Lisbon Is Now a Secret Paradise of Craft Beer

September 25, 2019

By Kieran Dahl, September 25, 2019

For as long as people have been drinking beer in Portugal, they’ve been drinking Sagres, made near Lisbon, and Super Bock, made on the country’s northwest coast. Both are cheap, light-bodied pale lagers, easy to chain-drink in the sweltering Iberian sun. With bars usually serving one or the other, they’re the Pepsi and Coca-Cola of Portuguese beers.

So when, in July, my hophead girlfriend and I arrive in Lisbon to conclude our ’round-the-country road trip, the first order of business is to search “craft beer” in Google Maps. I’m scandalized to see as many results in all of Lisbon as in my little Brooklyn neighborhood. But I’m lucky: The one closest to my Airbnb is Cerveteca Lisboa, the city’s first and best-known craft-beer bar, which opened in 2014.

Late on a weeknight, the subterranean Cerveteca Lisboa is empty of people but filled with liquid gold. There’s a floor-to-ceiling shelf of colorful craft beers and 14 rotating taps. Half are Portuguese, the rest an eclectic mix of imports: a British coffee porter, an IPA from Belgrade, a brown ale from Copenhagen. I ask for a local IPA and am served the Dois Corvos Creature, whose label depicts a blue sea monster wrapping its enormous puckered tentacles around a caravel. How Portuguese! How Portuguese, too, to drink my Creature in a leafy park while soft guitar notes waft from a nearby café. The Creature is as good as any hazy IPA I’d have in Brooklyn: floral and citrusy on the nose, with a hoppy, nearly bittersweet backbone. In my four days in Lisbon, I’ll return to Cerveteca Lisboa three times.

Photo courtesy of Oitava Colina.

The next day, I climb one of Lisbon’s seven hills to the minimalist, space-grey taproom of Oitava Colina. Founded in 2014, it was one of Lisbon’s earliest craft breweries (which shows just how long Sagres and Super Bock have had a two-handed stranglehold on the market). My girlfriend and I share the Vila Prazeres, a raspberry sour, and the Urraca Vendaval, an IPA. The former is tart and juicy, but the latter is too malty and bitter for my liking. At least we have the glorious view: wavy hills of red-roofed houses in cakelike pastels and blinding whites, topped by the millennia-old Castelo de São Jorge.

We then take an Uber to Marvila, an old manufacturing neighborhood on Lisbon’s outskirts, to visit what savvy marketers have christened the Lisbon Beer District. There, three craft breweries (Dois Corvos, Lince, and Musa) are nestled among warehouses in a two-block radius.

Fábrica Musa is a predictable industrial-chic, with high beamed ceilings, exposed brick, and furnishings of dark metal and weathered wood. We order a flight of beers and sit up on the mezzanine. A scruffy-looking guy, comfortably alone at the bar below, motions at the bartender, and she slides him a beer without any exchange of money taking place. Only one of two men could have this beer-summoning power: the brothers Nuno and Bruno, Musa’s founders.

The story of Musa, they tell me as we sit at a sunlit table in their taproom, began when they quit their soul-sucking consulting jobs and went on a road trip together. While driving from Porto to Lisbon one day, Bruno suggested, only half-jokingly, that they launch a craft brewery. That germ of an idea led them to Cerveteca Lisboa, where they tried (and loved) their first IPAs, and then to New York, where they were inspired by Other Half, then an up-and-coming Brooklyn brewery. They realized, however, that they didn’t know enough about the art and craft of brewing beer, and they didn’t think anyone else in Lisbon would, either. So they placed job listings in beer-loving American cities, hired a brewer from Pittsburgh, and convinced him to move to Portugal.

Photo by Valter Vinagre courtesy of Musa.

This was in 2015, when Portugal’s craft-beer market was basically nonexistent. “‘Craft what?’” Nuno says, scrunching up his face in imitation of people’s bewildered response. “The first time I showed people an IPA, they were like, ‘This is rotten. There’s something wrong here.’”

For a year, they tested the market, brewing nomadically in factories in Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, and Barcelona. By the time they settled in Marvila in 2017, Portugal’s economic crisis was over, and the country’s tourism revenue was double what it was in 2011. Bruno calls the sudden tourism boom “ridiculous—really, really ridiculous.” Portugal was the new Iceland, Lisbon was the new Mexico City, and, largely because of American tourists, craft beer was the new water.

