I drank a lot of beer in Iceland during our recent visit. That should be no surprise as beer is almost always my preferred tipple and the local beers were very good. Most Icelanders agree; about two-thirds of their alcohol intake is in the form of beer.
Beer, that is beer containing the necessary amount of alcohol (say 4% to 5% ABV) to make a credible brew, has been available in Iceland only since March 1st 1989. Understandably that date is imprinted on the label of every bottle and can of Gull beer; that turned out to be the beer brand I mostly drank.
Before 1989 beer was limited to 2.25% ABV or less. Such beer is still available but, unsurprisingly, is not a product in high demand. Most prohibitions arise from a twist of history and apparently this prohibition of regular beer arose from the perception that beer was a symbol of Danes and Denmark. Iceland was a former colony of Denmark and achieved full independence only after WWII.
Before 1989 there was no shortage of alcohol in the form of wines (imported from Portugal in exchange for salted fish) and spirits but the advent of decent beers in 1989 soon reduced their market share substantially. Incidentally one can buy alcohol only in government stores called Vinbudin.
We fell unexpectedly into the Reykjavik beer scene shortly after our arrival because one of the best-known and most popular tap-rooms or beer bars in town was located in the basement of our hotel.
Once in a while the stars align.
The Bjorgardurinn or Beer Garden provided good food, a congenial atmosphere and an enormous selection of beers to choose among. As the giant chalk-board was hard to make out I opted for a Guinness to wash down my ‘burger and fries. The price of that simple, tasty and nutritious meal took my breath away; Iceland turned out to be expensive. However we never handled a single item of cash money (Krona at about 125-ISK to 1-USD) because, in Iceland’s virtually cashless society, cash can be a nuisance.
Next day we followed our usual practice when in a city that is new to us: we took a Hop-on-Hop-Off bus around town.
Good fortune again intruded.
One of the bus stops was outside another of the iconic locations in the Icelandic beer scene, now representing their emerging craft beer industry. The sign for the Bryggjan Brughus attracted my attention as you might guess. After some other visits we found our way back to the brewery for late lunch on their spacious patio overlooking the harbor.
I enjoyed a very nice IPA with my ‘burger and fries. I did not take the public tour around the brewery as I could see all I needed to see from the bar. This was a well financed and well equipped brewing operation and the quality of the beer was correspondingly good.
For the most part however, the beers we met in the bars of the hotels we stayed in during our 11-day circumnavigation of the island had but three beers on tap. These were almost always Gull, Viking and Boli representing the three major brewing companies of the island. I found Viking and Boli rather heavy and so drank mostly Gull.
That turned out to be a bit of an embarrassment as Gull in not pronounced as in seagull or gullible. The “ll” is different from an “l” and has an odd “tl” sound suggesting the word might mean “good”. Gull actually means gold and describes the color of the beer.
Incidentally all the beers were served spectacularly well in tulip-shaped glasses with the brewery logo proudly displayed.
That is the way God intended things to be.
Now, we did not invest almost two weeks getting to Iceland and home again to learn about the beer. We went to see the natural volcanic wonders of Iceland: spreading glaciers, dancing geysers, dashing rivers and spectacular waterfalls, idyllic lakes and remote snow-clad mountains wraithed in mist.
We also learned something of the Nordic culture; turns out their culture owes much more to social policies such as those imagined by Bernie Sanders than to their white skins. We saw no beggars such as we have in Davis, nor homeless people. Iceland was the country most affected by the 2008 economic meltdown and the only one to send bankers to jail.
Interestingly, it was an intense turn to support of tourism that helped Iceland’s economic recovery. We were glad to help out in that regard.
We also enjoyed the trip no end. Go soon before the tourists overrun it!
Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.