I’ve been very lucky over the past seven years to have met, and become good friends with, an Icelander named Bergsteinn – better known as Beggi. (His full name will not be used in this post to protect guilty.) Beggi periodically returns to his Fatherland, and knowing I am a connoisseur, he always brings me back a couple bottles of their local beer to sample – each unique from the others before. Upon receiving his last delivery, I felt a calling to write a blog about Iceland’s brewing industry. Not necessarily because Iceland is a beer Mecca, but it does produce some excellent products, and it is a case study in a booming, global craft-beer economy.
First Some History
Iceland was settled over 1100 years ago by Norse Vikings who, at the time, sailed the North Atlantic seas raping and pillaging. (Beggi prefers the term “raiding and trading…”) After discovering this remote, uninhabited island near the Arctic Circle, for some reason, they decided to set up camp. In the years since it was settled the country has had very little immigration. The Icelandic bloodline pristine. Their language is also very pure and ancient. While modern Norwegian has been influence by other northern European languages over the centuries, Iceland’s is that of the original Vikings. Icelanders are known to be able to read Medieval texts. I speak German and have dabbled in Norwegian, and though I can read some, aside from skaal, it is almost impossible to discern a single word of spoken Icelandic. It is known as one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.
Over the centuries Iceland has at times fallen under the Norwegian and Danish crowns, albeit with varying degrees of autonomy. World War II and the German occupation of Denmark brought change to the country’s rule, and in 1944 Icelanders voted to become a sovereign republic. Though currently independent, and despite technically being closer to North America (Greenland) than Europe, Iceland has maintained close ties to Europe, especially Scandinavia, and foremost with Denmark.
Most of us think of Prohibition in the context of the United States, but there were a number of other lands that also tried this flawed experiment. Starting in 1907 countries such as the Faroe Islands, Russia, Norway, Hungary, Finland and Iceland all suffered through periods of Prohibition. Iceland’s Prohibition started in 1915. The ban on spirits and wine was lifted in 1935. It is hard to believe, but beer remained prohibited until March 1st, 1989! March 1st is now celebrated as “Beer Day” on the island.
In hindsight it is obvious to say that past prohibition experiments have been complete failures, but knowing a handful of Icelanders now, I cannot imagine any government wanting to push their rain-soaked, winter-sunlight-deprived population toward hard liquors like Vodka and Brennivín instead of letting them drink low alcohol, safe and nutritious beer.
Iceland is better known for chess, puffin hunting and unpronounceable volcanoes than beer, but it should be proud of its local breweries. The island is approximately the size of Kentucky, and with only 313,000 people, it would be the smallest state in the US by population. With that said, Iceland boasts eight breweries. That doesn’t sound terribly high, but keep in mind that number would put it in a per capita rank with the top tier US states like Vermont, Oregon, Montana, and Colorado. And to think that when I was in college at MSU, brewing in Iceland was not even legal! No brewing tradition, no Charlie Papazian, nothing… Also, Iceland rests squarely in the spirit belt, well north of the beer belt. Its climate does not lend itself to raising the ingredients needed in beer. So to see a new and growing beer industry there is exciting.
Their craft brewing movement somewhat reminds me of the US – a hip new industry with a number of young breweries. Unlike Iceland, the US does have a long brewing tradition, but keep in mind; all but a handful of the 2000 breweries in this country today did not exist in 1980.
In the short amount of time I’ve been privileged to sample Iceland’s beers, I’ve noticed a bold maturation in their offerings. Initially the beers I sampled were light or amber lagers – beers I would put squarely in the Euro Lager category. Comparisons to the Danish brewer Carlsberg comes to mind. (Remember the Denmark connection earlier…) They were excellent beers for refreshment and the “mass” market, but not overly creative. But times have changed and Iceland’s beers have evolved. And it makes sense. The cool climate near the Arctic Circle lends itself to more robust Ales. (“Never drink a beer from a country that does not have a real winter.”) The beers I’ve sampled lately are much more creative: a hoppy Pale Ale, a Smoked Imperial Stout, two Wit beers, even an Angelica Spiced Ale. And an interesting thing to note, though the styles being brewed there have European heritage, they appear to be inspired by American breweries. For example, the Wit beers I sampled are what I would categorize as “American Wit,” not really an interpretation of the Belgian original. So the American craft movement we all know and love is spreading to other countries.
Breweries and Beers
Below is a sampling of some of the beers I’ve had the chance to sample:
Ölvisholt Brugghús (http://www.brugghus.is/english/)
- Mori: Pours hazy amber with a light tan, creamy head. The nose boasts fresh hops and a dry, grainy maltiness. It tastes very Maris-Otter-esque with a blend of earthy and citrusy hops. In the finish hops eventually overtake the malt. This is a wonderful beer – fitting nicely in the Pale Ale or ESB category. This is the most aggressively hopped Icelandic beer I’ve tried to date.
- Lava: (Smoked Imperial Stout) This beer pours pitch black and is capped with a light brown head. Its aroma is of sweet beechwood smoke. (possibly Weyermann Rauchmalz) The flavor is dominated by roasted malts and smoke – all the time maintaining a smooth texture. For a style of beer that can get out of hand, Lava is very balanced. It finishes with lingering smoked malt. This is a nice “extreme” beer from Iceland.
- Stinnings Kaldi: (med Islenskri Hvönn –> with Icelandic angelica) This hazy copper beer has a long lasting head and comes with a subtle lactic acid aroma. Its flavor is very light with floral notes and a mild tartness. Lactic dryness closes this beer out. Stinnings Kaldi was a very surprising beer, floral and very light in flavor with a sour note – similar to some Belgian Farmhouse Ales I’ve sampled.
- Víking Gylltur: (Premium Lager / Pils) Not a lot to comment on here. This is a typical European-style pale lager. I found it very enjoyable. I think sheep do most of the work over there, but if Icelanders had lawn mowers, this is the beer they’d drink after doing that.
Einstök Ölgerđ (http://www.einstokbeer.com/)
- Icelandic White Ale: Einstök’s Wit is a cloudy, pale yellow beer with a thin head and lot of chunks in suspension after pouring. (Healthy vitamin B!) Its nose offers up a musty combination of citrus and coriander. The wheat in this beer is very present along with a slight tang. The finish is surprisingly clean with a faint bit of orange. It is an excellent example of a Wit Beer.
There are several other Icelandic beers I’ve tried, but did not take notes on: Thule, Kaldi Lager, Egill’s Christmas beer, Vífilfell’s Christmas beer, and Freyja to name a few. Not every beer needs to be evaluated, some can simply be enjoyed without a pen and my notes!
Below is a list of the four other Icelandic breweries not mentioned above:
Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery
Gæðingur Brugghús (http://www.gaedingur-ol.is/)
Víking Ölgerđ Akureyri (http://www.olgerd.is/english.html#forsida)
It is always a pleasure to try new beers – especially rare ones. And when drinking a Freyja (Ölvisholt Brugghús) I can feel confidant I’m the only one within thousands of miles enjoying that beer. I would like to give a big thanks to “the mayor of Beggivik” as well as his family for braving customs and supplying me with some excellent new beers from an isolated part of the Atlantic. And much better than the rotten shark and Brennivín I was conned into comsuming last weekend up snowcave camping!