Two beer brands dominate in Portugal, with Sagres and Super Bock sharing 80% of the beer market (JPCC Araújo, 2011). In Porto, Super Bock is by far the more popular and widespread of the two, with around 70% of the market share in Northern Portugal (P Nunes, 2010).
Super Bock is in just about every bar, restaurant, cafe and shop in Porto – it was a few days before we came across a bar serving Sagres on draught (Galeria de Paris). However, a few smaller Portuguese breweries, including one in Porto, now offer an alternative to these mass produced lagers. Although the area is obviously most well known for its Port Wine, the city’s speciality dish, francesinha, is essentially a cheese sandwich in a beer sauce.
Os Três Cervejeiros (The Three Brewers) in Porto launched the Sovina brand in October 2011 and produce a handful of unfiltered, ‘artisan’ beers. We first tried them in Mercearia das Flores, a cafe and delicatessen that is, so far as we know at the time of writing, the only place to serve draught Sovina in Porto. The Helles we tried there remains my favourite of their beers – full-bodied, grainy, slightly sweet, a lingering nettly hop bitterness – we returned the following day for more. It was served with a bowl of Lupini beans which, once you’ve got the knack of popping the beans from the skin, are a perfect accompaniment, slightly bitter and with some residual salt from the brine.
We also bought bottles of the Stout, Amber, Trigo (hefeweizen) and the IPA, a bitter and spicy English style IPA which we later encountered again at Casa da Horta, enjoying a bottle with our meal. We were tempted by their limited edition beer aged in Port wine barrels, but not enough to pay over 30 Euros for it, althought rest of the beers were only €3 per bottle.
Mercearia das Flores also had several bottles from Cerveja Letra, a brewery less than 50 miles north of Porto, whose beers have only been available since last October. Founded by two researchers at the University of Minho, the brewery has so far released four beers, letters A to D, but they plan to continue through the alphabet as they experiment with different recipes.
The Letra B Pilsner was outstanding, fruity and grassy, the nicest beer we had during our trip to Porto, and although we weren’t keen on the weiss beer and couldn’t finish it, we really enjoyed the red ale and wished we could have tried the stout (Letra C) but Mercearia das Flores had sold out.
A short walk away, Prova on Rua Ferreira Borges had bottles from Vadia, a brewery established in 2006 less than 50 miles south of Porto in Aviero. We only tried the Vadia Ruiva, and it was okay, but a bit too acidic for my tatses, and I’ll admit I preferred a Super Bock.
I enjoyed Super Bock, in the same way I enjoy a Cruzcampo or Estrella Damm when in Spain – no doubt the sunshine and setting helped, but I found it crisp and refreshing, the sweet malty finish may be subtle but is still more flavoursome than it’s competitor Sagres.
Super Bock has its own restaurant in Porto, Caves da Cerveja, with a range of beers and various bits of brewing equipment assembled to suggest it is brewed on site (it isn’t). Despite the range available, had they not been tasted back-to-back, I doubt I would have noticed much difference between the Super Bock, the Puro Malte and the Abadia. The tasting notes describe the beers as ‘artesanal’, and emphasise the “freshness and purity of it’s components” with the tagline ‘Sabor Autentico’ – authentic flavour, whatever that actually means. It’s tempting to imagine these descriptions are a response to an emerging threat from microbreweries, but it seems they’ve been describing their beers like this for at least the past fifteen years.
It’s only ten years ago that Super Bock launched a stout, finally offering an alternative to their ubiquitous lager. Probably one of the most enjoyable of their beers, it poured with a creamy head and, although the roasty flavours were muted, went down easily.
Sagres also produces a stout – Sagres preta – with a similarly creamy head but more towards coal smoke than the roasty Super Bock Stout. Again, enjoyable enough, which is more than can be said for Sagres’ main product, a thin, bland lager that no doubt is best enjoyed cold in the heat of an Algarve summer, but even then would perhaps be no more refreshing than the water before any of the ingredients were added. For reasons I can’t quite appreciate, both Sagres and Super Bock are popular in mini bottles, with Sagres even available in mini can.
So, there’s good beer to be found in Porto, it’s just not widespread, but it seems the choice will continue to increase in the near future…