Brazil’s national drink is cachaça (cah-shah-sah, also known as aguardente (“burning water”) and pinga), a 40% sugarcane alcohol known to knock out the unwary quickly. It can be enjoyed in almost any bar in the country. The best known production regions are Minas Gerais, where tours of distilleries are offered, and the city of Paraty. Pirassununga is the home of Caninha 51, the best-selling brand in Brazil. Outside Fortaleza, there is a cachaça museum (Museu da Cachaça) where you can learn about the history of the Ypioca brand.
It is common to drink cachaça neat or simply mixed with a little honey or lime juice in the North East, but the strength of cachaça can be hidden in cocktails like the famous caipirinha, where it is mixed with sugar, lime juice and ice. The use of vodka instead of cachaça is called caipiroska or caipivodka; with white rum, it is a caipiríssima; and with sake, it is a caipisaque (not in all regions). Another interesting concoction is called capeta (“devil”), made with cachaça, condensed milk, cinnamon, guarana powder (a mild stimulant) and other ingredients that vary by region. If you like brandy or grappa, try an aged cachaça. This deep, complex, golden-coloured spirit is nothing like the ubiquitous clear liquor you see more often. A fun excursion is to visit a ‘still’, a local distillery, of which there are thousands throughout the country. Not only can you see how the alcohol is made from raw cane sugar, but you’ll probably get a better price.
Brazilian whisky is worth trying! It is actually 50% imported scotch – the malt component – and about 50% Brazilian grain alcohol. Don’t be fooled by American-sounding names like “Wall Street”. This is not bourbon. Good value and indistinguishable from the usual British blends.
While imported alcohol is very expensive, many international brands are produced under licence in Brazil, making them widely available and fairly cheap. You can buy tax-free alcohol after landing at Brazilian airports, but it is usually more expensive than buying outside airports.
Beer in Brazil has a respectable history due to German immigrants. Most brands of Brazilian beer tend to be much less thick and bitter than German, Danish or English beer. Over 90% of the beer consumed in Brazil is Pilsner, and it is usually consumed very cold (close to 0°C). The most popular national brands are Brahma, Antarctica and Skol. Traditional brands include Bohemia, Caracu (a stout), Original and Serra Malta (another stout). They are easy to find in bars and worth trying, but they are generally more expensive than the popular beers. There are also top quality national beers that are only available in certain bars and special supermarkets; if you want to try a good Brazilian beer, look for Baden Baden, Colorado, Railroad, Petra, Theresopolis and others. There are also international beers produced by national breweries such as Heineken and Stella Artois, which taste slightly different from the original beers.
There are two ways to drink beer in bars: on draught or in bottles. Cask lager is called a ‘SHOH-pee’ and is usually served with an inch of foam, but you can complain to the barman if the foam is consistently thicker than that. In bars, the waiter usually collects empty glasses and bottles from the table and replaces them with full ones until you ask him to stop, on a ‘tap’ loading system. For bottled beer, the bottles (600ml or 1l) are shared among all guests and poured into small glasses instead of being drunk straight from the bottle. Brazilians like their beer almost ice cold – so beer bottles are often kept in an insulated polystyrene container on the table to maintain the temperature.
Rio Grande do Sul is the main wine-producing region. There are a number of wineries open to visitors and wine tastings, as well as wineries that sell wine and fermented grape juice. One such winery open to visitors is the Salton Winery, located in the town of Bento Gonçalves. The São Francisco Valley, on the border of the states of Pernambuco and Bahia, is the youngest wine region in the country. Brazilian wines tend to be fresher, fruitier and less alcoholic than, for example, French wines. Popular brands such as Sangue de Boi, Canção and Santa Felicidade and others priced below R$6.00 are generally considered junk.
In Minas Gerais, look for licor de jabuticaba (jabuticaba liqueur) or vinho de jabuticaba (jabuticaba wine), an exquisite purple-black drink with a sweet taste. Jabuticaba is the name of a small black grape-like fruit from Brazil.
Coffee and tea
Brazil is known all over the world for its strong, high-quality coffee. Coffee is so popular that it can give its name to meals (just like rice in China, Japan and Korea): in Brazil, breakfast is called café da manhã (morning coffee), while café com pão (coffee with bread) or café da tarde (afternoon coffee) refers to a light afternoon meal. Cafezinho (small coffee) is a small cup of strong, sweet coffee, usually served after the meal in restaurants (sometimes free, just ask politely). In high-end restaurants, bottled filter coffee is replaced by stronger espresso cups.
Chá, or tea in Portuguese, is most often found in its Assam version (orange, light in colour). Some of the more specialised tea shops and cafés also offer Earl Gray and green tea.
Mate is a tea-like brew with a very high caffeine content. The roasted version, often served chilled, is consumed throughout the country, while chimarrão (also known as maté in neighbouring Spanish-speaking countries) is the hot, bitter equivalent found in the south and is popular with gaúchos (inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul). Tererê is a cold variant of chimarrão, common in Mato Grosso do Sul and the state of Mato Grosso.
Nothing beats coconut water (água de coco) on a hot day. (Emphasis on the first o, otherwise it translates as “poo” (cocô)). It is usually sold as coco gelado in the coconut itself, drunk through a straw. Ask vendors with machetes to cut the coconut in half so you can eat the flesh after drinking the water.
If you want a Coke in Brazil, ask for Coca or Coca-Cola, because “Coke” means “glue” in Portuguese.
Guaraná is a soft drink made from the guaraná berry, native to the Amazon. The main brands are Antarctica and Kuat, the latter belonging to Coke. Pureza is a lesser-known Guaraná soft drink that is particularly popular in Santa Catarina. There is also a “Guaraná Jesus” which is popular in Maranhão. Almost every region of Brazil has its own local varieties of guaraná, which may differ from the standard “guaraná” for better or worse. If you travel to the Amazon, be sure to try a cold “Baré”, which has been bought out by “Antarctica” due to its popularity in Manaus and is increasingly available throughout northern Brazil.
Tubaína is a soft drink that used to be very popular among Brazilians (especially those born in the 70s, 80s and early 90s) and is now extremely difficult to find. It used to be mass-produced by “Brahma” before it was focused solely on beers. If you find a place that sells it, try it.
Mineirinho (or Mate Couro) is also a popular soft drink made from guaraná and a typical Brazilian leaf called Chapéu de Couro. Although most Brazilians say it tastes like grass, older people (+70 years) claim that this drink has medicinal properties.
Fruit juices are very popular in Brazil. In some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, there are juice bars on almost every street corner.
- Acai (a fruit from the Amazon) is delicious and nutritious (rich in antioxidants) and is widely consumed in all countries. In the Amazon, it is used as a supplement to the daily diet and is often eaten with rice and fish as the main meal of the day. Outside the Amazon, it is usually drunk in combination with guarana powder (a stimulant) and a banana to help you recover after a long night of partying. It is served cold and has the consistency of soft ice cream. Acai ice cream is also available.
- Passion fruit (be careful if you have an active day as it has a relaxing effect)
- Caju (cashew fruit) and
- Garapa: freshly squeezed sugar cane juice
- Mangoes are also a popular fruit juice.
- Vitamina: Milkshake with fresh fruit
Brazilians have great taste when it comes to mixing fruit juices.