When I planned this year’s trip to Iceland, I did not anticipate that it would produce a Beer World post: my previous visits have not been marked by great experiences on that front. In fact, as a vegetarian who likes good beer and wine, Iceland’s charms have always been non-alimentary. The landscape is sublime, the people compelling, but I eat a lot of pizza and drink tinny lager like the inevitable Egils Gull.
This particular short pint was sunk on my return to the city after a couple of days walking over the Fimmvorduhals pass (short journal entry to follow). Still with back pack, boots and three day old clothes, I slouched into the very cool and lovely Bankastraeti 5 bar (mercifully, it was too early for the beautiful people of Reykjavik…) and ordered ‘a beer’, in that careless tourist way. Now, I’ve drunk Gull many times, and it’s not getting any better: it is essentially Coors or Labatts. A non-descript, empty-tasting, tinny beer that works – if at all – only when they are very cold and the weather is very hot. Very hot, which let’s face it is inappropriate for Iceland.
The brewer, Egill Skallagrimsson (remember that name, you’ll be seeing it later) produce many Icelandic brews, including Egil’s Polar Beer, which surpasses Gull, but only because it has a wittier name – the contents of the can are equally unsatisfying. The other major brewer, at least in terms of prevalence is Viking, whose basic product – while still unexciting – is at least in the realms of Stella, rather than Coors.
So the first week of the trip was uninspiring, beer-wise. But then, in the Isafjordur in the West Fjords, I was introduced to Viking Classic.
It’s not my usual style of choice – all rich, malty notes – but tasty enough. By now, I’d discovered a seam of interesting Icelandic beer. Nothing astounding, but certainly worth drinking, and all mainstream, readily available brews. You just had to ask for something specific, recognising that just about everyone working in a bar in Iceland speaks English remarkably well: you don’t have to simply say slowly, ‘A beer, please’, holding up a finger to indicate quantity.
It was another Viking tipple that had first alerted me to the possibilities. Their Gylltur, malty and fresh, was something of a revelation. The online reviews are snippy, describing it as ‘thin’ and ‘metallic’ – I can only assume that those reviewers had not been on a week-long diet of Gull and Tuborg.
Ah, Tuborg. That reminds me: the other thing to note about Icelandic beer drinking is the repressive rules on alcohol. The price doesn’t bother me so much anymore: a pint is usually about £5 in a bar or restaurant, which is only absurd if you don’t live in London where you could drink more expensive beer every night if you chose to. No, the real bind in Iceland is access. Sure, beer is readily available in bars and the like, but to buy full strength beer to take home (or on a picnic or whatnot) you need to go to the local state-run off-licence, called the Vinbudin. Fine. Except their opening hours are very restricted and very arbitrary – in Holmavik on the Strandir coast, the Vinbudin was open for one hour a day. And it wasn’t always the same hour.
I never actually managed to find a Vinbudin open (and believe me I tried) so was on one occasion reduced to Tuborg Green Light Beer, the only thing available in the Samkaup supermarket in Isafjordur. It wasn’t so bad (at around 2%, it still tasted like beer, a little) but to get drunk you’d have to drink more of them than the human stomach could possibly stand.
Fortunately, in bars and restaurants, it was becoming clear that there were plenty of options. Another Viking brand, Thule, was pleasantly malty and hoppy, although still little more than a reasonable lager.
Fortunately, from here on, it got good. Very good. First up on my list of really tasty Icelandic beers is Kaldi lager: light, hoppy, and bitter. It’s something of a local favourite (it was highly recommended to me by more than one person) and I’m sure that whenever I ordered it, the barkeeper or waiter smiled a knowing smile and nodded approvingly.
At the Faktorshus, a lovely little restaurant in Isafjordur, I followed the lager with a bottle of the Kaldi dark, a rich, chocolately beer, with just enough maltiness. I couldn’t drink many of them (I’m a blond beer sort of man) but I know plenty of people for whom this would be a treat. Along with the food (some of the nicest I’ve had in Iceland) the drinking was going so well that I thought I would take another roll of the dice and try to local moss schnapps (probably the only picture of something other than beer you’ll ever see on a Beer World post). Odd.
The trip was nearing its end – we had one last destination before returning to Reykjavik and the indulgence of the Blue Lagoon. A long drive over winding, precipitous gravel roads took us to Djupavik, high on the Strandir coast. A former herring station, the settlement is now largely abandonned. But there is a hotel, with ten spartan rooms, and a bar. It stocked Gull and Gylltur and Thule, but two new options were also on offer.
The first was Borg Brewery’s Bjartur Nr. 4 and it became almost instantaneously my favourite Icelandic beer (in spite of the reservations of the bartender). Essentially a ‘baby’ Belgian, it evokes Duvel, in an understated way, with an alcohol content that is easy going; floral and citrusy, a hint of hay, but not fruity and without that soapy taste that some citric beers fail to avoid. Fullsome and light in equal measure, and certainly worth hunting out.
The second surprise, here pictured in the sunshine at Borgarnes, was Boli; a little like a heavier, maltier Kronenbourg 1664, but in a good way. The surprise was that it belongs to the Egill Skallagrimsson stable, the home of the ubiquitous Gull. That they are capable of producing something as satisfying as this, but choose not to so often (it is only a little stronger than Gull) defies comprehension. Apparently it’s a new line and one can only hope that it out does its older siblings.
And then the last, discovered in the unlikely environment of the canteen at the Blue Lagoon. Ulfur Nr. 3 is an IPA in the modern style, all citrus zing and airy hoppiness. It would fare well against the slew of contemporary London microbrewery IPAs, but would be simply one of the crowd there. Up to the mark, but not streets ahead. In the Jolly Butchers on Stoke Newington Church Street, it would be perfectly acceptable; among the damp tourists awaiting their coaches to Keflavik, it was outstanding.
Photos from the Fimmvorduhals walk are available here.