Five things you didn’t know about Icelandic beer

I was so impressed with my first Icelandic beer tasting that, following the Borg Brugghús tap takeover at one of my local beer hangouts in Rotterdam, I did some research on the craft beer scene in Iceland. It is rapidly expanding and it seems they are bringing out one delicious brew after another. I also found out a few interesting facts about the local beer culture. Here are five facts you probably didn’t know about Icelandic beer!

Icelanders celebrate on the 1st of March 1989

1. Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989

Alcohol was banned in Iceland for most of the 20th century following a referendum in 1908, which took effect in 1915. Beer was at that time associated with Denmark and thus “not the patriotic drink of choice.” In 1935 the prohibition was partially lifted, but only for spirits and beers under 2,25% ABV. The ban was completely lifted on March 1, 1989, which is now celebrated as a national holiday ‘bjórdagurinn’ (Beer Day). Since the end of the ban, Iceland’s consumption of beer has increased significantly and new breweries have begun to emerge.

2. Iceland’s alcohol taxes are the highest in Europe

The northern European countries are known for their steep taxes, but Iceland takes the cake. Alcohol taxes are levied on weight, the percentage of the alcohol, and the quantity. As Iceland is one of the few countries to allow duty free purchases after you clear customs upon arrival at Keflavík Airport, it is a good idea to stock up on alcoholic drinks before you leave the airport. Or you can visit the happy hour at local bars! In The Netherlands we are used to taxes being ridiculously high (on everything!), but just to put things in perspective: Iceland’s alcohol taxes are about six times higher than in The Netherlands. A regular size draft beer (400 ml) may cost anywhere between 7,5 and 12 Euro.

3. ‘Icelandic’ signifies more than just the brewery location

When we talk about a beer’s origin, we usually mean where the beer is made. Dutch beer is made in Holland, but may contain barley and hops from for instance the US or Germany. In the case of the Borg Brugghús beers I learned that it can mean much more! Several of the Borg beers I tried actually contain local Icelandic ingredients. The Surtur stouts are made with Icelandic water coming from the glaciers, which is very pure water and is essential in providing the smoothness in the beer. The Snorri Iceland Ale is brewed with with Icelandic barley and organic Icelandic thyme, creating a very floral, savory aroma. Borg is now also experimenting with locally grown Icelandic hops.

4. Iceland has more breweries per capita than the US

For a long time after the end of Iceland’s prohibition there were two main commercial breweries in the country producing Iceland’s beers, mainly simple lagers. It wasn’t until 2006 when the first microbrewery set up shop (Bruggsmiðjan Árskógssandi, known for Kaldi beer), with others rapidly following suit. On Ratebeer I counted 17 breweries of which 5 were established in 2017. With a population of about 334.000, that would mean Iceland boasts 5 breweries per 100.000 inhabitants, compared to 3 in The Netherlands and 1,62 in the US.

Leifur Nordic Saison with wild Arctic thyme

5. In Iceland they drink whale testicle beer

The Icelandic micro-brewery Stedji has produced a number of ales flavored with different parts of whale, including Hvalur 2, a brew infused with dried fin whale testicles (weighing between 7 and 8 kg). Hvalur 2 is a seasonal brew, which celebrates the pagan festival of Thorrablot. Iceland, along with Japan and Norway, still hunts whales for commercial gain, even though it is no longer a lucrative business. An extremely sad state of affairs that, now I know this, may lead to me crossing off Iceland from my travel wishlist completely.

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