Published on October 2, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


Preaching to the unconverted

John Atkinson and Phil Walker from Hemelvaart Bier Café in Ayton, Berwickshire, spent a fruitful time meeting enthusiastic craft beer brewers in Porto. John takes up the story…

It’s the middle of summer in sunny Porto; the temperature is in the mid-twenties. The crowds are out after work, strolling through the Jardins Do Palacio De Cristal, glad to be out after a few days where rain was the order of the day. They stop to sit at the tables and benches, eating tasty street food from an array of a dozen or so providers, listening to the music from the DJ on stage and chatting with friends. Some are sipping a beer from the 40-odd stalls lined up around the tables.

This is the charming setting for the Porto Beer Fest 2018. But the atmosphere is different to the usual beer festival; it’s so relaxed and for the most part, there’s no desperation to be trying as many different beers as possible. It’s almost as if the beer is an afterthought.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising. The craft beer scene is a very new, but fast growing phenomenon in Portugal. The first craft beer shop and bar in Porto – Catraio – only recently celebrated its third anniversary, and this is only the third Porto Beer Fest.

There’s no charge to enter the festival; it’s in a public park with access from all directions, so policing entry would be impossible. Anyway, access for as many as possible is the aim, so that the range of beers on offer reaches the widest audience. As organiser, Octavio Costa, says: “There’s no beer culture in Portugal, so we have to work hard to get people to discover the variety of beers on offer. The street food and the music get people to stop and look around at what this is all about.”

It’s a message echoed by one of the leading breweries in Portugal, Mean Sardine, whose founder, Marcos Praça, told us last year that the brewery had decided not to invest €300,000 in a new brewery precisely because there was not yet the market for craft beer in Portugal. Instead, Mean Sardine outsource the brewing of some beers to Spain and The Netherlands, the better to meet increased demand and to be nearer appreciative markets.

And there certainly is a market for Portuguese beers, which through the efforts of the leading breweries in Portugal, are gaining a reputation at international festivals and in bars across Europe. From a position where Super Bock and Sagres are responsible for 90% of all beer sales in Portugal, the country’s craft beer are an innovative and enthusiastic community engaged in making inroads in the market with their wide range of styles.

There’s so much more to beers in Mediterranean countries than lager, and while Italy may lead the way, Portugal is keen to close the gap. As elsewhere in the world, Belgium has been a major influence. There’s an abundance of wheat beers and dark strong Belgian ales of around 9.0%, abv which are generally impressive in their mouthfeel and in the balance between the sweetness, a residue of the malts necessary to provide the strength, and the rich spicy ingredients.

Then, there are the sour beers, which are a godsend in hot Mediterranean climes. Barona does a particularly refreshing sour at only 3.8% abv, so it’s not an issue to down two or three to quench one’s thirst. Others add experimental fruits such as rhubarb and passion fruit as well as the classic Belgian additions, cherry and raspberry. Hops too are everywhere, as in Luzia’s dry-hopped sour ale at 4.0% abv or Opo74’s X-hopped grisette, also 4.0% abv.

As befits a country famous for ageing wine in barrels, there is great interest in what barrel-ageing can bring to a beer. All the biggest breweries have a take on this: usually an imperial stout aged in whisky, bourbon or wine casks. Dois Corvos has Murder (10.8% abv), aged in bourbon barrels; Post Scriptum has another weighing in at 14% abv, while Burguesa ages its imperial porter in oak whisky casks at 10% abv. All are testament to the wonderful, almost mystical, work that ageing in casks has on beer, adding levels of complexity that result in an intriguing mix of tartness cutting through the sweet richness of the strong beer.

Letra, one of the biggest breweries in Portugal from just outside Porto, offers IMP5RIO, an imperial saison benefitting from resting in Muscatel barrels – a brilliant stroke resulting in an underlying tart saison softened with a sweetness without any cloying. Letra operates a beer tap in the city, Letraria, which hosts a barbecue in its picturesque, restful beer garden full of stone furniture on the Sunday afternoon after the festival is over. Everyone who is anyone on the Porto craft beer scene is there bringing down the curtain on a memorable experience.

Antonio Lopes of Lupum Brewery epitomises this adventurous, creative proselytising spirit, as he brews only beers that he wants to drink: a fruity, hoppy American IPA at 7.2% abv, a classic Belgian Strong Dark Ale at 10.5% abv and Lupum Russian Imperial Stout (13.4% abv) with cocoa and coffee. He imports his malt from Simpson’s of Berwick.

*Lucky drinkers were able to catch Lupum beers at Hemelvaart Bier Café over the August Bank Holiday along with examples from nine other Portuguese breweries – marking the first festival of its kind in the country. Also present was José Diogo Trindade whose Lindinha Lucas Session IPA (5.6% abv) is simply sensational.

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Alastair Gilmour

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