The Algarve: A new hub for specialty coffee?

Any coffee drinker who has spent time in Portugal is familiar with the name Delta.

Virtually synonymous with Portuguese coffee culture, Delta perfectly represents the traditional role that coffee has played here: a lingering shot of espresso – or ‘expresso’, as it’s spelt in Portuguese – brewed with bitter dark-roasted beans and consumed in a social setting.

Most people would agree that it’s also best enjoyed with a teaspoon or two of sugar, which is how it came to be known as uma bica in Lisbon. While most residents are familiar with the name, not many know that it is an acronym that stands for Beba Isto Com Açúcar (“drink this with sugar”).

In recent years, however, a new kind of coffee culture has been emerging throughout Portugal: specialty and third-wave coffee. With increasing education about the coffee industry and a greater demand for traceable and sustainable products, specialty coffee has made a breakthrough in Portugal. And, after the initial roasteries opened in the cities of Lisbon and Porto, the industry has now found an unexpected third hub in the Algarve.

What is specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee refers to any coffee that has a cupping score of 80 (out of a possible 100) or above. This score is determined by the Specialty Coffee Association, an international non-profit for the coffee trade industry, and is awarded based on various factors that determine the quality of a coffee.

Unlike commercial coffee brands, which use a variety of beans to create a typical ‘coffee’ flavour, specialty coffee retains the natural flavours of the coffee cherry. Each coffee region has its own general characteristics but flavours can vary greatly even within a region. Some of the more common flavours include chocolate, nuts and red fruits, but it’s not uncommon to find a coffee with tasting notes of jasmine, honey, mango or many other flavours. The result is a naturally sweet coffee that will make you order an expresso rather than a bica because it doesn’t need any sugar. On the contrary, it’s better enjoyed without!

The exact flavours of a coffee are determined not only by the type of coffee plants and the growing conditions but also by how the coffee is roasted. Commercial Portuguese coffee – like virtually all commercial coffee – is roasted on the dark side to mask any strong tasting notes. Specialty coffee roasters, on the other hand, aim to bring out strong flavours of fruits, flowers, nuts, chocolate and more in their roasting process. The result is a product that’s quite far from the traditional expresso you may enjoy in a Delta café.

In this way, specialty coffee can be compared to craft beer. While you may drink a national beer (or commercial coffee) for the low price or effect that the drug has on you, you drink a craft beer (or specialty coffee) for the flavour and the experience. Therefore, rather than a diversion from the Delta coffee culture that is so strong in Portugal, the rise of specialty coffee here is more of an addition to the market. It is a sector of the coffee market that has been growing rapidly both in and out of Portugal, and the Algarve is gaining recognition within it.

Roasting in the Algarve

The Algarve is now home to five coffee roasters, all of whom opened in the last few years: The Studio, Al-Gharb, Koyo, Clifftop and, most recently, Bean 17. With the exception of Clifftop, all have their own coffee shops in addition to selling beans for home consumption. The Studio, which opened in January 2021, already serves its coffee in not just one but two locations: in Praia da Luz, where the roastery is located, and in central Lagos.

This growth has placed the Algarve firmly on the specialty coffee map alongside Lisbon and Porto, both of whom have also seen a boom in roasteries and specialty coffee shops in the last few years. While it’s not unusual to find a host of coffee roasteries in most European cities, it’s not so usual to see a fairly rural region like the Algarve making such waves. The Algarve’s rapid growth into a hub for specialty coffee is quite unexpected – both among coffee drinkers, who are surprised to find not just one but several options here, and within the industry itself.

What’s unclear is whether a growing demand from Algarve tourists and locals searching for specialty coffee led to this boom, or if the growing hub of specialty coffee is bringing more visitors here and introducing more locals to the more traceable and higher quality coffee. Indeed, at The Studio, it’s not uncommon for visitors to mention that they chose to travel to this part of Portugal because of the coffee roasting scene here. Whichever is the leading cause of growth, one thing is for sure: the Algarve is quickly securing a position as a leader in the specialty coffee roasting industry and, in doing so, creating a new name for Portugal in the world of coffee.