Portuguese coffee – a blend of stories

 In Coffee Industry, News

With the sad passing of Rui Nabeiro on Sunday, Essential Business has decided to re-publish an article on Portugal’s coffee industry which owes a debt of gratitude to this entrepreneurial pioneer who contributed so much not only for the growth of the sector in Portugal, but also for it being recognised worldwide as a brand that represents quality and uniqueness.

Portuguese coffee blends were virtually unknown outside the Portuguese-speaking world until the last five years. But with the boom in tourism from 2016 onwards millions of visitors discovered one of Portugal’s best-kept secrets which Rui Nabeiro did so much to advance on the international stage. 

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: AICC

Coffee, much like football, is a national obsession for the Portuguese. It’s the first drink many people grab on their way to work and is indispensable after lunch or dinner in a café or restaurant.

Yet while the world had long been accustomed to Nespresso, Lavazza or Kenco, Portuguese brands were somewhat under the radar of international consumer attention until Portugal became the Number 1 destination in Europe to visit between 2016-2019.

In Portugal the ‘bica’ — as an espresso is called here — is a ritual that requires time, attention and affection. In a café society having a ‘bica’ is a moment. A moment of friendship and love, over which friends share confidences and opinions. When visiting a Portuguese company office, the first thing you’ll be offered upon greeting is a ‘bica’.

Everyday thousands of Portuguese when they bump into old friends, colleagues and acquaintances say, “we’ll really must for a coffee” or “let’s have a coffee”. They put the world to rights in much the same way as the English do over a cup of tea.

It is part of the national DNA, cutting through society, faiths and cultures, making it perhaps the most democratic drink in the country.

A rich colonial history

The Portuguese have left a footprint on the coffee world, and it has been decisive. It was the Portuguese who introduced coffee to Brazil, today the largest producer in the world and responsible for a third of global production.

It was also the Portuguese who distributed Angolan coffee, especially in the US after World War II. The Portuguese were also partly responsible for its introduction into Hawaii in 1825, the Philippines in 1740 with seeds from Brazil. Portugal cultivated coffee in all its colonies, particularly Brazil, Angola and São Tomé.

Famous blends — household names

All the Portuguese blends which are household names in Portugal have fascinating histories. Take Nicola for example. The original café that bears its name is still in Lisbon and was where literary figures like the great 18th century poet Bocage used to hang out and was patronised by French ‘Jacobin’ revolutionaries.

With its sister brand Chave d’Ouro (today owned by the Massimo Zanetto Beverage Group), together they sell one million ‘bicas’ a day.

Then there is Torrie, a truly Portuguese coffee of French inspiration, it arose in the 1960s. Its founder José Maria Vieira worked in his uncle’s “posh grocery shop’ that sold coffee from Portugal’s colonies Angola, Cape Verde, Timor and São Tomé. His nephew went into the business and 60 years on the brand is now seen as a young urban brand that is dynamic and trendy.

As for Negrita Cafés, that brand started in 1924 when six professional coffee roasters joined forces and founded the company which back then was also a grocery wholesaler.

Carlos Pina, owner and one of the founders still remembers the period of smuggling coffee to Spain in the 1960s and 1970s. Customers brought coffee and carab mash and Negrita roasted the coffee according to the wishes of each customer in a wood-fired roasting bowl specially made for this type of coffee called ‘torrefacto’. Carlos Pina bought out the remaining partners and turned it into a booming family business.

And one should not forget Buondi, a Portuguese brand with an Italian inspiration founded in 1986 in Portugal but which today is owned by Nestlé; or SICAL founded in 1947 by Vicente Peres, a shrewd businessman who started off as an importer of roast and ground coffee in Porto with 10 employees and opened his own factory in 1956.

One of the most famous names of all is Delta Cafés, a coffee which is intrinsically tied up with founder Comendador Rui Nabeiro who recounts “my coffee schooling came at the age of 12, helping out my uncles working with roasted coffee that was exported to Spain.”

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) there were severe restrictions in imports and the Spanish craved coffee, creating black market demand. By 1961 he had set up his own company, hired three people and they all did everything: roasting, buying and delivering.

