Beer Travel: Iceland

The Crafty Pint may focus almost entirely on the Australian craft beer world, but we're not afraid to cast our eyes further afield to see what's on offer in other parts of the world. Thanks to wandering Tasmanian storyteller Bert Spinks, we can now offer you a taste of Iceland, a country full of special characters...


I am sitting with Elvar in the Hlemmur Square bar. A burly bloke wearing t-shirt and shorts on a day that will max out at around nine degrees celsius, Elvar, I will find out, wears many hats: he used to work on merchant ships, has a passion for etymology, and helps coordinate the Reykjavik Peace House.

Although discussing the ports of Bilbao and Antwerp or the Gothic roots of certain Icelandic words is very interesting, we have actually met because a mutual friend has described Elvar as a "beer expert". And indeed, as we lift our glasses, I begin to hear the entire history of craft beer in Iceland, in almost gossipy detail.

Of course, Iceland's craft beer history is not so long. Indeed, its beer history includes a long era of prohibition – after, of course, the fine era of mead-guzzling Vikings, who wrote poems praising their brews as the "soothing balm of all torments".

In 1989, beer became legal. A couple of "beverage manufacturers" – Ölgerdin Egill Skallagrímsson and Víking Ölgerd – started making lagers alongside their soft drinks.

But, in 2005, an unemployed sailor and his wife (according to Elvar's account) near Akureyri in Iceland's north decided to start brewing beer. It started selling well. They hired a brewer from one of the major Czech breweries; folklore has it that he told the owners that he could brew any type of beer they wanted, "but he would not make a bad beer".

At Hlemmur Square – the bar is public but attached to a hotel – we are drinking a seasonal spiced pumpkin ale from Ölvisholt Brugghús (pictured below). It has nice dark fruit notes and moderate sweetness, with just a little hint of all-spice to stimulate the tongue. There are about a dozen taps, featuring beers from the largest Icelandic breweries to one of the smallest, as well as a delightfully colourful range of well known craft bottles behind the bar.

 

 

Ölvisholt started in 2007 as the side project of two neighbouring dairy farmers; another of their beers is one of Iceland’s most famous and successful craft beer experiments, a creamy, smoky imperial stout weighing in at just under 10 percent ABV. Usually, the brewhouses are situated on long-existing farms, vats fermenting away while the usual business of animal husbandry carries on around it. But, although Icelandic agriculture has a long tradition, the climate makes growing the necessaries for brewing almost impossible. However, close contact with both the US and Denmark has certainly influenced the development of microbreweries in Iceland.

Our next stop is at the Kaldi Bar where we first go in for another Óktober ale, this one confusingly a kind of Marzen beer, with a nice mahogany richness from the malts. Kaldi beers are brewed by the original Icelandic microbrewers, Bruggsmiðjan. And the bar is a good example of what we can expect from Reykjavikur bars: chic but comfortable. The bartender is well dressed and happy to offer samples, as well as simply have a chat.

Of course, Reykjavík is famous for its nightlife, although given that it's not one of the cheap European countries for drinking (a pint is usually about 1000ISK, which is currently about $11 and rising as the Aussie dollar devalues), I am fonder of its afternoons. Happy hours are common practice in Iceland, and sometimes it seems like there's an interesting conversion rate happening here too: happy hour can last for the entire afternoon. Kaldi Bar, for example, gives a generous three hours in which its beers are 700ISK, which is none too shabby.

The two big dogs have also each developed a craft beer arm to their beverage, and there are some pretty good brews amongst their ranks too, as well as some interesting experiments. Borg Brugghús (from Egill Skallagrímsson) has a pleasant, sessionable pale ale, a rather good porter, and a memorable imperial stout (Garún, 11.5 percent ABV), as well as a unique "Nordic saison" brewed with wild Arctic thyme and giving off a good grassy nose and flavours of orange peel and kiwi fruit. Borg has also collaborated with Danish brewers Norrebro to create a "white stout".

Meanwhile, Viking Ölgerd have started the Einstök Beer Co. Einstök’s pale ale and white ale are ubiquitous in Icelandic beer bars, and their seasonal Arctic Berry – a raspberry wheat beer – was easy enough to find too. But their superior creation is a darker beer as well, the Toasted Porter, 6 percent ABV with rich notes of coffee and sweet rye bread, with a hint of chocolate bitterness.

