Icelandic beer has a quite eventful history. Icelanders love beer. At the beginning of the 20th century, their love for beer became so strong that this refreshing beverage started to be banned. Actually, all alcoholic drinks were banned, but drinking beer became legal again as the last one, only in 1989. You can imagine how thirsty of beer they must have been for all these years. After 1989 everyone got crazy about beer. Get to know the intricate history of Icelandic beer and our favourite beverages from the best Icelandic beer brands.
What is going on in Iceland now is some kind of beer mania. In this small country, new brands and new beer compositions spring up like mushrooms. According to some upbeat forecasts, Iceland has even a chance to become second Belgium when it comes to brewing.
Icelanders are even starting to joke that probably more than a half of the nation decided to invest their savings in the brewing business. If you are a beer enthusiast, forget about celebrating the Bavarian Oktoberfest – visit Iceland instead! We are certain that Icelandic beer will be a great treat for you.
Icelandic beer: from love to hate
Icelanders started their adventure with brewing centuries ago. In this land, the tradition of brewing was introduced by the first settlers who came to Iceland from Norway. Consuming beer is mentioned in the old Icelandic sagas.
Long time ago brewing beer was not an easy thing. First of all, due to the harsh climate, it was very hard to grow barley. (By the way, last year we lived for six months on a farm which specializes in growing barley.) Icelanders have always belonged to these people who kept moving forward so they didn’t give up. After some time they got to know how to deal with the difficult land. From then on Iceland started to drip with beer.
Centuries later some people noticed one disturbing thing. Drinking beer became one of the favourite pastimes for far too many Icelanders. It didn’t take much time when alcoholism started to spread.
What is more, drinking beer began to be even a political matter. As you may know, Iceland was under Danish occupation for centuries. Danish influence was visible in many fields, also when it comes to customs and traditions.
Both Danes and Icelanders, didn’t refrain from drinking beer. In fact, Danes were drinking much more than Icelanders. In the second half of the 19th-century drinking beer started to be associated with typical Danish custom. Soon it was perceived as something unpatriotic.
Icelanders, tired of the long Danish dependence, were dreaming about freedom. One day Icelandic authorities decided to manifest against many Danish influences and they forbid the consumption of beer. That’s how the anti-alcohol movement was born in Iceland.
Prohibition in Iceland
In 1908 a public debate took place. All citizens, who were allowed to vote, were asked to express their opinion whether beer and other kinds of alcohol should be available in Iceland. Women couldn’t vote at that time in Iceland, but they actively took part in the social discussion.
A few years later, in 1915, all alcoholic beverages were prohibited. Not everyone was satisfied with the new controversial law. Some Icelanders started to come up with ideas how to avoid uncomfortable restrictions. They even had some doctors on their side, who thought prohibition wasn’t making any good.
Thirsty patients begged doctors to prescribe them a drop of their favourite alcohol. Soon cognac started to be the best remedy for cardiological problems. And wine turned out to be an excellent drug for all suffering from neurosis or persistent migraines. Only beer didn’t find its place in prescriptions.
Prohibition introduced serious changes not only on the island but also in the international economy. Especially Spain wasn’t happy about the situation in Iceland.
Before the prohibition, Spain was a good trading partner for Iceland. Lots of fish were exported to the Iberian Peninsula, and wine was travelling in the opposite direction. Spaniards wanted their wine back on Icelandic store shelves. Relationships with Spain were starting to get quite tense.
Iceland couldn’t afford to lose such a partner. They knew they must quickly fix the relationship with Spain, as export to Spain was one of the most profitable. Everyone started to wonder if wine shouldn’t be removed from the list of banned liquors. In 1921 red and pink wine was legalized.
In the thirties the strict prohibition law was getting fewer and fewer supporters. Another referendum took place. Soon, all strong liquors surprisingly returned to the bars and stores. However, the new regulation was rather weird for many people. You were able to buy brandy or gin but still couldn’t get a glass of regular beer.
The authorities tried to explain such an odd law by a great concern for the future of all citizens. They were afraid that the situation will turn a full circle and as a result, people would start to drink way too much again. Among other things, it would lead them to neglect their duties. Beer seemed to be the biggest danger as it would be cheaper than other kinds of alcohol.
What’s interesting, there was one exception from all these prohibition rules. There was one privileged brewery which had a right to brew beer at that time. The beer had a charming name ‘Polar Bear’ but it was not intended for thirsty Icelanders. ‘Polar Bear’ was brewed for British and later American soldiers who were stationed in Iceland.
