My wife and I recently went off the Tap Trail and made a visit to Iceland. The main purpose of our trip was to hike and climb mountains, but just like every trip we take, we like to explore the local beer scene as much as possible. For those planning a similar trip, or those interested in learning about this unique corner of the world, I wanted to share our discoveries.
After doing some initial research, I was surprised to find more than a dozen beer brands in Iceland. But after digging deeper, it seems that there’s really only about a half dozen breweries in the country because some of the larger breweries own multiple brands. Still, half a dozen is not bad for an island country of only 325,000 in an area less than two-thirds the size of Washington state. It is also a country that is no doubt recovering from a brutally long prohibition on beer, which lasted from 1915 until 1989.
Ölgerðin (anglicized as Olgerdin) Egill Skallagrímsson is a large corporation that produces a variety of products, and it is one of the largest and oldest producers of beer and soft drinks in Iceland. Its many brands of beer include Gull, Brio, Boli, Polar and a variety of Egils beers. Most of the Ölgerðin beers I tried didn’t excite me much, as most were just your typical, industrial light lagers (which also happen to be the most popular type of beer in the country).
Even though beer was illegal until 1989, Ölgerðin survived prohibition by making soft drinks and other beverages. During war times, it was allowed to brew beer for the British and American soldiers stationed in Iceland, but Icelanders were not allowed to drink any of it.
Borg Brugghús, which translates to City Brewery, is Ölgerðin’s craft brewery arm, and it brews a slew of styles that are widely available. The Úlfur IPA nr.3 seemed to be the most ubiquitous. It was crisp and easy drinking, though its hop profile was a bit flat and one dimensional.
FYI: In Icelandic, bjór means beer, and both ölgerð (olgerd) and brugghús essentially mean brewery.
An interesting side note is that Ölgerðin also produces Brennivín, “the original Icelandic spirit,” which is a 37.5-percent, potato-based schnapps that is seasoned with caraway seeds. As I was told, this strong beverage helps to wash down traditional food (i.e., no longer popular with most Icelanders) like ram’s testicles, sheep head and rotten shark. I skipped the trad food but found Brennivín to be surprisingly decent. It had an interesting rye bread-like flavor, and it provided inspiration for my next homebrew – a rye pale ale brewed with caraway seeds.
Bruggsmiðjan produces a line of beers under the brand name Kaldi. I can’t speak for their IPA or other specialty beers, as I could only find their mainstream lagers, but, again, I wasn’t that impressed.
I tried a slew of brews from Viking, which produces a wide variety of brands, such as Black Death Beer, Thule, Islenskur Urvals Pils Organic and Einstök. Icelandic White Ale, a bottle-conditioned, unfiltered and unpasteurized wit beer from Einstök, was probably my favorite of the bunch. It was highly quaffable and it had pleasant additions of coriander and orange peel. Einstök also makes a Toasted Porter, but it sounds more interesting that it actually tastes.
I only found a few Gæðingur beers, though they were all pretty solid. The Gæðingur Tumi Gumall IPA had some nice notes of caramel, grapefruit and lemon. Among the Icelandic IPAs I tried, this one came the closest to resembling your average American IPA.
Established in 2012, Steðji (aka Steðja or Stedji) recently gained international attention with its Havalur 2, a beer made with sheep-dung-smoked whale testicles. Fortunately, I didn’t come across any bottles of it, but I sampled a few other Steðji beers, including Steðji Sumar, a 4.5-percent-ABV summer ale that offered hay-like malt flavors with a honey-like sweetness, along with some gentle hop aromatics reminiscent of flowers and herbs, and Dokkur, a malt-forward altbier.
When I passed by the family-run brewery in a rural area outside of Borgarnes, it was too early for a visit; though I did manage to take a pic from the entrance.
Ölvisholt Brugghús is a small brewery in Selfoss on the south side of the island. Among its lineup, it makes Mori, an easy-drinking Scottish red ale; Vatnajökull Frozen in Time, a malt-forward Belgian-style ale that made me think of your typical American-style amber ale; and Lava, a 9.4-percent-ABV smoked imperial stout. Lava was the first beer I ordered in Iceland, and it was my favorite Icelandic beer of the trip. It offered rich and earthy notes of smoke, roasted malts, chocolate, coffee, char and tar. Coincidentally, it happens to be the top-rated Icelandic beer on RateBeer.com.
I also heard about a brewpub on the north side of the island called Bjórsetur, but I did not make it up that far on my visit.
Beyond the breweries (many of which do not have tasting rooms), there were some decent beer bars in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and the city where nearly two-thirds of Icelanders live. Mikkeller & Friends, Micro Bar and The Laundromat all offered solid lineups of beer along with quaint atmospheres and friendly service. The beers were expensive, though, typically running between $8 and $10 each.
With two weeks of beer drinking on the docket, it was much more affordable to enjoy to-go bottles of beer back at our hotel rooms. Ice machines and room refrigerators were rare, but at least the tap water was nice and cold for beer chilling.
Like some of the U.S. states with backward alcohol laws, Iceland only allows “strong beer” (i.e., normal beer) to be sold in government-run liquor stores called Vinbuðin. Unfortunately, these stores have limited locations and limited hours, so trying to plan Vinbuðin stops around our activities was rather annoying.
Gas stations and stores, by the way, are only allowed to sell 2.25-percent beer.
Curiously, beer selections varied quite a bit from one Vinbuðin store to another. Prices seemed to be the same, though. Depending on the beer, single bottles ran between 300 and 1,000 Icelandic Krona ($2-$8 US).
As far as imports go, I didn’t see a whole lot of American beer. Sam Adams was present, as was Founders from Michigan. And as expected, there were many European beers, including BrewDog from Scotland and a slew of Belgian ales. One beer bar even sold bottles of Westvleteren 12 for $40 a piece.
Overall, I was impressed by some of the Icelandic beers I came across, and I see a lot of potential for the country. And even though Iceland got a late start to the craft beer movement, it seems to be headed in the right direction.