The Unique History of Beer in Iceland

A few glasses of beer in an Icelandic bar

Icelanders love a drink. Being of Viking descent, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are numerous mentions of ale drinking in the old sagas, even as the cold climate made it hard for early Icelanders to grow barley locally. Here’s a quick overview of the unique history of beer in Iceland.

Like many countries, Iceland went through a period of prohibition. In 1915, a majority of 60% voted for a total ban on wine, beer, and spirits. The ban on wine was lifted in 1922 and on spirits in 1935, but for some reason beer was banned in Iceland until 1989!

Even today, alcohol sales in Iceland are highly regulated and government run liquor stores, known as Vínbúðin, are the only places to buy alcohol in Iceland.

5 beers of different colours clinking for a cheer

The somewhat shaky logic behind the beer ban was that access to beer would tempt young people and workers into heavy drinking. The ban’s opponents argued that only allowing people hard liquor instead would do just that. But beer-thirsty Icelanders didn’t let prohibition stop them from enjoying beer, or at least the closest thing they could get to it.

group of people seated with beer flights listening to an expert behind a bar

Taste the Saga is an evening of drinks and an exploration of the history of beer in Iceland at Reykjavík’s Ölgerðin brewery. There you’ll get to taste the infamous ‘beer substitute’ created by Icelanders who were determined to get their pint of beer in spite of the beer ban.

The beer substitute shows the ingenious and rebellious spirits of the Icelanders, who have never really been fond of letting other people tell them what they can and can’t do.

So simple in its execution that it would be brilliant if it wasn’t so disgusting, beer substitute is made by taking a low alcohol beer (beers up to 2.2% strength were allowed in Iceland) and putting a shot of the Icelandic schnapps brennivín into it. That did the job but did nothing for those with a passion for good beer.

After the ban was lifted in 1989, Iceland’s drinking culture changed a lot, and for the better. Turning away from spirits and to beer cut back on binge drinking and allowed for local breweries to begin to develop their own beers.

In recent years, the rise of microbreweries and craft beers has led to a newfound passion for beer among Icelanders. Craft pubs are now on every corner, and instead of just going up to the bar and ordering ‘one beer please’ you are now asked what kind of beer you want! For a country that has only been drinking beer for 30 years, that is a huge change.

2 men with beer glasses in a brewery, one is holding a guitar

Many microbreweries host tours that allow visitors to see how the brewing process works and how the unique Icelandic craft beers are made.

One of those breweries is Ægisgarður. In addition to seeing how the beer is made and learning about the history of beer in Iceland, their brewers will teach you all about how to taste beer and let you taste some of their secret recipes. Perfect for beer connoisseurs that want to be able to identify the difference between hops and tell the subtle notes of spices and herbs in the brew.

Icelandic brewers take inspiration from Icelandic nature, using a lot of herbs found in the mountains and even blueberries to give their beers that fresh Icelandic taste.

Beer is such a great conversation starter so if you want to get to know the locals, we recommend finding your nearest pub and chatting to the patrons. And if you’ve been on a brewery tour you can impress them with you knowledge of Icelandic beer and its history.

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About the author

Áslaug is a scriptwriter and playwright by trade, seeking inspiration from local theaters and restaurants. The place she loves the most in Iceland is Skarðsvík beach on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, followed closely by the village of Húsavík in North Iceland. Like many Icelanders, she lives by the philosophy of Þetta reddast, or ‘it’ll be alright in the end!’.

View more posts by Áslaug

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