Iceland is not a cheap tourist destination, and one product that demonstrates this particularly well is alcohol. Whether light beer or spirits, alcohol is heavily taxed and the bottle of wine or the six-pack of beer for home is only available in the state-run Vínbúðin. In addition to the tourists, however, it is mainly the Icelanders themselves who have to live with the state regulations.Every year on March 1 is Bjórdagurinn in Iceland. On this day of beer, Icelanders celebrate the legalization of beer consumption. Many bars are open until early in the morning and special beers are created to commemorate this important event.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the temperance movement was growing stronger in many countries around the world. The Icelandic state expressed its care for the population by banning alcohol, which came into force from 1915. The reflex, as in other countries, was an increase in smuggling and bootlegging. As early as 1922, under pressure from trading partners, the import of wine was allowed again. To discourage excessive consumption, grim skulls were printed on Brennivin, the favorite liquor of Icelanders. This almost made the liquor even more popular, and to this day it is affectionately called Black Death by the locals. After spirits were legalized again in 1933, beer with more than 2.25 percent alcohol remained banned. It was to remain difficult to obtain larger quantities of alcohol. But as tourism grew, so did the demand for beer. Finally, after 75 years and several attempts in Parliament, a vote on March 1, 1989, brought about the legalization of beer. Beer became the most popular alcoholic beverage among Icelanders.
Craft beers from Iceland
At the beginning of legalization, large foreign breweries dominated the market. In 2006, Iceland’s first microbrewery, Kaldi, launched in Arskogssandur in the north. This was the starting signal for many more microbreweries throughout the country. Today, there are over twenty. They have joined together to form the Independent Craft Brewers of Iceland (ICBI). You can visit them on a tour along the Ring Road. Many have their own pubs and offer tours. Some, like pioneer Kaldi, even offer a warm beer bath in their in-house spa. State-run Vínbúðins always have a selection of local craft beers. The small breweries sell locally in their own stores. A tender sign that the state’s alcohol sales monopoly may soon be faltering.
The beer connoisseur
Þórgnýr Thoroddsen is a profound connoisseur of the Icelandic beer and brewing scene. His company, based in Reykjavik, is called Bjorland – Beer Land. Þórgnýr advises breweries on the development of beer varieties and is fighting to ensure that the last hurdle on the road to a free beer country is soon history. The monopoly of the state-owned Vínbúðin should finally fall. The domestic microbrewers need other sales markets and are pushing to be able to tap into them. But competition from large international breweries is causing problems for the independent craft beer brewers. These often offer discounts to the restaurant trade that the small start-ups cannot compete with. Nevertheless, restaurants and pubs are proud to offer local beers. As a traveler, you should therefore always ask for a locally brewed craft beer.
The Beer Lady
Beer is fun and beer connects. That’s exactly what the Lady Brewery in Reykjavik lives by. Porey Björk Halldorsdottir prefers to brew event beer. For parties, for weddings, or for the Design March campaign week. For the Hönnunar Mars in Reykjavik, she brewed the event beer for the fourth year in a row. Not only is a special brew created, but the beer also becomes a co-production with other creatives in the city. In 2022, it’s fashion designer Marta Heidarsdottir from the design duo Gæla. She mainly uses leather from Icelandic sheep for her hairy bag creations. Things get very hairy in her studio because of the animal skins. But how do you bring sheep hair and beer together? After all, it shouldn’t be unappetizing.
The result is a crazy masterpiece worth tasting and stroking, the creative ladies say of their creation. The beer bottle gets a second life as a fuzzy roll. The fuzzy roll becomes a mediator between fashion and beer. And stands as a symbol for an object with which you take care of the things that surround you. Icelandic winters are notoriously long and dark. That’s why the saying goes: either you get depressed or you get creative! In this case, creativity was clearly born out of darkness. The Design March is still called that, but since the pandemic it no longer takes place in March, but in early May.
The beer brewer with a clear compass
Segull 67 is a family brewery in the Icelandic fishing village of Siglufjörður. Segull is the Icelandic word for magnet. The magnetic compass needle is part of the logo. Segull 67 has become a cool location in the north of Iceland. Season and therefore guests are already here in February and March. That’s because Siglufjördur, on the 67th parallel, has its own ski area, which can be reached by direct flights from Denmark and Great Britain.
The microbrewery was founded in 2015 by career changer Marteinn Haraldsson and is part of the Indipendent Craft Brewers of Iceland (ICBI). Segull 67 already produces 100,000 liters a year, all varieties combined, from Amber Lager to Summer Ale and IPA. Marteinn used to work as a computer designer. With the seasonal beers, he says, he lives out his creativity and experiments with ingredients beyond the purity law. And he is currently planning a distillery in the huge old fish factory. Despite the new freedoms in the beer market, celebrated every year on March 1, Icelanders’ love of Brennivin remains unbroken.
Every year in early May is Design March in Reykjavik. Porey Björk of Lady Brewery is sure to have another special beer brewed then. In the city center and in the harbor, be sure to look for the Design March signs. Visitors don’t need an invitation, just walk in and see the latest in design and innovation. If you drive down Ring Road, you can pick up the Independent Craft Brewers of Iceland (ICBI) map and study the North Atlantic beer scene. Segull 67 is definitely worth a stop for a brewery tour and tasting. But be careful – alcohol and driving are only compatible up to 0.2 per mille in Iceland!
Wondrous Iceland Stories
Magical, mystical, whimsical. On our trip through Iceland, we experienced overwhelming nature, enjoyed the benefits of geothermal energy and tasted many an outlandish dish or of the beer that was only legalized in 1989. In Iceland there are leader sheep, but under no circumstances ponies. Instead, the descendants of the Vikings today have heated sidewalks, still seething volcanoes and a lot of creativity, which in the long dark months is the best recipe against the onset of winter depression. Other Moment Mal episodes are about hairy beer bottles, petrified trolls and wishing stones. Fermented, cruelly stinking Greenland shark contrasts with rye bread baked in hot earth. The whales that regularly appear off Húsavík are a popular photo motif during whale watching.