Published March 14, 2017
“Well… we’re not losing money by coming here,” an ultra-friendly Australian craft brewer tells me above the din at the Icelandic Beer Festival. He works for Pirate Life, out of Adelaide, South Australia, and he’s just poured me their IPA, so pleasantly front-loaded with hoppy bitterness that I almost swear I feel cold aluminum in my hands, slick with condensation. They’d loaded a few kegs onto a plane, come to Iceland a few days early to explore Mývatn, and here they were, pouring for the assembled beer geeks in the warehouse space beneath Kex Hostel—formerly the Living Art Museum—over the three-day event. The Pirates have no grand scheme for global distribution or beer-world domination, but they were invited, and they said yes, because, after all, what is beer even for?
The Icelandic Beer Festival (“more like the Icelandic BEARD Festival,” a friend joked, prior to spotting silkscreened commemorative “Icelandic Beer-d Festival” t-shirts for sale at the merch table) was spread out over three happy-hour sessions, with live music upstairs afterwards for anyone still typing legibly into their RateMyBeer app after three hours of dogged connoisseurship. Steeped in exposed-beam hipness, it’s another spot-on curation of the Kexland hospitality empire, with the room split equally between most of Iceland’s growing craft beer scene, and global drinking buddies brought to the party by Kex’s frequent collaborators Mikkeller and Friends.
Mikkeller were there, of course, their far-out flavours complementing the subtly citrus-y pale ales and highly concentrated double IPAs brought over from American breweries like Stone and Other Half. Mikkeller’s vanilla stout was surely sweeter than the beer ice cream being dispensed from slow-churning 7/11-style slushie machines, and stood out even amongst the other creamy stouts and porters pulled out as calling cards (along with puckery and fruity sours and lambics capable of staining teeth like bad red wine). Amidst raids on the bowls of olives and almonds left out to line stomachs, I recall with fondness Kaldi’s black IPA, which had a sophisticated, moody acridity, not unpleasantly reminiscent of scalded diner coffee; I also appreciated the very subtle hints of kelp in the mellow red ale from Iceland’s new-to-me Brothers Brewery, normally available only on tap in the Westman Islands, where it’s brewed.
Behind the tables, brewmasters and sales reps sampled each other’s wares. One of them told me that they all know each other from the beer-fest circuit: an endless summer of tasting, swapping recipes and networking that works better than in any other industry because, well, you know. Not that there aren’t drawbacks, but, as she explained, nobody really judges you if you beg out from a group outing like Saturday morning’s trip to the Secret Lagoon—the occasional raging hangover is just an occupational hazard. Between the tables, Icelanders in blazers and capes and tourists in flannel and fleeces gather in semicircles of conversation, disbanding to refill their glasses at opposite ends of the room before regrouping to sip, squint, and swallow; impressed by the artisanal atmosphere, conversations begin with earnest comparison of tasting notes, but rarely stay there. Because after all, what is beer even for?