Brazil is a huge beer (cerveja – pronounced ser-veh-ja) drinking country but it hasn't always been so. During the Portuguese colonial period (from 1500 until independence in 1822), imported Portuguese wine (vinho) and cognac were the most popular among the colonial elite while cachaça was almost the only alcoholic choice for the under classes. Not until the 19th century, when tens of thousands of Europeans immigrated to Brazil, did beer finally begin to gain a foothold; first with European imports and, later in the century, with domestically produced brews.
The late entry of beer into Brazil may have had a lot to do with the very nature of the product itself because beer has three natural enemies: light, heat and age. Even today, it's the reason most beers are packaged in brown bottles and why some brewers ship their product refrigerated. Unlike wine, once beer is bottled or kegged it is never improved by age. It is always at its best when it is fresh but, in Brazil's tropical climate, that often takes some doing. Until the advent of modern refrigeration technologies (in Brazil as well as the United States) and faster methods of transportation, most beers were consumed not too far from where they were brewed.
Today, Brazil is a massive consumer of beer, mainly due to its population of 190+ million and the legal drinking age of 18. Annual total beer production of almost 80 million barrels makes Brazil the fourth largest beer producer in the world while per capita consumption (now at about 47+ liters per year or less than half that of the U.S.) places it behind such other beer thirsty countries as the Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, Spain, Japan and Mexico. Some claim that Brazilians drink more beer during Carnival than the entire rest of the year combined and they may be right. Brazilian Carnival certainly ranks high among the world's great parties.
In spite of the global economic slowdown, which affected Brazil less than many other countries, 2009 beer consumption in Brazil increased more than 5% over 2008 levels — a record 10.7 billion liters. Some attribute this to the slightly higher temperatures experienced throughout the country during 2009.
Drinking & Driving
In June, 2008, a new drunk driving law (Federal law no. 11.705) went into effect across Brazil that (initially) had more than a few Brazilians literally reeling. The lei seca (dry law) stipulates that any driver caught driving with a blood alcohol level of above .2 mg (for each liter of blood) can be arrested on the spot and criminally charged. The law carries penalties of up to three years in prison, a R$955.00 fine and suspension of the offender's driver's license for one year ... depending upon the circumstances. Police across Brazil were issued bafômetros (breathalyzers) to test suspected offenders on the spot and Brazilians were warned that drinking more than two cans of beer and driving could result in severe consequences. However, while enforcement of the new law started out aggressively, it has since faded in memory, importance and enforcement.
Kind of Beer
Most all of the beer produced and consumed in Brazil is a light colored (claro or branco), pilsner type lager but there are a few “dark” beers available, albeit, many foreign beer aficionados find them too sweet or only a dark colored lager. Most Brazilian beers range from 4½ to 5½ percentage alcohol by volume. Other beer varieties such as wheat, bock, weisse, etc., are beginning to be produced in Brazil and gain some popularity among the Brazilian beer drinking public but these are not available everywhere and often difficult to find. Numerous micro breweries are also beginning to sprout up in some areas of Brazil but generally only in the very largest cities.
Many Brazilian men (and more than a few women) are avid beer drinkers and love nothing better than a cold chopp (draft beer – pronounced like shoppe) or bottle or can of beer bem gelado (well chilled– pronounced bain jell-ada). And when Brazilians say bem gelado they mean below freezing. In fact, many bars and restaurants sport brewery labeled beer freezers that proudly display the interior temperature, which usually hovers between -4 º and -8 º centigrade or Celsius (18 º to 14º Fahrenheit). It's not uncommon to be served a bottle of beer in Brazil that has a coating of ice or is even partially frozen! But with Brazil's tropical climate, there's much to be said about this Brazilian mania for super chilled beer as it at least helps keep the brew cold a little longer.
Most of the beer served and consumed in Brazil is packaged in either large 600 ml. (20 oz.) bottles (garrafas – pronounced gah-haff-ahs), 355 ml. (12+ oz.) long neck (same as English but pronounced long-ee neck-ee in Brazil) bottles or 350 ml. (12 oz.) aluminum cans (latas or latinhas – pronounced lah-tahs or lah-cheen-yahs). Possibly due to the equipment and hassle required to serve draft beer, chopp is less widely available than bottled beers. Unlike the United States and elsewhere, Brazilian bars and restaurants that do offer chopp usually only serve a single brand (marca) but never the same brand in a bottle. We've got chopp! To top it off, chopp usually costs more than an equivalent quantity of bottled beer and is usually not served quite as cold. No matter what some Brazilians claim, any chopp and its bottled brother are brewed the very same way. There is no difference between the two except the package or lack thereof.
