On an industrial estate by the Akureyri harbour, one building stands slightly taller than the rest. With its tall grain bins, steaming chimneys and hulking fermentation tanks, the Vífilfell brewery dominates the area, pouring the tempting smell of fermenting hops across the sea front.
Vífilfell is the source of most of Iceland’s beer, producing a variety of the country’s favourite brands, including Víking, Thule, and, more recently, the wildly popular Einstök range. The building is surrounded by stacks of worn kegs, used gas canisters and towers of pallets that form a maze leading to a gaping factory door. Inside is a hive of activity, with red-clad workers tending to busy conveyor belts, and forklifts zipping around fetching and carrying. Eventually we’re spotted, and one of the forklifts pulls up beside us. “We’re looking for Baldur,” we say. “The Einstök brewer?” The driver scratches his head, processing what we’re asking. “Ah, Baldur!” he cries. “Please, follow me!”
Baldur is found in the canteen. He’s a slight fellow in baggy white overalls; his pale blue eyes peer out quizzically from beneath the brim of his cap. “I’ve been working here since 1991,” he says. “I started out way back making wines at home. I was brewing from rhubarb and experimenting. I studied food science, then came to work here, then studied brewing in Scotland, back in 1993.”
Where the magic happens
Baldur walks us through the process of making beer, starting at a control deck on the second floor at some deep tanks that radiate heat. “This is the start of the process, where we mix the ingredients,” he explains. “The barley, malt, oats, whatever it is—we get the extract from it, and that produces a sweet, dark liquor that we call wort. We separate the husk from the barley and boil the wort, then we add the hops, and it’s ready for fermentation. The husks of the barley go to farmers to feed cows and pigs.”
We walk through a room full of sacks of the various ingredients used in the beer, from basics such as barley to more exotic ingredients like coriander and orange peel, used to flavour Einstök’s White Ale. The room has a pungent odour. “That’s the hops you can smell,” explains Baldur, running his fingers through a large pot of gray pellets, each about the size and shape of a cigarette filter. “The hops are like the spices in cooking—you use small quantities, but it really creates the flavour. It also adds an edge of bitterness. All the most popular drinks in the world have a bitter taste—tea, coffee, and of course beer.”
Hops were originally used to preserve beer, but people grew accustomed to the flavour. Now, it’s an essential part of the taste of modern beer. “There are hundreds of types of hops,” says Baldur. “Most of ours come from Germany, but Einstök uses a specific American type of hops. If you’re making American ale you need American hops, which have a very special flavour—it wouldn’t be an American Pale Ale without it.”
Next we head down into the basement. The floor is awash, and we tiptoe through coils of plastic pipes. “We’re now underneath the big tanks that you can see from outside,” says Baldur. “We have five fermenting tanks—these ones here take 34,000 litres each, and the bigger ones take 48,000.”
As we walk back through the factory and up to his office, Baldur explains that most of the Einstök made at Vifilfell is destined for export, with much of it heading to the West Coast of America. “Einstök is our main export brand,” he says. “The trademark is not owned by us—it’s an American company. I developed the recipes and the beer for them, but the production is more like contract work. We’ve actually been starving the Icelandic market a little because of the export demand.”
It was an interesting learning process for Baldur to make American-style ales. “The process is the same, but the raw materials are very different,” he explains. “When we started, there were many ingredients we’d never used before, like wheat malt, oats, American hops and different yeast. Before, we only produced lager beer. Beer is fermented at different temperatures, and using different types of yeast. We only used one type of yeast before, but now we use three or four.”
Masters at work
Past a kind of science lab environment of Bunsen burners, benches and test tubes, we settle down in Baldur’s office to talk about where Einstök fits into Iceland’s beer culture. “There’s been a global trend towards craft beer, especially in the USA,” he explains. “Tastier speciality beers are gaining quite a big proportion of the market. The market here in Iceland is changing, too. Before, even if we wanted to make something new, people only wanted strong, pale lager. They were most interested in the strength.”
Prohibition on beer in Iceland was only lifted in 1989, meaning that Iceland’s beer history is quite short. “There wasn’t any professional brewing before then,” Baldur explains, “but bakers were allowed to brew to maintain the yeast for the bread, so they made some kind of beer. Even after 1989, there were only six beers on the market. But since the year 2000, interest has been increasing in other types of beer. We saw it first with our seasonal brands, like the Easter and Christmas beer. Most of the beer bought at those times is seasonal. People are more open now, always looking for something new.”
With Einstök becoming an established international brand, and demand in Iceland continuing to grow, Baldur is optimistic about the future. He walks us out of the factory, enthusing about possible new recipes. “We always like to try out new things,” he says. “At the moment we’re close to maximum production capacity, so it’s more difficult to try things out. But the Einstök Arctic Berry was a newer one, and we’re now also making Juniper Bock.”
Indeed, the future seems generally bright for the Einstök brewmaster. “We’re hopefully going to continue to expand,” he continued. “We’re optimistic for the growth of Einstök, and that might mean we have to expand the plant further, get new equipment, and improve our processes.”
As we leave the brewery, we see kegs upon kegs rolling out of the factory, and get an idea of just how much Einstök beer is being made here. It seems that with Baldur’s recipes and expertise behind the brand, Einstök’s incursion into the American market is set to continue with aplomb.