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Bizarre and multifaceted: Iceland embraces beer

What happens when for more than 70 years a country has to do without beer? First of all, there is a wave of profligate illegal brewing, then resistance takes shape – and finally there’s whole lot of catching up to do. Which is what has happened in Iceland, where for some years now numerous new and creative breweries have been emerging. I selflessly embarked upon a research trip.

Prohibition in Iceland

To start with, a brief review of the island nation’s sorrowful (from a beer-drinker’s viewpoint) past: motivated by independence from beer-loving Denmark, in 1915 a law came into force that marked the beginning of prohibition in Iceland. The bans on wine and spirits were quickly relaxed in the subsequent decades, whereas beer initially remained prohibited until 1933. At this juncture, the thirst for beer was presumptively exigent enough for a compromise: beer was basically permitted again, but only up to an alcohol content of 2.25 per cent. So it was hardly surprising that this proved inadequate for quenching the Icelanders’ thirst – resulting in smuggled goods from abroad, the first secret garage brews and the brilliant idea of mixing the weak beer with potent schnapps. In the latter case, the effect presumably took precedence over hedonistic gratification.

In the 1970s, holidays outside Iceland became progressively more popular and indeed normal, so the Icelanders became increasingly keen to legally drink “proper” beer even after returning home. However, resistance initially led to a rather anomalous situation: selling beer continued to be illegal in the country as a whole, but the airport’s duty-free zone constituted an exception. Arriving tourists, but also Icelanders, could here buy and import up to eight litres of beer – crazily enough not only international beers, but also Icelandic products which could not be (legally) purchased anywhere except at the airport. In the late 1980s, the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, then relented at last: since 1989, beer has been legally available in Iceland.

Hotspot airport

But even in 2018 purchasing beer in Iceland isn’t quite the same as doing it in Germany, as I learned on my trip. The beer shelf in the duty-free shop remains the first port of call after landing in Reykjavik – meanwhile, though, primarily for reasons of price. In the supermarkets, however, even today you will seek in vain for any signs of beer – alcoholic beverages are sold only through the state-owned Vínbúðin chain.

The beer scene is catching up

In any case, drinking at the numerous taverns and pubs in Reykjavik (and elsewhere, of course) is more convivial, though more expensive. And what in Germany tends to be regarded as stingy and joyless appears to be very much more normal in Iceland: you match your going-out-for-a-drink habits to the various Happy Hours in the pubs. Whereupon you may stumble – as I did this summer – into the Skúli Craft Bar and unexpectedly come to enjoy a wide choice of Icelandic craft beers (not forgetting the food truck owned by the pub itself!).

In recent decades, you see, the Icelandic beer scene has accomplished some very respectable catching-up: since the country’s first microbrewery, the Kaldi Brewery, opened its doors in 2006, the beer scene in Iceland has really taken off. Meanwhile, Iceland (pop. 350,000) boasts a notable mixture of “big” breweries with traditional (and highly quaffable) beers and of very creative microbreweries. This occasionally (as is the case in other beer markets too) leads to some rather bizarre creations. If you like your beer a bit astringent, for example, you should try “Skyrgosi” – as the name indicates, it’s actually a combination of beer and the yoghurt-like Skyr. You can’t get more Icelandic than that.

In order to drink my way through the entire Icelandic beer landscape, I would have needed more time (and money) than I had this summer. Nevertheless, it sufficed for discovering a few (sometimes absolutely unpronounceable) highlights. If you want to immerse yourself more deeply in the treasures offered by Iceland’s breweries, I can recommend this listing – for example – plus of course a visit to Reykjavik’s pubs.

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