Most bars and restaurants serve the 600 ml. bottle which, while somewhat smaller, is the Brazilian and metric equivalent of the American quart or “bomber”. When served, the 600 ml. bottle is often placed in a large plastic or styrofoam insulating sleeve and communally poured into individual glasses by everyone at the table. The cost per bottle varies depending upon the brand (marca) as well as the status of the bar or restaurant (upscale or not) but is generally between R$ 2.00+ and R$ 4.00+ or about US$ 1.00+ to US$ 2.00+. However, there are many places that cater to tourists and, at times during the year (high season, for example), the price at some bars can be both astronomical and absurd. If you ever find yourself in a bar like this—where the price is over about R$ 5.00+ per bottle (of any size)—you are obviously in the wrong place and need to go elsewhere fast!
Long neck bottles are usually only available at upscale bars and restaurants and can often cost every bit as much, if not more, than a 600 ml. bottle elsewhere. Cans (latas or latinhas) are usually found at beaches, comida por peso (food by weight) restaurants, lower end bars and in many private homes. Supermercados (supermarkets) in Brazil sell cans or long necks for between R$ .90+ to R$ 1.40 each (depending upon the brand) when they have a promoção (sale). Many upscale Brazilian bars have a nightly happy hour (same phrase and usage in Brazil) during the weekdays—usually from 6:00 pm to 7:00 or 8:00 pm. Just as in the U.S. and elsewhere, some offer beer specials and/or free appetizers during happy hour.
By far, the largest share of the Brazilian beer market (a whopping 80+%) belongs to Brazilian beer giant Ambev (Companhia de Bebidas das Américas). Ambev produces the popular Brahma, Antárctica, Skol and Bohemia brands (marcas) as well as other less prominent beer brands and numerous soft drinks. It is by far the largest brewer in Brazil and was formed in 1999 by the merger of Brazilian beer titans Brahma and Antárctica. Before the merger was approved, the Ambev group had to convince the Brazilian government's anti-trust agency CADE (Conselho Administrativo de Defesa Econômica) that only a merger could help Brazilian brewers to compete successfully in the global market. But the merger mania didn't end there.
In 2004, Ambev, in turn, merged with Belgium based Interbrew (brewers of Stella Artois, Becks, Bass, LaBatt and Leffe and about 200 other brands) to form the world's single largest brewer by volume, with 14% of the worldwide beer market and revenues only once exceeded by American beer colossus Anheuser-Busch, maker of the world's number one selling beer, Budweiser. Now, even Anheuser-Busch is part of AB-InBev. (Anheuser-Busch InBev) after the November, 2008, $52 billion purchase of Anheuser-Busch by InBev. The second largest selling brand in the world is Asahi (Japan) and in third place, is the Brazilian brand Brahma. In fact, Brahma together with Antárctica and Skol are among the ten top selling beers in the entire world.
There are other players in the Brazilian beer market but, at best, they can only struggle to gain or maintain a number two position to Ambev. Additionally, over the past ten years or so, Brazil has increased imports of beers from Europe and the United States and now it's possible in some locales to find such brands as Heineken, Miller Genuine Draft (MGD) and even Budweiser, however, they are usually more expensive because they are imported.
The following list, while not all inclusive, includes most of the major brands of beer produced in Brazil as well as some of the minor ones. We've marked each with a (one to five) to indicate our opinion of their quality and drinkability but this is just a single opinion. Others may think differently. Click on the brand name to visit the brand's web site, however, most pages are only available in Portuguese.
Pilsen (the 2nd largest selling brand in Brazil)
Pilsen (the oldest Brazilian brand and generally agreed to be the best)
Pilsen (the largest selling brand in Brazil and #3 in the world)
Pilsen (unrated at this time)
Malzbier (dark) (unrated at this time)
Kilsen Extra (unrated at this time)
Chop (draft in bottles and kegs) (unrated at this time)
Skol (the 3rd largest selling brand in Brazil)