I was in Lisbon, Portugal last week. I was attending the 55th Congress of the European Regional Science Association where I was making a presentation of the factors behind the emergence and growth of the American craft beer industry. As always, before visiting a place for the first time, I did my research into the local beer scene. In truth, it was not my first visit to Lisbon. I had been there in 1978; so long ago that to all intents and purposes I was visiting for the first time.
When one thinks of Portugal one thinks of wine not beer. Portugal is Europe’s 5th largest wine producing country and when it comes to wine consumption, within the European Union, only the good folks of France and Luxembourg drink more on a per capita basis. Not so with beer. Of the 31 countries listed in a report by The Brewers of Europe Portugal was 14th in terms of beer production and 24th in per capita beer consumption. Per capita beer consumption in Portugal was 49 liters (13 U.S. gallons) in 2013.
From what I observed during my four days in Lisbon two beers seem to dominate the Portuguese beer scene – Sagres and Super Bock. Both are pale lagers. Super Bock is brewed by Unicer while Sagres is brewed by SCC. In terms of the Portuguese beer market Unicer and SCC dominate, with a 45% and 38% market share respectively. Not surprisingly both breweries have ties to European mega-brewers. The parent company of SCC is Heineken, while Carlsberg hold a 44% share in Unicer. There is, however a small, but growing Portuguese craft beer scene. According to The Brewers of Europe between 2012 and 2013 the number of Portuguese microbreweries increased from three to twelve.
To learn more about the Portuguese beer industry, particularly its history, I decided to visit Lisbon’s Museu da Cerveja (Beer Museum). Tucked away in the corner of the Praça do Comércio the museum is easy to find. The museum has a restaurant/bar attached (or should I say the restaurant/bar has a museum attached). Entry to the museum is €3.50 (~$4). Upon paying your entry fee you are presented with a small clay mug of beer from the bar. You can drink this as you peruse the exhibits. If you decide to visit this museum while in Lisbon go with low expectations and you will not be disappointed. This is not the Guinness Storehouse. It is modest, but for a beer geek like myself there was enough of interest to justify the entry fee. Even if you read every information card and look at every exhibit carefully you can be in and out within 30 minutes.
So what did I learn about the history of Portuguese beer from my visit to Museu da Cerveja? The first reference to beer in Portugal was in the first century. Of course, it was not called Portugal back then. What is modern day Portugal was a Roman Province called Lusitania; part of the Roman Empire. In his most famous work Geographica (Geography) Strabo the Greek philosophy, geographer, and historian notes that “The Lusitans also drink a sort of beer made of barley, while wine is rare and the few they make is consumed at banquets”.
Indeed such was beer’s popularity among the Portuguese population that by the 17th century Portugal’s wine producers complained to King Peter II that beer consumption was threatening their livelihoods. Starting in the early 1400s Portugal had began importing beer from the cities of the Hanseatic League, including the German city of Straslund. The cities of Lisbon and Oporto were the main ports of entry for this beer from abroad. The complaint lodged by the wine producers also references a brewery in Campo Grande district of the city so it looks like the Portuguese were brewing their own beer at this point. In response to the wine producer’s complaint the King, by royal decree in 1689, banned the production and consumption of beer. The only group exempt from this consumption ban were foreigners who could consume imported beer. In 1710 King John V extended this ban with the result that it was forbidden to import beer.
It was not clear from the information presented in the museum how long the ban on beer production and consumption was in effect. However by the 19th and 20th centuries new breweries were opening up throughout Portugal, particularly in the cities of Lisbon and Oporto. To improve the quality of Portuguese produced beer a number of breweries hired brewmasters from other parts of Europe. This enabled domestic breweries to raise the quality of their beer and they were thus better able to better compete with imported beer. By the early 1930s there were eight breweries in Portugal, four of which were in Lisbon.
It is also interesting to see different descriptions of Portuguese beer drinking over time. When the wine producers lodged their complaint against the beer industry in the 17th century they referred to “taverns of beer” where the beer is “consumed not only by poor merchants but also negroes, and workers”. However, by the 19th century there are references to breweries being “a new bourgeois living space, more exquisite than the popular taverns where wine prevailed”. It appears that these early Portuguese breweries had the modern-day equivalent of the tap room. The fact that wine “prevailed” in the 19th century Portuguese tavern is not surprising given the Royal ban on production, import, and consumption. However, does reference to breweries being a “new bourgeois living space” suggest that a social stratification of sorts had emerged based on who drank what and where they drank it?
In addition to telling the history of the Portuguese beer industry the museum also contains some interesting items for the visitor to view. There includes an early 20th century brochure extolling the health benefits of beer yeast. There is also an early 20th century German beer stein on display. The information card next to this beer stein notes that “In 1916, with the participation of Portugal in World War I, this mug would have been removed from the brewery”. The brewery in question was the Germania Brewery which was swiftly renamed Portugalia Brewery following Portugal’s entry into World War I, on the side of the allies, in March 1916. It looks like their country’s entry into the war made the use of German beer steins unacceptable among the Portuguese. There is also a small section of the museum devoted to the beers of the Portuguese speaking countries of Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe.
So that was my visit to Lisbon’s Museu da Ceveja. Like the country’s brewing industry it is modest in both scale and scope. However, it was worth both the time and the entry fee. As they say in Portugal “Saúde”.