Beer in Iceland

A short history from Viking feast to prohibition to microbreweries

26 NOVEMBER 2013,
Iceland, as many European countries, has a long history related to beer
Iceland, as many European countries, has a long history related to beer

Iceland's early Viking settlers are widely known for having indulged in alcohol.

The consumption of ale (öl) and mead (mjödur) was common and very popular. Also known as mungát in Icelandic, ale was brewed from malt, which is essentially sprouted barley. It is believed that barley was grown in Iceland until the 1400s when the rapidly cooling climate made it impossible. Although some barley was imported, Icelanders may have been compelled to give up ale in exchange for bread until grain became more widely available in the 20th century.

In Hávamál, a poem in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems from the Viking age, it reads:

"A better burden
no man can bear
on the way than his mother wit:
and no worse provision
can he carry with him
than too deep a draught of ale.
Less good than they say
for the sons of men
is the drinking oft of ale:
for the more they drink,
the less they can think
and keep a watch over their wits."

While the drinking of ale played an important role in the cultural life of the Vikings, their descendants, however, temporarily chose a very different path.

Prohibition
In 1908, Icelanders banned all alcohol as a result of a temperance movement. In the country's very first referendum, the overwhelming majority of 60,1 % of all men entitled to vote opted in favour of the ban. By 1915, the new law came into force and Iceland went dry. Only six years later, the ban was partially lifted after Spain refused to buy Iceland's main export, fish that is, unless Iceland bought Spanish wines.

After another referendum in 1935, spirits were legalized as well as beer with a low alcohol content (2,25 %). Regular strong beer remained prohibited. This may seem absurd, but the temperance lobby strongly argued that because beer is cheaper than spirits, it would lead to more depravity. As it is usually the case with bans, people found loopholes: it was common practice to simply pour shots into the available light beers. It is debatable that this enhanced the taste of the beer, but it certainly raised the level of alcohol which obviously was the purpose.

During WW II British and US American soldiers were stationed in Iceland and they didn't want to do without their beloved golden brew so one Icelandic brewery was given special permission to brew strong beer for the foreign troop. This exclusive ale was called “Polar Beer”. Even so, the Icelandic public was still barred from producing or drinking strong beer.

Partly due to international travel, Icelanders stayed in touch with the amber fluid, so bills to legalize the desired alcohol were introduced to the parliament on regular bases but shot down. Many Icelanders remember how exciting it was when somebody brought beer home after travelling abroad. The lucky traveller would gather friends and family and share the precious good.

Prohibition lost a lot of support in 1985, when the Minister of Justice, who was a teetotaller himself, banned bars from adding legal spirits into light beer. Eventually in 1989, the Parliament voted to end prohibition in Iceland. Ever since Beer Day, bjórdagurinn, is celebrated as a national holiday every year on March 1.

Flourishing Microbreweries
As of today, the biggest and oldest breweries in Iceland are Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson and Vífilfell. The words brugghús and ölgerð are Icelandic for brewery. Until very recently, however, there wasn't a big variety in brews available in Iceland: most common were pale lagers such as Egils Gull (“Egill's Gold”), a product of the Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery, as well as Thule and Víking, both lagers from Vífilfell. But in the past five years, a lot of new, more experimental breweries have entered the scene and finally Icelandic beer lovers have something to fulfil their drinking desires.

One of these microbreweries is for example Ölvisholt Brugghús. It opened in 2007 and used to be a dairy farm but now solely specialises in beer. Their flagship brew is Lava, which has been gaining fame beyond the North Atlantic; this smoked imperial stout is now available in Scandinavia and North America.

Following the example of Ölvisholt are other small, independent brewers. Bruggsmiðjan Árskógssand, Iceland's first microbrewery which is located in the North of the island, produces among other ales the widely popular Kaldi, a Czech inspired brew.

Borg Brugghús, a microbrewery owned by Ölgerðin, Iceland's oldest brewery, delights its customers with about 20 different beers such as the popular IPA Úlfur (“Wolf”) and porter Myrkvi (“Darkness”). At the World Beer Awards, Úlfur was named “Europe's Best IPA” in 2012, while Myrkvi was awarded European champion in the category of coffee and chocolate flavoured beer this year.

Their marketing tends towards a modern look and feel, without the Viking themes so prevalent in other Icelandic beers.

Brewery Einstök is now in its 4th year and has right from the start aimed for the international market and now ships its produce to the UK and US. They are known for their Pale ale, White Ale and tasty Toasted Porter. Other local beer manufacturers are Brugghús Steðja, Gæðingur Öl and El Grilló.

About seven years ago, one could find mainly lager beer here on the island of fire and ice. Now one can find every imaginable ale made in Iceland, beer enthusiasts can choose from a variety of ales such as pale ales, doppelbock, stouts, wheat beer, red ale, smoked beers and even fruit beers. No wonder beer has become the most popular alcohol in Iceland.

The Vikings would be proud.

For more information:
www.brugghus.is/english/
www.bruggsmidjan.is/default/page/about_bruggsmidjan
www.borgbrugghus.is/