Time for a cold one

Text by Jón Kristinn Snæhólm

When Icelanders decide to do something they more or less go to the utmost extreme. In the early 80's for instance, we discovered the VCR and it took us only four to five years to become the nation with the highest number per capita to have this wonderful technology installed in our living rooms.

EMaybe this fact is not so surprising when you come to understand that during these times nearly every female over 18 worked long hours outside the home and continued hard labour at home until midnight. We did not have any television on Thursdays and the whole month of July was the official holiday month of the Icelandic state owned television.

But what has all this got to do with the brewing of beer? How do the Icelandic characteristics shine through the impressive revolution concerning how we came from being the hardest strong liqueur drinkers to a very sophisticated, forthcoming and innovative European nation concerning wine, food and drink? The answers to these questions are very surprising but also amusing at the same time.

A short history of Icelandic brewing
Since the settlement of Iceland “öl”, (ale) has been the favourite drink among Icelanders and it still was in the Middle Ages when brewing developed for the better, both concerning taste and shelf life. Instead of sweet gale (Myrica gale) the European method was adopted by using hops (Humulus lupulus) and then “öl” became “bjór” (beer). Imported beer became very popular in the 19th century especially from Denmark, Germany and Britain and today Icelandic beer brewing tradition derives mainly from these countries.

To beer or not to beer
In 1915 a total alcohol-consumption ban came into effect in Iceland following the strong and vigorous political campaign of the anti-alcoholic league in Europe. This sent the brewing of alcoholic beverages underground, thereby preserving the Icelandic tradition of moonshine and beer brewing. Many households in Iceland, especially in the countryside, became experts in this banned industry and entrepreneurs brought home the bacon due to high prices on these forbidden but popular products.

Mainly two factors brought the alcohol ban to an end in Iceland. First and foremost, like always, it was the fish, which came to wine lovers' rescue. Spain wanted to export wine to Iceland in 1922 in exchange for Icelanders sending salted cod to Spain. Secondly the ban did not actually serve its purpose by forcing Icelanders to drink less so it was in effect useless.

On 1st February, 1935 the alcohol ban was lifted in a national referendum. All alcoholic beverages were allowed … gin, whisky, black death (the Icelandic brennivín), red wine and white wine etc. etc. Everything, in fact, except beer!

GFreedom at last
Until the year 1989, a considerable political debate about the beer ban simmered within Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, and several amendments where brought forward in its chambers to allow the public to choose heir own consuming habits. But the politicians said no until finally liberal politicians came to power that trusted the common electorate to purchase beer and drink it. What a concept!

Finally, on 1st March 1989 at 09.00, the state owned liquor shops opened their doors to beer lovers. Icelanders went on a beer drinking feast and to this day on the 1st of March every year B-day is celebrated as one of the milestones where the public got one of their principal freedoms back from the politicians.

Something is brewing
Today eleven breweries, mostly microbreweries, are operated in Iceland pouring out forty-five different lagers, ales, stouts and dark malt ales.

Innovation is soaring and everything under the sun is acceptable when it comes to brewing of ales and beers in Iceland. Whether it is using 10,000 year old water from Europe's biggest glacier, Vatnajökull, or infusing this golden beverage with one of our high mountain herbs – everything goes.

The popularity of bars that cater to the eclectic tastes of beer lovers is also on the rise and recently two bars that focus solely on Icelandic beers and especially the microbreweries have opened in Reykjavík; Microbar and Kaldi bar. Even the relatively small town of Akureyri in Northern Iceland has its place for local beer at Brugghúsbarinn.

Without a doubt there will be no end to this wonderful new Icelandic industry. You see, we have this secret weapon, namely an ingredient that has been a great part of the winning streak of Icelandic beers in international competitions: our unspoiled nature and our crystal clean water.

WOW-challenge: When out on the town, ask for an Icelandic speciality beer instead of your usual brew. Try ALL the beers!

Kaldi Bar just opened at Laugavegur 20b in Reykjavík.

Microbar at Austurstræti 6 in Reykjavík offers a wide selection of Icelandic beers.

Brugghúsbarinn is at Kaupvangsstræti 23 in Akureyri.