The Danish influence on Icelandic beer is obvious. Mikkeller & Friends has opened up downtown, in a typically classy space with 20 taps and expensive nibblies. Along with Mikkeller, To Øl beers are often on tap and certainly available in the bottle in any craft beer bar worth the name. To Øl has also produced a beer especially for the fancy Dill restaurant, a farmhouse ale with wheat, oats, and Icelandic birch. I found this not, of course, at the expensive restaurant, but in one of my favourite venues in town: Mikkeller’s downstairs neighbour, an unnamed pizza restaurant (pictured at the top of the article).

 

 

Another Danish-ish connection is with Gæðingur Brugghús. Brewer Árni (pictured above) spends much time in Copenhagen and has opened up, along with his brewery, the popular Micro Bar in downtown Reykjavik. Gæðingur’s collaboration with Evil Twin and Two Roads in the US seems incredible: the Skyrgosi (5.4 percent ABV) is a unique take on the German gose style (salty, sour wheat beer) using the Icelandic dairy specialty, skyr (it’s a kind of yoghurt) to add sourness to the mash, before adding handfuls of cumin and birch smoked sea salt.

Micro Bar in Reykjavik is good, but I prefer their bar in the cruelly difficult-to-pronounce town of Sauðárkrókur. It’s the closest town to Gæðingur’s farm base, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, Árni pours beers, mostly his own, to a small contingent of locals and tourists alike. His Tumi Humall IPA is a real treat, 6.5 percent ABV, with a lovely golden hue and the glorious flavour of Galaxy hops making it one of the best brews in the country (and a nice connection between the far south and the far north of the beer world). Árni is a smart businessman as well as a good brewer, and in addition to working on having a crack at distilling, he also has an Australian distributor in the works – so keep your eyes open for what will be the only brewer in your local with the letter ð in its name.

But, of course, craft beer in Iceland is only growing. Elvar assures me that the home brew club is going strong (when I receive his business card, "beers", "whisky" and "malt" are between "archaeology", "languages" and "vinos de Iberia" as his fields of expertise) and that he knows of at least two people who are starting breweries in the coming months.


BARS

  • Skúli Bar, Aðalstræti 9, Reykjavik: plenty of taps, plenty of bottles, long happy hour.
  • Kaldi Bar, Laugavegur 20b, Reykjavik: nice vibe, Kaldi beers on tap, several hours of happy hour.
  • Bjórgarðurinn, 1 Þórunnartún, Reykjavik: wide selection, ‘Trappist Tuesdays’, good food.
  • Hlemmer Square, Laugavegur 105, Reykjavik: Wide range of bottles, lots of Borg and a couple of smaller local brewers on tap, cheap happy hour.
  • Mikkeller & Friends, Hverfisgata 12 (upper floor), Reykjavik: It’s Mikkeller. And friends.
  • Hverfisgata 12 (second floor), Reykjavik: Unnamed pizza restaurant with a curious selection of bottles.
  • Micro Bar, Austurstræti 6, Reykjavik: ten taps, lots of bottles, great bar.
  • Micro Bar, Aðalgata 15, Sauðárkrókur: great bar in a tiny fishing town, open Thursday to Saturday after 9pm
  • Icelandic Beer Centre, Hólar: unique location, scarce opening hours, hosts of Iceland’s only beer festival!
  • Akureyri Backpackers Café, Hafnarstraeti 98, Akureyri: your best bet in the northern town of Akureyri, with Borg on tap and a selection of bottled Icelandic beers.
  • Kex Hostel, Skulagata 28, Reykjavik: To Øl and/or Mikkeller alongside Borg (when I was there: Mikkeller/Three Floyds Blå Spøgelse lambic on tap!!!), and free bread straight from the oven…
  • Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar, Vegamótastígur 2, Reykjavik: well-loved divey bar, not a huge selection but a very unpretentious vibe.

BEERS

  • Gæðingur Tumi Humall IPA, 6.5 percent ABV
  • Ölvisholt Lava, imperial stout, 9.4 percent ABV
  • To Øl Dill, farmhouse ale, 6.9 percent ABV
  • Borg Garún Icelandic Stout, 11.5 percent ABV
  • Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter, 6 percent ABV
  • Bruggsmiðjan, Oktoberkaldi, dark lager, 5.2 percent ABV
  • Ölvisholt Skadi, farmhouse ale, 7 percent ABV
  • Gæðingur/Evil Twin/Two Roads Skyrgosi, skyr-and-spice Gose, 5.4 percent ABV
  • Borg Leifur, saison, 6.8 percent ABV
  • Steðji Hvalur 2 Þorrabjór, 5.2 percent ABV, ale brewed with smoked whale testicles. (I didn’t try it but maybe you would like to.)

About the author: Bert Spinks somehow makes a living from writing, walking and drinking.

Photo at top by Bert. Others pilfered from the respective breweries' website and Facebook page.

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