Published July 12, 2018
In September of last year, Ragnheiður “Raxel” Axel and Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir—a food industry worker and a designer, respectively—started a kitchen experiment in brewing beer. With no great plans or ambitions, their early brews produced very promising results, and the two quickly became enamoured of the process. Less than a year later, their partnership has become Lady Brewery—one of the most admired new arrivals on the surging Icelandic craft beer scene.
“We weren’t originally thinking about starting a company,” says Þórey, sitting in the bar of the Ægisgarður brewery on Grandi, where their beer is made. “We were going to do a project together, and Raxel called me up and said ‘let’s brew beer.’ And I said ‘Hell yeah.’ It was so much fun that we started meeting every week.” She pauses, smiling. “It just evolved.”
The micro-brewery’s signature beer is called First Lady—an IPA that immediately stands out in the popular and crowded genre. It has the heady, hoppy flavour that IPAs are famous for, with fresh citrus and mellow floral notes. It’s a balanced beer that Raxel and Þórey refer to as “she”—and it’s a testament to a lot of hard work.
“We only started last September, and it’s been going 5000 kmph,” says Þórey. “It’s been a hell of an experience. We’ve stumbled into every type of trouble that we could, but worked it out. We’ve learned a crazy amount over the year.”
Lady Brewery is a DIY operation, and from the beginning, Raxel and Þórey have financed the project themselves. “We used our personal money, and it was a very small amount,” says Raxel. “We didn’t even have kegs—we just brewed the beer, and trusted that it would work out. We’ve called in a lot of favours! But brewing in Iceland is a small community, so there’s a lot of support. So when our containers of kegs arrived, everyone in this brewery got kegs.”
There have been a lot of challenges and surprises along the way. The laws and taxes surrounding the sale of alcohol in Iceland are archaic, and haven’t caught up with the idea of small scale start-up breweries. Even getting a product into Vinbúðin is a costly process, and it’s not like there are alternative stores to deal with. On top of that, the taps of many bars are exclusive to certain breweries, meaning even getting the beer on sale is a challenge.
But the quality of Lady Brewery’s beers has opened up other avenues. “We’ve found that chefs enjoy our beers,” they say. “We’re on the taps at SKÁL! at Hlemmur Mathöll, and we just made a new beer called “X” for Óx, the smallest restaurant in Iceland. We bottle it in a magnum—they only have eleven seats, so it’s the perfect amount for the table. They pair our beer with rye bread.”
As the two took their first steps into the craft beer world, there were other revelations. The beer world is, somewhat obviously, dude-centric—but what came as a surprise is the almost unimaginably vast extent to which the craft and business of brewing is dominated by men.
“When we went into the community, we realised quickly how much of a male world it is,” says Raxel. “Only 3% of the entire brewing world is owned by women—and yet, 30% of beer is drunk by women.”
In a country that’s comparatively proactive about gender equality, it’s a jaw-dropping statistic. But as they delved into the history that lies behind it, they found out something fascinating. They tell the story together, each finishing the other’s sentences.
“From ancient Greece through until around the 1500s, women made beer, and sold it,” they say. “It was thought to be a woman’s job in the kitchen. Witches were brewers. They wore pointy hats in the marketplace, so you could see where the beer was. They would put a broom by the house so you’d know you could buy beer there. Then, when you make a beer with hops, the foam goes green, like a witches cauldron. They would get mice in the house because of the ingredients, so they had cats.”
These beer brewing “ale wives” or “beer witches” were making good money at their trade. “But then the church saw what was happening,” says Raxel. “They didn’t think it was such a good idea that women were making this money. So the church took over the business, and put it in the hands of men; the women were called emissaries of satan, and burnt.”
The “beer witches” also used different recipes to what we know as mainstream beer today. “They used meadowsweet in beer back then, which has a natural aspirin,” says Raxel. “So it was pain relieving, and it made you feel good. It had medicinal effects. But the German purity law came in the 1500s, banning herbs in beer—just water, hops and corn.”
“This story definitely coloured our future as Lady Brewery,” finishes Þórey. “The symbolism, the design, and the herbs we use… we’re modern witches. It’s about time women made money out of beer again!”
Rising from homebrewing origins, Lady Brewery is reclaiming a long-lost heritage. With such dedication and obvious talent, the signs suggest they won’t be needing broomsticks to scale the heights of the craft beer world.
Info: Find Lady Brewery beers at SKÁL!, Óx, Hlemmur Square, Skúli, and other selected craft bars around Reykjavík.