He moved to the Spanish border to “smuggle the hidden coffee to the other side” and from then on, the business grew to the coffee empire it is today with around 3,000 employees and various offshoot companies which complement the main business. One of the reasons why Delta has been so successful is because it cleverly targeted the large ex-pat Portuguese community that live in the US, Canada, UK, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and South Africa.

Today it is one of his grandsons Nuno Baptista who heads the Portuguese Industrial and Commercial Coffee Association (AICC) and speaks to Essential Business.

“We have always exported coffee around the world but had never thought about how our different coffees could be appreciated in foreign countries until the Portuguese tourism boom which revealed that overseas visitors also loved our coffee”, he says.

“Our knowledge and experience go back to the 18th century when we introduce the coffee plant to Brazil and later to Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé e Principe and Timor. Since then, we have always produced coffee in Portugal from imported beans”, he adds.

Nuno Baptista explains how the Portuguese roasters created an umbrella brand ‘Portuguese Coffee – A Blend of Stories’ to sell Portuguese coffee in target markets to promote, spread and raise awareness of Portuguese coffee as a high-quality espresso with a set of unique characteristics and culture. It also served to support national brands to be recognised by different markets for its blending and roasting process.

“We started in 2016 by promoting it at the food processing industry fair SIAL – Paris. Since then, all the companies have done their own marketing and, as a global brand, we have worked hard to promote and communicate Portuguese coffee both through the Lisbon Coffee Fest and through overseas trade missions,” explains Nuno Baptista.

Lisbon Coffee Fest

Usually running at the end of March each year, and now in its third edition after the 1st in 2019 was a runaway success, the Lisbon Coffee Fest will take place this year at a date to be announced (it has been postponed) running over three days at LX Factory showcasing around brands, representing 90% of the national market. Two stages will be set featuring events, coffee tastings, concerts, technical workshops, demonstrations and talks with experts in the business. As in previous years there will be the National Barista Championship, a coffee competition inspired by the World Barista Championship (WBC).

During the 2019 event attended by 6,000 visitors, 23,000 coffees were served, while some 250Kg of used coffee dregs were sent off to be used as fertiliser on farms and allotments. The event was not held in 2020 or 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic but returned in March 2022.

Exports strong

Despite the pandemic, exports of Portuguese coffee blends were strong in 2021, increasing from €84.1 million in 2019 to €106.q million according to data from Portugal’s National Statistics Institute (INE) and published by the AICC. In volume, overseas markets in 2021 represented sales of 17,500 tonnes of coffee – a growth of 18.34%. Nuno Baptista is confident of its new brand campaign, ‘Portuguese Coffee – a Blend of Stories’ is bearing fruit.

The project, created in 2017, included market studies and trade missions to the UK and Canada as well as buyers attending the Lisbon Coffee Fest in Lisbon. Both the British and Canadian markets were selected because of “the consistent transactional track record and commercial agreements which provide potential for partnerships to leverage exports says the AICC.

“The goal is to promote, market and increase the profile and sales of Portuguese Coffee overseas as a top-quality coffee which has a number of unique and distinct characteristics and
character, as well as supporting national companies and their brands to be recognised in different international markets”, he adds.

But at home the AICC president admits that although the number of Portuguese coffee consumers has increased in recent years, in 2020 due to Covid-19, the domestic market fell which significantly affected café, kiosk, restaurant and hotel consumption. Not surprising when considering that the Portuguese mostly drink their ‘bicas’ in public places (63%). The downturn in tourism also had an adverse effect on the coffee business in Portugal.

And there are plans to give Portuguese coffee brands and blends even greater visibility in future with a Portuguese coffee visitors centre in either Lisbon or Portugal.
“We too have big ambitions to open a coffee museum in Lisbon or Porto although to date we have been unable to do so. Still, we do have a Coffee Science Centre in Campo Maior, near Portalegre in the Alentejo region,” says Nuno Baptista.

The visitors’ centre is the brainchild of Delta Cafés Comendador Rui Nabeiro who had dedicated his entire life to the coffee business. The project was part-funded by the European Union’s regional development funds and covers a total area of 3426m2 and attracts many Portuguese and Spanish holidaymakers and day-trippers.

The centre provides an interactive and educational experience of the story of Portuguese coffee, its history, the production process and its vital importance to Portuguese culture, society and heritage.

Photo: Lusa – Nuno Veiga.