Visiting Iceland's third-largest microbrewery
While the drive through the north of Iceland may not offer as diverse an array of neck-craning scenery as the south, its serenity is unparalleled. This much was obvious on the Saturday evening that I set off for Skagafjörður, in search of the Gæðingur microbrewery, where some of Iceland’s finest craft beers are made.
Once I turn off Route 1 and meander farther north, scarcely any cars pass. One of the few drivers that ends up in front of me is content to cruise squarely in the middle of the road, drifting over to the right lane only when absolutely necessary, before brusquely returning to the centre. Whether this driving style is a result of careless Snapchatting, mild thrill seeking, or something else entirely, I do not know. However, besides the occasional trio of sheep (always a trio) scurrying out of the way, the road is empty and full of promise.
Such highway tranquillity offers plenty chances to let one’s eyes drift and appreciate the occasional river or ravine winding alongside the road, or the seemingly ubiquitous grassy half-pipe-resembling hills. The intimacy of the surroundings is enhanced by the billows of clouds that settle low in the valleys, nestling around the hills. I find myself driving through a cloud, vapour speckling my windshield as the Subaru lurches through the haze.
Beer for beer lovers
The Gæðingur brewery is located just outside the 2,700-person town of Sauðárkrókur, on a picturesque farm called Útvík. Though the air is somewhat farm-flavoured, it is unmistakably crisp and salubrious. The brewery is housed in a converted cattle house that provides space for brewing, bottling, canning, labelling and storage. Once we meet and get talking, Gæðingur owner Árni Hafstað—who grew up and still lives on the farm—tells me he got the idea of starting a microbrewery in 2009, after he built a new cattle house and was looking for something to do with the abandoned building. “I thought of opening a guesthouse, but at the same time, me and my friend heard about a brewing course in Denmark.”
After taking the course, Árni toyed around with recipes and brewery gear in his garage, eventually working his way up to his current set of state-of-the-art equipment and tried–and-true recipes. According to him, brewing a great beer requires three elements, with one standing out above the rest. “It comes down to passion, experience, and equipment. You can brew quite good beer with passion, but with no experience and no equipment. But if you don’t have the passion, you just make shitty beer, no matter how good your equipment is.”
On the day I visited, Árni had brewed 1,000 litres of Gæðingur’s popular IPA. What started out of his garage in 2009 has developed into Iceland’s third-largest microbrewery, spawning two of Iceland’s finest bars along the way. It’s no coincidence that Microbar, which Árni established in Reykjavík in 2012 (a second location opened in Sauðárkrókur earlier this year), offers five Gæðingur brews on tap and also won Grapevine’s 2014 commendations for Best Beer Selection. Gæðingur knows how to brew beer for beer lovers, boasting an IPA, pale ale, stout, wheat beer, lager, and the occasional seasonal speciality. Last year, Árni sold 60,000 litres combined, and that number is growing quickly by the year.
What makes a microbrewery?
For a term that has become entrenched in our vocabulary, “microbrewery” is an awfully loose classification. Since microbreweries have gained steam on the global beer market, larger companies have been trying to market their own “micro” beers. “People who are drinking beer associate ‘micro’ with ‘quality,’ so most companies want to have people believe that what they are drinking comes from a microbrewery,” Árni says. However, traditionally, microbreweries are independently owned and produce smaller batches than commercial breweries. Thus, contrary to common belief, high-quality Icelandic breweries such as Borg and Einstök are not considered microbreweries because they are subsidiaries of larger beer companies.
However, “as far as the definition goes, I don’t like definitions,” Árni says with a smile. “When you’re a producer, you know when you’re not a microbrewery,” he tells me. “As soon as you’re sitting around in an office and you start adding something to the beer or changing the temperature with your computer mouse, then you are not a microbrewery.” He continues: “You can call it a craft beer when you dig the grist up with your hands, you get sweaty and smell, and you’re tired after a day’s work.”
The craft beer market in Iceland is growing, opening the market for bars like Microbar and Kaldi, which introduce patrons not only to locally brewed beers, but fine craft beers from around the world. By Árni’s estimate, over 85% of the beer consumed worldwide is from commercial companies, yet the majority of hops are used by microbreweries. This discrepancy highlights the differences in flavour and alcohol content between craft beers and commercial ones such as Budweiser. As the craft beer market grows, “people are drinking more with their head than their stomach,” Árni explains. “To begin with at least. But at the end of the night it might be the same either way,” he concedes, laughing.
Throughout the craft beer business, particularly in a country as small as Iceland, the key to success is carving out a niche. For example, Árni had the idea for Gæðingur to become the first Nordic microbrewery to offer their IPA in a can. “If you come to the can section in Vínbúðin, you can choose between 30 different types of lagers, and what’s the difference between one and another?” Additionally, Gæðingur utilises liquorice, coriander and other spices in some of their recipes—and Árni has considered taking this liberal slant a step further. “I’ve been thinking about going up to the mountain here, picking a handful of something, throwing it into the copper, and seeing what happens.”
“Gæðingur” translates as “an exceptionally good horse.” Árni explains, “What distinguishes guys from the area that I live in, Skagafjörður, is a passion for horse-riding, singing, and chasing women.” Though Árni admits that the three together can be an interesting combination, he finally settled on Gæðingur, “instead of some singer or girl-chaser.”
While the name has Skagafjörður roots, it’s not the only reason it is hard to picture the brewery anywhere else. As a humble, high-quality brewery situated on a family farm flanked by scenic mountains and headed by a passionate entrepreneur, Gæðingur is distinctly Icelandic.
Gæðingur Pale Ale: Has the low ABV content of a British Pale Ale, but the aroma and bitterness of its American counterpart. According to Árni, it’s his “every-day beer.” Unfiltered, 4.5% ABV.
Gæðingur Stout: English-style stout with flavours of roasted malt, chocolate, coffee, and liquorice. Not as bitter as many other popular stouts. Unfiltered, 5.6% ABV.
Gæðingur IPA: Bitter and hoppy, containing seven different kinds of hops. This one is produced in limited supply, but always sells out. Árni prefers this as his “weekend beer.” Unfiltered, 6.5% ABV.
Gæðingur Hveitibjór: In the style of a German “Weissbier,” the fruity character of the yeast and the limited use of hops make this extremely easy to drink. Recalls flavours of late summer and autumn. Unfiltered, 5.2% ABV.
Gæðingur Micro: Lager-style and quite fruity. For this one Gæðingur utilises Nelson Sauvignon hops from New Zealand. Filtered, 4.5% ABV.
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