You have probably read somewhere that Icelandic authorities banned beer for very, very many years, until 1989. But true freedom of beer did not really begin until 2005, when Iceland’s first craft brewery was established on a remote farm in North Iceland. Up until then, the Icelandic beer sortiment totalled a few different variations of the two house lagers by the country’s two biggest (and at the time, only) breweries. To everyone’s pleasure (not the least mine), this is quickly changing.
Good for: bar hoppin’.
Einstök White Ale
Although Einstök is strictly speaking an American brewery, it happens to brew in Iceland, using Icelandic water as the main ingredient, so we’ll let it slide. Their white ale is widely available on tap around Iceland, and, sadly, it will often be the only thing on tap besides your regular, lowest-denominator brand. Which, more often than not, makes this my go-to beer. This is a Belgian witbier, infused with orange peel and coriander. It pours a nice yellow with white haze. Tastes refreshing, with citrus tang that cuts through the ale taste.
Good for: Sunny days.
Skaði Farmhouse Ale
Brewed in the tradition of Belgian saison beers, this is a nicely balanced, fruity beer. It is slightly herbal, and not very sour. An all-around pleasant beer. Pours a big ol’ head of foam, orange, cloudy, and very carbonated.
Good for: A school night.
This is a great little stout. It is only about 6% ABV, but feels larger. It is nicely balanced, dark chocolate, roasted malt, and tastes of all the things you’d want from a stout. Sweet, bready and somewhat Irish in character.
Good for: Enjoying chocolate and blue cheese.
Garún Imperial Stout
This is a personal favourite, although the thick dark imperial stout may feel a little heavy to the uninitiated. This is a big beer. Pours almost pitch black, with a slight yellow head. It exceeds 10% ABV, but you will not taste it. Instead, expect a rich malted taste, infused with coffee, liquorice and tones of chocolate. This goes great with food—if you find it in a restaurant, order it out for dessert and let do its magic.
Good for: Historic occasions.
I will include this for historical reasons, mostly. This was the first beer to break the monopoly of the two big breweries here in Iceland, and is widely beloved for that very reason. It is a well-done Czech pilsner. It tastes a little grainy, but is great coming fresh from the tap. It is not a challenging beer in any sense, but it stands for something in the minds of Icelandic beer lovers.
Good for: Getting your Viking on.
This is a rather tame stout, about 6% ABV, hardly surprising, but very dependable. Much like a good pair of socks. Dark brown, small head. Tastes of roasted malts, with a slight hint of smoke. Leaves a little bitter aftertaste on the tongue. Viking Stout is sometimes available on tap, so I will include this for your benefit. It will most likely satisfy your need for something warm and caramelly.
Good for: Nature lovers and long walks.
Leifur Nordic Saison
Brewed in the spirit of the Belgian Saison beers, but very much infused with the elements of Iceland, in particular wild arctic thyme and heather. This beer positively tastes of Iceland. It is fruity and carbonated, pours a reddish-yellow, unfiltered, and gives you the distinct funky sour-y aftertones that you would associate with saisons. I am not a great fan of saisons myself, but this is absolutely a beer to taste if you are visiting Iceland.
Good for: Feeding your inner volcano.
This is another very good imperial stout. Thick and black, with a nice brown head. Tastes of roasted malt and chocolate, with a strong smoky flavour, that stems from the smoked malt. This is a really nice beer. Sadly, I don’t recall seeing it on tap (if you do, go for it), but I regularly buy this at the place that sells beers.
Good for: Post-coital rehydration.
Úlfur is, hands down, the best Icelandic IPA on offer—except when its big brother, Úlfur Úlfur (a seasonal double IPA), is available, which is, sadly, not too often. I still have hopes for Úlfur’s new little sister Úlfrún (a session IPA), however, which—depending on when you read this—may or may not be available. Úlfur is an American style IPA, very aromatic, and rich in citrus-y flavours with a hint of floral character. Nice hoppy aftertaste.
Good for: Introspection.
This sweet amber ale pours a beautiful red with a normal white head. It is very nicely balanced, malty tones with a little fruit and hops on the side. An easily enjoyable beer. Not widely available out but pick up a bottle at the place that sells beers.
Some good advice for people who like beer
Icelandic brewers love seasonal beers, and any sort of occasion they can come up with for a speciality brew. Make sure you watch out for the flavour of whatever month you find yourself here in. These speciality brews are often both exciting and unique, and very worthy of you drinking them.
As you may have noticed I’ve become so tired of the phrase “state-run alcohol store” that I’ve just replaced it with the phrase “the place that sells beer.” However, the place that sells beer is called “Vínbúðin,” and you would do well in looking up the closest location at www.atvr.is. Vínbúðin is both cheaper, and usually offers more selection, than most bars.
Two beers mentioned here are named from Icelandic ghost stories, and one is named after a troll. This bears no significance for either this article or your enjoyment of Icelandic beer, but I thought you might like to know.
You may also be interested in the following article:
A School For The Beer-Curious
In a small lecture hall doubling as a private bar, twenty men raise their glasses and have a big gulp of Egils Gull as Stefán “Stebbi” Pálsson begins the bjórskólinn (“beer school”) curriculum. The school is hosted by Ölgerðin, one of Iceland’s two largest breweries, and offers the obtuse a chance to learn more about beer and its culture. We recommend that students don’t arrive on an empty stomach and pace themselves, as even the hardiest of people can be toppled by the school’s free refills.