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BAR TOWEL ON THE ROAD: PORTUGAL


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By Duncan Rowland

I traveled to the Algarve (south Portugal) for two weeks, beginning March 19, 2006. This was no ordinary trip, as I was traveling with my wife, Leslie, and our two kids, Charlotte (5 years old) and Robbie (20 months old). We were staying in an apartment in a small town named Alvor.

Leslie and I had been to Portugal in 1999 and had a great time. This was going to be something completely different, with two youngsters, but we were looking forward to the experience. Amongst all of the other things to enjoy in Portugal, I was looking forward to the rare experience of drinking beer on a warm sunny day in March.

In 1999, beer in Portugal was easy to obtain, but there was not a lot of variety. The brand “Sagres” (named for the southernmost town in continental Portugal) was everywhere, and represented 95% of the taps, cans and bottles that I saw. There was another brand “Super Bock” that could usually be found in can or bottle, but not often on tap. Besides these two brands, the only other Portuguese beer I found was the oddly named “Cool Beer.” Sagres is owned by Scottish & Newcastle. SuperBock and Cool Beer are owned by a large Portuguese beverages company, Unicer. There wasn’t much to differentiate these beers: they were standard lagers that were better than your average Molson or Labatt product, and wouldn’t be out of place in any bar in Toronto.

In the seven intervening years, the dominance of Sagres has eroded noticeably. Super Bock was the beer on tap at most establishments. Both Sagres and Super Bock had brought out new brands, and there were additional brewers out to challenge what appear to be the two major Portuguese labels, so the beer market was much more energetic than in 1999. In the 2 weeks that I was in the country, Super Bock introduced a new fruit-flavoured brew called “Tango,” which quite frankly I wasn’t interested in trying, and Sagres rolled out a beer called “Chopp” which I sampled. There is every reason to expect counterpart labels for each from Sagres and Super Bock respectively.

I wasn’t looking too hard, but I never saw any brewpubs or local microbreweries in the Algarve. Beer is ubiquitous, and the Portuguese seem to have a sustained demand for beer, however in the Algarve, this doesn’t seem to have translated into a microbrewing industry. This shouldn’t put off any Bar Towel members from visiting the area: I highly recommend visiting Portugal, with or without two kids. The people are friendly, food, drink and lodging are inexpensive, and the transportation networks (trains, roads, airports) are in great shape. I loved every minute.

As for non-brewpubs, given my traveling companions, I didn’t get a chance to crawl to too many places, but the climate and location better lent itself to buying bottles and cans at the local grocery store (where a half-litre can of Super Bock cost less than 1 Euro), and drinking them on the balcony or at the beach. Smoking in restaurants and bars is still permitted, so as a vehement non-smoker, the pubs weren’t my scene. With all of the expats in Portugal, there are no shortage of British and Irish-style pubs. Alvor, a town of 5,000, had 6 Irish pubs, all within a 400m radius of the town market hall.

I have listed some beers and my very brief tasting notes. They are listed in no particular order.

Super Bock Abadia

Copper coloured full bodied taste, very satisfying. 6.4 % alcohol. Smooth with a long lasting aftertaste.

Crystal

Not good at all. A pilsner reminiscent of 50 or Blue. It was too fizzy, watery and no aftertaste.

Sagres

In a dramatic departure from a Canadian airline, amongst the free beverages available on the flight from Toronto were 300ml cans of Sagres.

It was creamy, and less watery than I remembered.

I drank the can very quickly due to the stressful situation of the flight from Toronto. Not due to turbulence or hijacking – but you try relaxing while carrying a 20-month old boy around an airplane for three hours. Robbie was actually very well-behaved, but he was too excited to sleep.

Super Bock

Ok tasting on draft, ok in bottle. Eventually came to really appreciate it on a hot day.

Super Bock Green

A lemon-flavoured 4% alcohol brew featuring too much lemon taste and not enough beer taste.

Tagus (Lisbon is situated at the mouth of the Tagus river)

5.4% alcohol. Light straw colour, not a lot of taste. First sip is not great, didn’t get much better with lunch.

Sagres Bohemia

6.2% - label advises to serve at 8 degrees. This is Sagres’ answer to Super Bock’s Abadia. Dark, slight caramel taste, malty flavour as well. Ok, but not as good as Abadia.

Sagres Chopp

I sampled some of this beer as a freebie promo at the Modelo supermarket. I’m glad I didn’t actually buy a bottle to try it: it is watery, with a sharp bitterness. I would describe it as un-beer-like. Apparently, this brand is an attempt to appeal to Brazilian expatriates.

Sagres Preta

A 4.3% smoky, peaty, dark amber porter. It tasted almost like a Holy Smoke. Not great, but worth a try.

Cintra Mulata Cerveja Dunkel

5.2%, dark amber coloured. A caramel aroma, but not much caramel in the taste. Smooth, with no aftertaste, not watery at all. This was a pretty good alternative to Sagres and Super Bock.

Imperial Cerveja Viva

5.1%, light straw coloured. A different taste from most, my notes say there was a hint of candy in the aftertaste (it wasn’t the first beer I had that day, so neither my taste buds or notes are 100% reliable). It’s not worth passing by Sagres and Super Bock in order to drink one of these.

Cobra

A UK beer based on an Indian recipe. It was pretty good, although it was tasted after a few Super Bocks. The pull line in its advertising is that it isn’t gaseous, and they’re telling the truth. It helped that is was a freebie given to me by the proprietor of an Indian restaurant while I was waiting for my take-out order to be prepared. If you have time to kill, go to the Cobra web site and read the very lengthy and somewhat self-aggrandizing biography of the company founder.

Guinness

I paid 4 Euros for a pint of Dublin – produced export Guinness at the “Black Stove” pub in Alvor. It tasted much fuller than the stuff we get here, but given its cost, one was all I needed.