Considered as the best brewery in Portugal by Ratebeer in 2017, and recently awarded as the best taproom in Portugal in 2018, Dois Corvos is about to open a new brewing space just 2km away of their taproom in Marvila neighbourhood of trendy Lisbon. But things were quite different when Scott Steffens and Susana Cascais arrived from the US in 2010 in the midst of the financial crisis.
Back then there was no craft beer at all in Portugal, a country traditionally divided between Superbock and Sagres, but pioneers like Oitava Colina and Dois Corvos started paving the way for what is now an emerging scene in the craft beer world. Scott welcomed us in a sunny morning at his cozy taproom in order to tell us a piece of Portuguese craft beer history.
You were born in Seattle (USA) Did you have any previous experience in craft beer?
Scott: Yeah, I grew up in Nebraska, in the middle of the country, in a city called Omaha—and there is also where I went to college. When all my friends started drinking beer, the point was to get drunk, so you just buy cheap beer.
“Talking with friends in the West Coast, people have never lined up for beers there, because they have had beer forever—for 30-40 years they have had tons of great beer!”
I was not so much into that—I discovered import beer, and I just preferred to spent the same amount of money in less beer but more quality! I can remember the first time I tried Sam Adams—probably around 1994—, as I had previously been in the East Coast and I had seen it there. And I thought it was funny—a brewery from Boston, a funny name. Pretty quickly I started homebrewing—probably around 1995—with my roommate. We started recreating some of the styles from the beers that we had tried—lot of imported beer, from Germany, from England, as there was not much American craft beer by that time. But as the years went by there were more startup breweries.
In 1999, I went to college, and there the beer scene was a lot further along than in the Midwest. Redhook, and Widmer and a lot of breweries from Washington and Oregon. So it was not an unusual thing to have craft beer there. As years went on, there was an explosion of breweries—especially in Seattle and Portland. When I moved to Portugal, in 2010, there were 10 breweries, just in our neighbourhood! Anyhow, I think the East Coast was still a little bit lagging behind. Everything about the more recent IPA craze, you see people lining up for hours in breweries like Trillium or Treehouse and a lot of this hazy NEIPAs. Talking with friends in the West Coast, people have never lined up for beers there, because they have had beer forever—for 30-40 years they have had tons of great beer!
Did you have any work experience in the beer industry back then in the US?
Scott: I never worked in a brewery. I worked homebrewing on and off, I have been always interested in beers. I have referred myself as a beer geek—but I suppose that was what I was! It is typical that if you go to a dinner, you bring a sixpack of beer. But I would always bring six differend kinds of beer—which was kind of inusual. I always hung out on breweries and talk to brewers about their process, but I never worked in a brewery.
An then you moved to Lisbon.
I have referred myself as a beer geek—but I suppose that was what I was!”
Scott: We moved ourselves in December 2010, which was the worst month of the financial crisis. There wasn’t a lot of people trying to start business by that time. We came here not with the idea of starting a brewery, but just because my wife is Portuguese and I wanted to experience life here. I knew that the beer scene wasn’t good here from the visit I had made over the years. So I travelled with my homebrew equipment, and when I arrived here, I started making beer right away. Susana wasn’t finding a reliable job because of the crisis, so we were kind of jumping from project to project. And our friends kind of liked the beer we were making at home, and they threw out the idea of making a brewery. We were thinking it for six months, and then in October 2013, we decided to form the company, and in the next nine months we found our current space, bought our equipment. It took us a long time to rehabilitate this space. We started ordering pieces of equipment and then putting it together by ourselves as we didn’t have so much money behind. So it took us a little bit longer, but in summer 2015, we finally brewed our first beers.
You chose Marvila quarter, that was a little bit undeveloped back then, and you were the first brewery here.
“Around that time, when we moved here, Lisbon saw a huge tourism boom, people started business, especially in food and drinks, and Marvila is quite a different place right now.”
