Trying to find a specific specialty coffee drink proves challenging in Lisbon.
Mazagran origin story
Mazagran is a cold coffee drink that was invented in Algeria. During the French invasion of Algeria in the first half of the 19th century, French troops stationed at Fort Mazagran in Algiers drank a beverage made from coffee syrup and cold water. They used the cold water, rather than milk, to try and stay cool in the blistering African heat.
Upon their return to Paris, soldiers brought the beverage with them and called it Cafe Mazagran. The drink, as it is often served in a tall glass over ice with a slice of lemon, has been called the original Iced Coffee.
In Portugal, the Mazagran is served slightly differently.
Lemon juice is added to espresso and sugar water along with mint. Rum is often an ingredient as well as lemon zest.
Mazagran in Portugal
I first became aware of the idea of combining lemon and espresso at Alegre Me, my favorite coffee shop in Setubal, Portugal.
The owner was trying out a new item on the menu. He told me it was an iced espresso with lemon.
I was skeptical, to say the least. How could lemon possibly work with coffee? But, I was willing to try it, mainly because everything I’ve ever had at Algre Me has been outstanding.
In addition to the espresso and lemon, a little tonic water was added to the glass filled with ice.
It was delicious! I think that the acidity in the lemon must cancel out the natural bitterness of roasted coffee beans making for a refreshing cold drink. The tonic water added some lovely effervescence.
Later, my friends who had lived in Lisbon a few years ago said this must’ve been a take on Mazagran, the Algerian coffee drink that is popular in Lisbon. They gave me the name of the place to try it and Karen and I made plans to go find it the following weekend.
The Search for Mazagran in Lisbon
It’s easy to get from our town of Setubal to Lisbon. We take a train to Barreiro and then walk to the ferry terminal. The ferry drops you off steps from the busy Praça do Comércio in Lisbon.
Our destination was in Alfama, about 25 minutes on foot, but up some steep hills.
The little cafe was very busy so I stood in line for quite a while before placing my order.
“Dois Mazagran, per favore,” I said in my terribly American accented Portuguese.
The barista turned and started talking to the chef. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to get what I wanted.
He shook his head and said “Nao” and a lot of other stuff in Portuguese. The barista turned back to me and said in English “we cannot make it today, it is too busy.”
“Really? I just spent 20 minutes in line while you went over all these other people’s orders in detail to get them what they wanted.”
It didn’t matter. I wasn’t getting Mazagran.
Normally, I would have left right then. But, we were waiting for friends and had said this is where we were meeting, so I got two espressos and waited.
In hindsight, I should’ve left and texted our friends to meet us nearby, but alas, I didn’t think of that in time.
When our friends arrived, they ordered a couple beers and we had our espresso and chatted for a while.
Then, I noticed the line had disappeared at the counter. And, several tables had opened up. Plus, another worker was behind the counter. I figured I’d try my luck again. I walked up to the counter and ordered a Mazagran.
They made the Mazagran without a fuss and brought it over to me in short order. Karen and I shared the drink and, alas, it was a disappointment. There was no mint or sugar in the Mazagran which threw off the balance between the coffee and lemon.
Walking back to the ferry, Karen and I made a detour to a fancy coffee place I had read about. This is the kind of hipster place where you can get a flight of espresso, cappuccino, and filter coffee or a pistachio latte.
They offer their Mazagran with rum, a coffee cocktail for 9€. I asked if I could have mine without the rum and the barista agreed, charging me only 5€. This Mazagran didn’t have sugar in it either and even more lemon than the first. There was, however, some refreshing mint in the drink, making it marginally better than the last one, but still not great.
Jacked on caffeine and disappointment, we took the ferry and train, completing a 6 hour journey that led us to the place we started and our favorite version of Mazagran, right in our hometown of Setubal.