The idea didn’t sound promising: someone at Vífilfell Brewery—the people who make Coca-Cola, Viking Beer, Thule, even the Icelandic version of Tuborg, invited the Grapevine to fly from Reykjavík to Akureyri along with six Vikings to sample a new Christmas beer.
As a long time fan of the sagas, I have always frowned upon people who go around talking Vikings. I’m more into settlers and impatient shepherds. Then, of course, the true Viking history isn’t entirely something to take pride in—colonizers went out of vogue sixty years ago, according to Bright Eyes and Sean Penn.
So I may have grimaced when a stout Icelander dressed in full leather armour with sword explained the following into the microphone on a flight chartered to Akureyri: “There aren’t very many women on this flight, so we’re going to rape the men and kill the women.”
After a few more Viking jokes though, I learned to take everything in the appropriate humour. Truthfully, few people tell a “your mama joke” like Viking impersonators.
It was in the company of these Viking impersonators—the 544th theatre company, it turns out – that we toured the Vífilfell Brewery, the most popular brewery in Iceland. I had heard that Vífilfell kept a stock of Bavarians on premises to help produce their Brussels Gold Medal-winning Víking Gold beer. Beyond that, I was familiar with the Bezt í Heimi ads by Thule Beer, also produced by the Vífilfell Brewery, (the ads, like the beer, have won their share of awards).
I found no Bavarians, though Baldur, the brewmaster from the east of Iceland, explained that the hops in Víking are from from Germany, the corn from the UK. According to the brewmaster, Víking is an extremely expensive beer: the imported grains factor in, but so do the cans and bottles. While Iceland looks to provide Europe with aluminium, it doesn’t contain a facility for manufacturing cans.
Due to the cost, Baldur pointed out that there is only a limited capacity for export: Víking and the other respected Icelandic beers won’t be making it to the average American grocery store anytime soon.
For the beer in question, the impressive Jólabjór, a labour of love for Baldur that incorporates the darker, richer flavour of beers like IPAs and the darker ales popular throughout Europe, you’ll have a hard time even getting it at an Icelandic liquor store—Jólabjór has never managed to stay on the shelves until the new year. Last year, Jólabjór was sold out before Christmas.
As Baldur and I were discussing how similar Jólabjór was to my favourite hometown Wisconsin beer Leinenkugels Red, the Viking comedians suddenly pushed us out of the way.
It was time for a massive Viking fight. Sparks. Blood. Extremely aggressive swinging.
The comedians and actors also turned out to be members of the Viking Fighting Society, and they staged a brief duel. Given the sparks from the swords, the chunks of shield that went flying, the near miss when our photographer went in for a close-up, and the significant amount of blood on the hand of one of the fighters immediately after the duel, it was every bit as out of control as it looked.
Which is to say the whole Viking fighting thing was cool. Scary as hell, and, according to our friend Baldur, not everyone’s cup of tea, but for someone with a vague interest in the sagas and violence—assuming it’s done to other people—I took pleasure in the show. Though when the Vikings were mingling afterward, helping the 70 people in attendance consume 250 bottles of 6% alcohol beer (in addition to sizeable portions of standard Víking Gold on the plane over), I took care not to offend the sword bearers. Unfortunately, due to consumption of the aforementioned product, this resulted in slightly more polite mama jokes.
Jólabjor, a caramelly darker winter beer, can be purchased at the state liquor shops in Iceland before Christmas. To visit Vífilfell, call 462 1444. To see the Thule advertisements, visit the Grapevine website, www.grapevine.is.
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