Scott: In 2013 there was no very much going on, just a couple of restaurants, abbandoned warehouses—that were not even for rent, because the owner didn’t even think than anybody would rent them. 3 years later, there was nothing available, everything was rented, projects starting. Around that time, when we moved here, Lisbon saw a huge tourism boom, people started business, especially in food and drinks, and Marvila is quite a different place right now.
Can you tell us a little bit about your name—Dois Corvos—and the history behind it?
Scott: We wanted it to be a Lisbon brewery. The two crows are the symbol of the city—they are from the city emblem, the two crows protecting the ship. And we just thought “well, it is everywhere, in the taxis, in the city lamps, in the taxis”, but people doesn’t even realize it is there, it is kind of subliminal, kind of a subtle reference to the city.
“What about the beer scene in Portugal? Is there a boom as well?
I don’t think there is a bubble, as there is demand that is still not met. I still go to restaurants all the time and they don’t have craft beer. And if they had, I would buy it!”
Scott: I don’t think there is a bubble, as there is demand that is still not met. I still go to restaurants all the time and they don’t have craft beer. And if they had, I would buy it!
As far as the beer scene here, I saw a development over a 20-30 years period in the US, and for the first two thirds of that period, it was exclusively Amber Ales and Pale Ales. Then IPA’s come out in the late 90’s... Nowadays, sour have became a thing, and we have all kind of forgotten styles, we have a fantastic diversity. But my point is, all that 20-30 years period has been compressed down into a very short timeline here in Europe. So I had the assumption that people was going to start by Amber and Pale Ales like we did in the US, but no, people go to the most extreme styles—which is great, that people aren’t afraid. About Portuguese people, even if they don’t have prior experience to craft beer, they automatically go to pairings. When they try a craft beer for the first time, right away they are thinking about what food goes with that beer. And that’s very different than my experience in the US where one good beer goes with another good beer.
Does the Portuguese gastronomy and culture actually influence the way you make beers?
Scott: There is not a lot of barley that is grown in Portugal—and very few hops. The things that we use are Portuguese fruits, and also Portuguese barrels—the barrel is considered the fifth ingredient, it rounds off certains flavour, and bring new flavours from the wood. We are going to use some white wine barrels, and also Porto and whiskey barrels. And obviously, we use Lisbon water.
And do you feel any difference between Portuguese taste and US taste?
Scott: I think Portuguese people is generally more in tune with pairings—and how things go together. Americans just don’t think of beer as part of the meal.
Your names and your design is also very influenced by Portuguese culture.
Scott: Yeah, we have a graphic artist we work with. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. So we put a little bit of pop culture in the mix, but we don’t really have a theme, we don’t want to get stuck with doing names and labels around a certain theme. We just take things from our lives, like the Hello Nasty—one of our sour hoppy beers—, it was the perfect name when I tried it. And it is a good influence from my musical past—from the Beasty Boys.
Which breweries do you think are your biggest influence?
I think Portuguese people is generally more in tune with pairings—and how things go together. Americans just don’t think of beer as part of the meal.”
Scott: The biggest influence is from the US—from Seattle—in particular our hoppy beers, Pale Ales and IPA’s. People they just love IPA’s. There is a joke among brewers that says that “if a brewery doesn’t make IPA’s, it must pay money”. IPA’s are usually every breweries’ biggest seller. And most of the American hops come from Washington state, that’s where Seattle is. They come from Yakima valley, from the dry side of the mountain. And for whatever reason, hops are a lot like wine, as the earth, the terroir are a huge influence on how the hops develop. If you take the same hop—for example, Cascade—and you bring it to Germany, it can turn out to be good, or it can turn out to be different.
What about your experimental series the Marvila Series?
Scott: That’s a way for us to try beers that we like, and to see the reception that they have. In most cases they turn out to be permanent beer, like the Matiné—our Session IPA—that started out as one of those beers, and it’s right now our most popular beer. It is a way for us to not to have to came up with a brand new label and be able to test new beers.