Bjórdagurinn, Beer Day in Iceland
Icelanders had to be very patient. Beer finally got back to favour, but it didn’t happen until March 1, 1989 (!). It’s hard to imagine that drinking beer was banned for more than 70 years. Nowadays every year, March 1, Icelanders celebrate Beer Day (Bjórdagurinn).
Beer Day in Iceland is considered as a very important day when all beer enthusiasts gather to celebrate the next year of beer’s freedom. If you happen to be in Iceland that day, remember not to refuse to have a pint.
TOP 6 must try Icelandic beers
Long time ago we noticed that we have a lot in common with Icelanders. One of such similarities undoubtedly is that we also appreciate rich flavour of beer. As beer lovers, we must tell you that Icelandic beer scene is quite unique. You can find plenty of Icelandic craft beers which can easily make every beer enthusiast feel so good.
If you plan to visit Iceland, you should know something about its beer world. Which is the best Icelandic beer? Well, there are so many fantastic beers that it’s just impossible to choose only one.
Let us help you discover some delicious local treats. Have a look at the list of our favourite Icelandic beers. If we had to choose just one, it would be Leifur Nordic Saison. The next five on our list were ranked equal second. It would be a sin not to try them while travelling around Iceland.
Leifur Nordic Saison Nr. 32
Leifur Nordic Saison is a child of a brewery called Borg Brugghús. This beer is a feast for the senses. It has unforgettable taste and incredible freshness. It’s truly refreshing! Leifur Nordic Saison allures with flavours of pepper, smooth honey, aromatic herbs and citruses. Strong orange notes play here the first fiddle. You can feel them very clearly even before the first sip.
It would be a pity to drink Leifur straight from the bottle as it has a really unique smell. It’s worth to pour it into a proper glass and smell it with every single sip. It not only tastes and smells great but also looks fantastic – it’s turbid amber-honey colour is so tempting.
Leifur also owes its fantastic aroma to a special herb – arctic thyme. When you go for a walk in Icelandic tundra, you can spot lots of tiny violet flowers. That’s arctic thyme. It hypnotises both with its appearance and its smell.
We also like the minimalistic Leifur etiquette and its name. This beer was named in honour of the Viking Leifur Eriksson. Brave Leifur sailed to North America around 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Einstök White Ale (Icelandic White Ale)
We love all beers produced by Einstök Ölgerð, which is undoubtedly one of the best breweries in Iceland. If we had to choose just one, it would be Einstök White Ale, also called Icelandic White Ale.
Like the previous one, it also enraptures with its extraordinary freshness and one of a kind taste. What dominates in its composition, are citrus flavours, especially orange peel. You can also feel the aroma of fresh coriander; coriander which has been just picked in the garden.
Some Icelanders say that it tastes best in the summer, but for us, Einstök White Ale is a perfect all-year-round drink.
Úlfur India Pale Ale Nr. 3
Úlfur IPA comes from the same brewery which produced our favourite Leifur Nordic Saison – Borg Brugghús. It’s an excellent IPA with tempting grapefruit notes and a few decent drops of juicy lemon. The next intriguing aroma in this beer is pine. It doesn’t come to the foreground but appears just behind the rich citrus notes.
Úlfur’s composition will surely delight even the most refined beer lovers. There is something unique about this beer, so you just can’t pass it indifferently. There is one more thing which can make you even thirstier to try it. In Icelandic Úlfur means ‘wolf’. There aren’t any wolves in Iceland, but Úlfur is a popular name in the western part of the island.
Another Icelandic craft beer on our list – Feyja Witbier – is a work of a small brewery called Ölvisholt, located near Selfoss. Ölvisholt was founded by two farmers, who successfully combined a bent for business with a great love for beer.
Freyja is a wheat beer which represents a perfect Belgian style. Apart from its fantastic taste typical for classic wheat beers, it stands out with its interesting citrus-spicy aftertaste. You can feel a strong aroma of coriander and orange peel in it. What’s more, this beer is pleasantly cloudy. It tastes great with all kinds of dishes, but also on its own.
The name Freyja derives from a goddess in Norse mythology, associated with beauty, love, sex and fertility, but also war and death. In Old Norse Freyja means ‘Lady’.
Forseti India Pale Ale
We really like all beers produced by Ölvisholt brewery. Recently Forseti IPA has become one of our favourites. This beer has a wonderful bitter-sweet taste. Forseti India Pale Ale is another aromatic bomb; you can find dozens of interesting aromas inside.
