In a country frozen in the ice age of crafty beers and liquor, one man works for a thaw.
By Brian O’Connor
Like any stein-slinging tourist, I seek authenticity when traveling. So in Reykjavik, naturally, I endeavored to drink like a Viking.
But in practice, Iceland’s capital poses a unique set of challenges for the imbiber. Although it exudes many charms—Icelanders embrace geothermal heat, volcano porn and whale meat—the city hosts one of the most underdeveloped drinking cultures outside of Riyadh.
One crawl through Reykjavik’s ample offerings of nightlife bears this out: single-note, cheap lagers like Viking Gold and Thule dominate the rows of taps in bars. It’s a golden flow of mediocrity and a failure of the Viking imagination—odd, considering more than half the population believes in elves. I think they even recently elected one mayor.
Equally puzzling is the romantic halo surrounding the country’s national liquor, Brennivín, aka “Black Death”: hard Schnapps made from fermented potato pulp, best swallowed ice-cold and very fast, with a finish capable of radiating brain tumors.
“It tastes awful,” confirms Hreiðar Jónsson, marketing manager for Vifilfell, a beer and liquor concern. “It was originally drank in the olden times to mask the taste of sheep’s testicles and sheep brains, and to mask the taste of sour food before artificial refrigeration appeared. It’s not very appealing to the young generation.”
While this historic abomination has been readily available for generations, beer, on the other hand, was exiled from Iceland until 1989. When parliament lifted the beer ban, Löwenbräu emerged as the most popular brand, mostly because of its availability. To maximize profits, local brewers began producing cheap lagers, and the government controlled their sale through state-run liquor stores. Worse, alcohol advertising was banished, exerting a camel clutch on drinking culture, which, 20 years later, has yielded a desolate tundra for anyone seeking anything more complex than, say, Sam Adams, which is the only readily available craft beer in Iceland.
Enter Jón E. Gunnlaugsson, CEO of Olvisholt, the best of three craft breweries that have sprouted recently, like wildflowers in a lava field.
“It’s very difficult in Iceland. Until three years ago, craft beers were unheard of,” he says. “This is lager country, and we’re trying to change that.”
In 2008, after touring breweries throughout Europe and hiring Scottish-trained brewmaster Valgeir Valgeirsson, Gunnlaugsson, with fellow farmer Bjarni Einarsson, converted his father’s dairy farm and produced a handful of craft beers never before seen in Iceland: Their signature brew is Skjálfti, a light- to medium-bodied lager with First Gold, Cascades and Celeia hops, endowing its nose with citrus and pine notes, and a slightly sweet caramel finish.
A real delight is their Lava, a viscous imperial stout with a thick brown head, chocolate notes, and a smoky, roasted aftertaste. They’re also planning a Christmas beer, probably a double bock.
Unfortunately, Olvisholt product is nearly as rare as the Great Auk, a flightless bird the Vikings clubbed to extinction in 1844. But at Islenski Barinn, which serves only Icelandic beer and plays only Icelandic music—“If you can stand it,” says Gunnlaugsson—you will find your reward.
Gunnlaugsson knows that the task before him is huge; in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, during which all three of Iceland’s banks went belly-up, prying kroners from the locals to pay for more pricey craft beers requires the moxie of a magician. In addition to working with chefs to pair his brews with food in fine restaurants (horse meat complements their red ale, Mori), on weekends he opens Olvisholt, one hour outside of Reykjavik, to the public, where guests can sample his beers until they’re dragged out feet-first.
I asked Gunnlaugsson what he thinks his chances are. “With a dairy farm you cannot enlarge your business, because of government quotas,” he said. “But with a brewery, there are no quotas—I can conquer
the world.” •
GETTING REYKJAVIKED: Pick your poison, then visit one (or all) of these Reykjavik drinking spots.
Serving only Icelandic beer and Icelandic music, this spot’s a gold mine for craft beer lovers. Pósthússtræti 9, islenskibarinn.is
Icelandic for “wine bar,” this spot boasts a healthy vino selection as well as an eclectic menu of beers and spirits. Kirkjutorgi 4, 354.552.4120
This is the place to drink Viking-style. Good for reading, boozing and listening to a men’s vocal choir rehearse dirges twice a week upstairs. Bergstadstræti 1–101, kaffibarrin.is
The United Nations of vodka, this bar boasts an impressive international selection. Tryggvagata 22, bakkus.is
This eatery’s whale meat—served pepper steak or sashimi-style—pairs exceptionally well with the wine list’s Chilean red. Baldursgata 14, 3frakkar.com
Iceland’s state-run liquor stores carry a wide beer selection, including brews from Belgium’s Chimay, Denmark’s Faxe and Iceland’s own Egils. various locations, vinbudin.is