Iceland Mag

11 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Food & Drink

An Icelandic microbrew revolution

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • From no beer to countless choices From the great Mikkeller and friends bar on Hverfisgata 12 in Reykjavík. Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, but in the past few years a micro-brew revolution has transformed Icelandic beer culture. Photo/Mikael Axelsson

Icelandic beer culture has evolved rapidly in the past few years, as several excellent microbreweries and microbrew-pubs have opened up. Today locals and travellers alike can choose from a wide selection of local brews. 

The Icelandic beer ban, 1915-1989
The selection and quality of Icelandic microbrews is especially striking when we consider the fact that beer was banned in Iceland as recently as 1989. Yes, you read that right: Beer was actually banned until recently. The ban, which was a holdover from Prohibition, lasted from 1915 until March 1, 1989, which has ever since been celebrated by local beer-enthusiasts and pubs as “Beer-Day.”

During the first years after the beer-ban was lifted, the Icelandic market was dominated by very simple lager beers. The most popular beers were Egils Gull, produced by Egill Skallagrímsson brewery, and a similar blond lager, produced by Sanitas, which was later renamed Víking, as well as imported beers made by Löwenbrau, Budweiser, and Tuborg.

A knee injury leads to a local microbrew revolution
In 2005, however, a couple from Árskógsstrandur, a tiny fishing village north of Akureyri in Northern Iceland, got the idea of establishing a brewery. The husband, Ólafur Þröstur Ólafsson, had been a fisherman all his life, but a knee injury he suffered in 2003 had made it impossible to continue working at sea. The idea of establishing a microbrewery emerged after his wife, Agnes Sigurðardóttir, saw a report on a Danish microbrewery on the evening news in June 2005.

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Kaldi Bar One of five microbrew pubs in downtown Reykjavík Photo/George Leite

With the typical enthusiasm of Icelandic fishermen, who are used to thinking and acting quickly to respond to the weather and winds and the unpredictable movements of the fish, they made all the preparations, including ordering necessary equipment from the Czech Republic, within a few months. By early 2006, the first Kaldi beer had been bottled.

Today Kaldi is the most-sold bottled beer in Iceland (the mass-produced beers are primarily sold in cans), and the tiny brewery has been expanded several times over. Kaldi beers, which have no added sugar or preservatives, are sold on tap in many of the better bars around Iceland, including Kaldi Bar in Reykjavík, where you can try several varieties, including seasonal and experimental brews unfiltered on tap.

Microbrews take on the mass-produced lagers
Today there are five microbreweries in Iceland, and two more are scheduled to open this summer or fall. In addition to Bruggsmiðjan Árskógssandi, which brews Kaldi, there is Ölvisholt in Southern Iceland, founded in 2007, and Gæðingur, opened in 2011 in Skagafjörður fjord in Northern Iceland. Frustrated by the difficulty he had in getting his product on tap in Reykjavík (the big producers insisted on exclusive contracts with bar owners), Árni Heiðar, the founder of Ölvisholt, opened MicroBar in Reykjavík, leading the way for other microbrew-pubs. Recently he opened a microbrew-pub in Sauðárkrókur, a small town in Skagafjörður where Ölvisholt is located.

Then, in 2012, the small brewery Steðji opened in Western Iceland. Steðji has had a taste for controversy. In 2014 and 2015, Steðji introduced a seasonal whale-flavored beer. The 2015 vintage of the whale beer was flavoured with smoked fin-whale testicles.
This summer the first brewpub is scheduled to open by the Reykjavík old harbour, and a seventh microbrewery is scheduled to open in Eastern Iceland on the banks of Lagarfljótið river, bringing the total number of microbreweries to seven.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
In addition, there is the Borg brewery, which was founded in 2010. Although Borg is a subsidiary of Egill Skallagrímsson, it operates as an independent microbrewery, churning out experimental brews. Many of its products have received high praise from Icelandic beer lovers.

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Kaldi The beer that started it all Photo/George Leite

The “big guys” still dominate the market, as the microbreweries have less than a 10% market share. However, we need to remember that with an annual production of only 11–15 million litres, the “big” breweries in Iceland would qualify as “regional craft breweries” according to the definition of the American Brewers Association, even if their products, the mass-produced lager beers, have little if anything in common with craft brewing. Still, the competition from the microbreweries and growing sophistication of Icelandic consumers has led to a growing sophistication of their products. Today every beer-lover should find something to his taste in Iceland.

Iceland is always biggest and greatest, on a per capita basis!
Icelanders like to claim their various achievements are the greatest in the world, when considered on a per capita basis. For example, Icelandic beauty queens have won the title Miss World three times, as many times as the US, and Icelandic strongmen have won the title The World’s Strongest Man eight times, compared to two golds won by the US, proving Icelandic women are the most beautiful in the world and Icelandic men the strongest!

Using the same math reveals that the Icelandic microbrewing revolution is quite impressive: With five microbreweries already in operation, and two more planned, Iceland would have one microbrewery for every 47 thousand inhabitants. The US, with its 3400 craft breweries, has one for every 93 thousand inhabitants. By that measure, at least, Iceland is twice the microbrewing nation as the US!

 

Where to find and how to visit the Icelandic micro-breweries

Borg Brugghús:  Grjótháls 7-11, Reykjavík

Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery offers a “Taste the Saga Brewery Tour,” which is a shorter, English version of the “beer school” the brewery has operated since 2010. The tour takes place every Friday and Saturday at 6 pm. You need to book through the webpage www.gestastofa.is.

Steðji:  Steðji (farm), Borgarnes

Steðji offers tasting and guided tours of their micro-brewery. The minimum for a tour is 6 people. Further information and appointments at stedji@stedji.com.

Ölvisholt: Ölvisholt (farm), Selfoss

Ölvisholt brewery organizes tours and beer tasting of their offerings at “The Red House,” a beautiful restaurant in the picturesque fishing village of Eyrarbakki, in Southern Iceland, just south of Selfoss. Further information and reservations can be made through brugghus@raudahusid.is and by phone, 483 3330.

Gæðingur: Útvík (farm), Sauðarkrókur

You can get a taste and tour of the offerings of Gæðingur at Microbar in downtown Sauðarkrókur, which is owned and operated by Árni Hafstað, the owner of Gæðingur Brewery. Groups interested in a visit to the brewery or a more in-depth introduction to the art of micro-brewing can contact Árni at Microbar, or email the brewery at gaedingur@hotmail.com

Bruggsmiðjan: Öldugata 22, Árskógssandur

Bruggsmiðjan at Árskógssandur offers visitors beer tasting and tours of the brewery. Each tour takes about one hour, includes refreshments and tastings of the various Kaldi beers, and visitors can take home the Kaldi glass they used during the visit. For further information and reservations, contact bruggsmidjan@bruggsmidjan.is or by phone 466-2505.

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