“We’re now at a place where change is really happening” in Portugal’s craft-beer scene, Nuno says. A year ago, there were 25 or so places in Lisbon with craft beer on tap. Now, there are 100. In a few years, Nuno estimates, there could be 1,000.

Although they recently opened a second Lisbon taproom and are opening their first in Porto later this year, Bruno and Nuno don’t want Musa to be for hip urban beer enthusiasts. 

“We’ve always had this thing of being very democratic,” Nuno says. “We don’t have the drive to produce a beer that’s, like, 14% ABV, super hoppy, barrel-aged for two years. We just want people who are normal to drink better beer. We brew beers especially for those people, not for the people who already love craft beer.”

Photo courtesy of Dois Corvos.

“We have to have styles that are compelling to everybody,” Bruno adds.

They’ve expanded to supermarkets outside Portugal’s major cities and have talked about creating a “Musa-mobile,” a little four-wheeled pop-up bar, to hawk craft beer in remote parts of Portugal’s interior. Nuno paints the scene for me: “So you’d have some old guy in a mountain village saying, ‘Hey, here’s an IPA, come try this out.’”

Later, I continue my Marvila beer crawl. On a drab industrial block, it’s immediately obvious, even without honking signage, that the place with the young people crowded outside—a heavily tattooed girl holding a bag of Oreos and wearing a shirt that reads, “HOW ABOUT NO”; a bearded guy, unlit cigarette hanging off his lip, in a shirt that says, “Skydiving: It’s like explaining sex to a virgin”—is Dois Corvos. The taproom is long and narrow, extending nearly to the factory floor, and decorated with a mural whose surrealist figures include a car-sized crow and a grotesquely weeping sun. A neon “IPA” sign suggests a staid adherence to hophead norms, but the chalkboard menu makes clear that Dois Corvos does, in fact, make funky beers. There’s a late-harvest saison and another made in collaboration with a Polish microbrewery; a porter made with Cognac and a stout made with bourbon; an açai sour and an Italian grape ale. I order the açai sour, a special release for Dois Corvos’ third birthday, and, after a few sips, jot down a note: “like wine but… weirder.” I then get the Creature, ol’ faithful, and pair it with a €12 platter of cheeses, cured meats, olive oil, fig jam, nuts, and fresh bread. It tastes the way Portugal looks in travel guides.

Photo courtesy of A.M.O. Brewery.

That evening, I totter through a quiet residential neighborhood to A.M.O. Brewery. Owned and operated by one woman, and with an eight-beer lineup, A.M.O. is a micro-microbrewery if there ever was one. (It’s also an art gallery, electronic-music venue, and DIY lounge.) I drink my coffee pale ale, made with a light Arabica roast, on A.M.O.’s informal sidewalk patio, wishing the cold brew I make at home always tasted this good: fruity, floral, surprisingly refreshing. I subdue my rampant insobriety with bar nuts and a soft, warm pretzel, made by the German baker next door, before heading off to Lisbon’s second-oldest, but most regal, brewpub.

Housed in a stone-walled tunnel beneath a former 18th-century palace, the 12-tap Quimera was co-founded in 2016 by an American with a sense of humor. I get the NAFIPA—Not Another Fuckin’ IPA—which is sparkily fruity but nicely balanced. 

On our last night in Portugal, we head to the Chiado neighborhood, Lisbon’s nightlife central. A mob of belligerent Brits barrels past us, stopping traffic to yell and make “Come at me, bro” gestures at cars. We turn off their drunken path and reach the safe haven of Duque Brewpub, which opened in 2016 as Lisbon’s first brewpub. Duque offers more than 50 bottles and 12 taps, all Portuguese, along with its own small-batch brews, like the Auburn (a blonde ale), the Albino (a smoky white stout), and the German (a wheat beer). Duque’s décor of wooden banquettes and homey art is simple, but its location is perfect. Its outdoor seating is smack in the middle of a cobblestoned Chiado staircase, and graying locals and loud, drunk tourists pass by, glowing under soft yellow street lamps. At a nearby table, two young women are chatting in what my girlfriend recognizes as Russian. She translates for me: “I had no idea Lisbon had this kind of place.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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