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On the hop: Lisbon’s exploding craft beer scene

A cold beer in Portugal has traditionally meant one of two things: Sagres or Super Bock. These two everyman lagers, created during military dictatorships, have dominated the country’s beer landscape for decades.

But a hop-heavy suds revolution is brewing in Lisbon and beyond. Europe’s oldest independent capital city is finally embracing the craft beer booze-fest.

Portugal’s tyrannical two-brew past

Although its beer history isn’t as famous or marketed quite as well as that of some of its European neighbours, Portugal-produced beer predates the country itself, going all the way back to pre-Roman Lusitania. But foreign influence was heavily muted during the Estado Novo, the totalitarian dictatorship that ran the small Iberian nation from 1933 to 1974.

Two rebel-rousing domestic brands, Sagres and Super Bock, flowed freely from the taps with little competition. Coincidence that Lisbon-speak for a draught beer is imperial? Not likely.

“During the dictatorship, society was so nationalistic; they didn’t want to import or export, or the influence of anything coming in,” says American chef/brewer Adam Heller, who recently opened Chimera Brewpub in Lisbon’s industrially hip Alcântara neighbourhood. “They wanted to preserve their identity.”

The taps they are a-changin’

Fast-forward a few decades and Lisbon is emerging from the crippling global financial crisis with guns blazing: the city is suddenly finding itself in the unusual position of European tastemaker. Booming on the backs of returning waves of creatives, many of whom left the country to explore opportunities abroad during the thinnest years of the recession (and were no doubt exposed to imperial pale ales, porters and saisonsalong the way), today, Lisbon is hungry for hops and thirsty for choice.

Lisbon’s first craft beer bar, Cerveteca Lisboa, opened its doors in 2014 on leafy Praça das Flores, thus opening the cerveja artesanal floodgates. Just a few years later, Lisbon now counts two brewpubs, at least five dedicated craft beer bars, nearly a dozen established microbreweries and numerous contract and home brewers among its craft arsenal.

Rui Bento, founder and head brewer at Amnesia Brewery, is a shining example of Portugal’s new generation of hopheads. At his day job, Bento keeps the peace as a police officer in the Lisbon suburb of Oeiras. Off-duty, his homebrews are changing Portugal one police officer at a time. “A lot of my fellow officers have tried some of my beers and liked them lots,” he says. “They now understand the difference between craft beer and industrial beer, and realise why I drink craft. I’m trying to show them that there’s another life beyond industrial beers!”

Bento won Portugal’s National Craft Beer Contest in 2015 for his Juniper Smokin’, a Baltic Porter-based smoked beer brewed with juniper berries, the likes of which most Portuguese have never experienced.

Ironically, the same sort of “Buy Local” movement that was prevalent during the dictatorship is driving Portugal’s craft beer scene today, albeit not dictatorially forced; the country’s newly installed national confidence has extended to its suds. “I want to keep things local,” says Bento. “Craft beer only makes sense for me this way. Sure, I would love to sell my beer all over the country, and maybe outside Portugal, but my focus is, and always will be, local.”

Craft brew breakdown

“The craft beer explosion is happening in Lisbon for basically the same reason it’s happening everywhere – drinkers are demanding better quality and more variety in the beer they drink,” says American Scott Steffens, who in 2015 opened Dois Corvos, the first Lisbon brewery with a taproom (bar on the premises). “When we started, the scene was nearly a blank slate with only a few styles represented. In our first year we introduced 26 beers!”

But where to find them? Here’s the latest rundown of where to quench your thirst for cold cerveja artesanal.

Want to have a craft beer experience? Come with us.

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