Prepare for a real feast – fruity notes will appear alternately with the floral flavour. You will feel like in a tropical paradise thanks to refreshing pineapple and sweet mango delicate flavour. Apart from its fantastic taste, this beer also has a beautiful amber shade. We like to drink it with various kinds of cheese. All Forseti’s flavours accompanied with cheese become even clearer. Highly recommended!
By the way, Ölvisholt brewery is fond of naming its beer after gods from the Norse mythology. It is no different in case of this beer, as Forseti is the god of justice and reconciliation. In Old Norse Forseti means ‘the presiding one’, and in modern Icelandic – ‘president’.
Stinnings Kaldi made by the Bruggsmiðjan brewery contains a bit of very interesting plant called Angelica archangelica. This aromatic herb grows in Iceland in many areas, especially by the river banks. It has a very pleasant, even intoxicating aroma.
This smell might be well known for you even if you didn’t have a chance to check how angelica smells in nature. And it smells like gin, as it is one of its main herbal ingredients. In Stinnings Kaldi angelica flavour isn’t so strong. Its herbal aftertaste is noticeable at the very end of taking a sip. We can also feel a little bit of liquorice in this beer.
Stinnings Kaldi somehow reminds us of early autumn in Iceland. Although angelica blooms in early summer, taste of this beer brings to mind all these changes that take place in nature in early autumn. We usually have a weakness for rather refreshing beers but Stinnings is an exception. It doesn’t burst with great freshness, but it’s muted taste has the ability to calm the senses. We like to drink it during rainy and windy autumn evenings.
Some beer connoisseurs say that Stinnings is too herbal but we really like it. And for us, it’s herbal tones don’t dominate here. Can you imagine a more Icelandic beer than one which hides a part of the idyllic Icelandic meadows in it?
Where to buy beer in Iceland?
First of all, you can’t get Icelandic beer stronger than 2,25 % in grocery stores or at gas stations. Regular beer is available only in special alcohol stores called Vínbúðin and of course in pubs and restaurants.
You can find Vínbúðin all over the country, but remember that its opening hours differ from other stores. Especially in smaller towns or villages they might be open for just two or three hours during the day, usually from 3 or 4 till 6 p.m. Exact opening time is different from town to town, but if you appear around 4 p.m. anywhere, Vínbúðin should be open unless it’s Sunday. In bigger towns opening hours are longer, usually from 11 till 6 p.m. You can check the opening hours here.
On Sundays all liquor stores are closed. You won’t buy alcohol in Iceland after 4 p.m. on Saturdays (except for bars and restaurants) too, so plan ahead.
You can try Icelandic beer only in Iceland, with one exception. Einstök is exported to Great Britain and the U.S.
Price of beer in Iceland
After all these recommendations you must be asking yourself: ‘how much is a pint of beer in Iceland?’ Icelandic beer, unfortunately, is quite expensive, even if you don’t drink it in a pub but instead buy it in Vínbúðin.
Average price of beer in Iceland is around 1000-1200 ISK for a big glass. Regular pilsner or lager (f. ex. Viking or Gull) costs around 1000 ISK and Icelandic craft beer is more expensive, usually 1200-1500 ISK. We haven’t noticed any difference between the price of beer in Reykjavik and in the countryside.
For a half litre can or bottle of regular pilsner or lager you have to pay around 300-350 ISK in Vínbúðin. And a 0.33l bottle of Icelandic craft beer costs from 400 till around 700 ISK.
In spite of the high cost of beer in Iceland, it is definitely worth (even obligatory) to try some before you leave. If you travel on a tight budget, you should visit Icelandic pubs during happy hours. Then the beer is cheaper, usually costs around 250-300 ISK less.
What about having a bath in Icelandic beer?
Recently some Icelandic beer lovers have started to dream about having a bath in beer. That’s how Björböðin (beer spa) was built. For us, bathing in beer sounds at least awkward. We’ve never liked the smell of beer spilt on our clothes, but we guess that relaxing in beer is different.
The spa was built in 2017 in the northern part of Iceland in Árskógssandur near Akureyri. Apart from having a bath, you can taste there many fantastic types of local beer. We’ve heard that beer baths do wonders for both your body and soul.
When it comes to beer, there is one extremely important word you should know. It’s ‘skál!’ which in Icelandic means ‘cheers!’. You will hear it many times during your stay in Iceland. Let us know which Icelandic beer is your favourite. Maybe you could recommend something which you didn’t find on our list?
Did you like this article? Let Iceland inspire you – follow our blog on Bloglovin’!