national is good, foreign is bad…). Many of them look like the eugenitics in the 20th century and their ilk….
    And Portugal is a very nice country, where people do well! People in Portugal are very friendly and polite compared to my region (say The Netherlands and Scandinavia). We have more money. But Portugal is richer than us in social terms in my opinion. The weather is very good also. Come here in winter, if it is doesnot the rain, it snows and/or freezes!
    I am half Portugese so I do know. And the coffee…happy I can by it here in The Netherlands aswell now!

  • Bica e pastel

    I just returned from a trip to Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais. The expresso (spelled that way in Portuguese) was fabulous; I’m now totally obsessed with finding or making a reasonable facsimile of it at home in the U.S. – just until I can get back to Portugal, which I loved for a lot of other reasons too.