Summer is blazing across Portugal with a vengeance, turning the hillsides brown, packing the beaches with holidaymakers and igniting a hundred forest fires across this parched and intriguing land. What better place to escape this seasonal mayhem than the Douro Valley? Apart from being one of Europe’s oldest wine growing regions, the Douro also offers some of Portugal’s most dramatic landscapes, royal palaces, Gothic cathedrals and picturesque river ports.
Table wine has been produced on these steep and rocky terraces since Roman times, but the region is best known for its rich and complex port wines – this trade, pioneered by famous British port houses such as Taylors, Sandman’s, Croft and Offley, dates back to 1703. What then were my chances of finding an artisan beer (cerveja artisanal) in the land of Vinho Verde, Mateus Rose and Tawny Port? Not that hard, as it turns out.
After a morning exploring the delightful city of Guimarães, just 55-kilometres north west of Porto I found a little pavement café serving 1927 craft beer on tap. The €5 (A$7.50) tasting paddle consisted of anniversary lager, amber IPA, wheat beer and a German style Dunkel – all which were pleasant, fresh and bursting with flavour. The charming view across the medieval square, Largo Da Oliveira, surely one of the loveliest in Portugal, was complimentary.
Since these 1927 beers are produced by Unicer, the giant conglomerate behind Portugal’s biggest selling beer, Super Bock, they hardly qualify as boutique brews. Nevertheless it was heartening to see that with Super Bock and its rival brand Sagres Portugal has maintained a strong brewing tradition and resisted incursion by the likes of Heineken, Grolsch and Peroni – although it has to be said that Unicer does produce the equally ubiquitous Carlsberg under licence. In the Douro, Super Bock in its many guises (the company makes excellent dark ales, plus some novelty flavoured beers and pre-mixed beer cocktails) reigns supreme. In part because beer is really cheap in Portugal, as little as €0.80 (A$1.20) for a small glass in non-touristy bars.
Despite this impressive brewing tradition the small Iberian nation of 10.5 million people is a latecomer to the global craft beer revolution. According to Lonely Planet the first craft beer bar, Cerveteca Lisboa, didn’t open its doors until 2104 and the demand for craft beer among the country’s young urban elite has been tepid to say the least. Today, the capital offers just two brewpubs, five dedicated craft beer bars and about a dozen microbreweries, such as Dois Corvos, Bolina, Passarola, LX, Mean Sardine, Musa and the wonderfully named Amnesia. Thanks to their efforts Portuguese are now able to sample Chocolate Porters, Imperial Pale Ales, Belgium Blonde Ales and even more exotic brews such as Smoked Baltic Porter.
One of the pioneers of the Portuguese craft-brewing scene is Rui Bento, the founder of Amnesia Brewery and a police officer by day. "A lot of my fellow officers have tried some of my beers and liked them lots," he told Lonely Planet. "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!"
The slow growth of craft beer in Portugal seems to have more to do with economics than consumer trends. The country was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and has taken longer than most to recover. Many young professionals – the target market for craft beer – are now working in France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Although youth unemployment remains high, there is a tangible sense of confidence in the Douro – hopefully many of these expats will soon be able to return to their native country and help fuel the modest craft beer revolution in Portugal. Until then, I’m happy to drink Super Bock Original– Europe’s cheapest and freshest mass-produced lager.
Mark Chipperfield visited Guimaraes as a guest of Scenic Cruises (www.scenic.com.au) which operates a 10-day cruise along the Douro River.