Jóhann Guðmundsson on inadvertently turning passion into a job you love while bettering his home, the island of Heimaey
“Now I can have as much free beer as I want,” says Jóhann Guðmundsson beaming with pride. It seems like he has already achieved all he wanted in life, and frankly, it’s infectious—we want this, too. We stopped by his life-long project, The Brothers Brewery in the Westman Islands, to grab a pint, and ended up talking to Jóhann for hours.
Let’s start brewing
First things first: Who are the brothers? Jóhann clarifies: “No, we’re just best friends. This is actually the third company we started. Back in 2012, we were getting drunk in a summer house and we looked at a bottle of beer and thought: ‘Beer only has four ingredients. Out of those four ingredients, there’s water and yeast, so really it’s two ingredients. We cannot fuck this up, it’s so easy. Let’s just start brewing beer’.” Here it is, the drunken quip which set them onto this remarkable undertaking.
The joke soon became a real possibility, so both Jóhann and his business partner Kjartan Vídó invited their respective brothers to join, and ‘Brothers Brewery’ came to life. Each member contributed their skills. Jóhann, a computer programmer and self-proclaimed “nerd of the group”, began to research. He started with the book: ‘How to Brew’. “From that, I just kept on reading and reading.” Their first real batch was around 2.5 kg of grain. “We were so happy about it, like, you can make your own beer!” Jóhann remembers. “At that time we were on top of the world. We gave some to our friends and they said, ‘Wow, this is disgusting,’ but we kept on brewing.”
Chasing ‘The Dream’
At first the brewers only intended to sell beer to a neighbouring restaurant, and have it pay for the extra grain that would allow them to drink their own beer for free. But their beer kept selling out, and despite the hard work put in, the team never got to have their own beer. “I was waking up every morning and heading to the brewery from six until lunchtime. Then I went to my day job, finishing at maybe eight or nine,” Jóhann recalls.
That is when the brothers decided to look for a place to rent. In March 2017, they opened a tap room and a small brewery thinking it was too much space, but in six months’ time, they had outgrown it.
Now they are using 600kg of grain per week, in a building they bought and gutted all on their own.
We were curious to know how it must feel to have seen this dream develop and grow way past any expectations. Jóhann says, struggling to explain: “Just seeing all the empty kegs from yesterday. It’s just fantastic.”
What’s brewed in Heimaey, stays in Heimaey
Much to our surprise, The Brothers Brewery doesn’t sell their beer beyond Heimaey. “On this island, we’re selling to one restaurant,” says Jóhann. “The only place that has our beer in kegs is GOTT [the restaurant next door]. We sometimes put it in some of the craft bars in Reykjavik, but most of it is just sold here.”
“We have beer from Akureyri, which is all the way up north, and when people come in and get that we sometimes make fun of it,” shares Jóhann. “Do you know about the carbon footprint you’re having on your beer? You can actually just drink this and have pretty much none,” he jokes, pointing to metal containers with freshly brewed local beer.
“This has never been about making money,” continues Jóhann. “This has been about having fun, having free beer, and what we can do to actually make the island better. We believe that we are actually doing that,” he says.
Every year, The Brothers Brewery makes a special beer for Fishermen’s Day, a big holiday in Heimaey, honouring a local fisherman. “The beer is named after the fisherman and put into three bottles, one bottle is for us, one—for the fisherman or his family, and then we take one bottle and auction it off,” explains Jóhann. Over the last few years, the brewery has raised 7.5 million ISK for local charities, including a cancer assistance group and rescue squad.
From wonky veg to beer
Sustainability has always been important to the brewers. “We were using lactose in a lot of beer earlier,” Jóhann recalls. “Three years ago, we thought ‘Why do we use animal products when we don’t have to use them?’.” The brewery opted to stop using any animal products, except for one style—their famous Skyr Sour.
The team is also striving for a holistic approach to reduce their environmental impact. Such as donating spent grains (one of beer’s byproducts) to local farmers. “We make too much beer and the island isn’t big enough—we don’t have enough sheep,” says Jóhann.
Their zero-waste attitude led to another experiment: turning wonky vegetables into beer. “We were given ugly carrots that couldn’t be sold,” shares Jóhann. “We got 50 kilos of purple carrots and yellow carrots. We cut them into pieces, dumped them into mash and made beer,” says Jóhann and admits he wouldn’t repeat the recipe, despite it selling out.
Find what you love
What’s the secret of The Brothers Brewery, we wonder. “The passion that we have for what we’re doing,” Jóhann replies without hesitation.
Since The Brothers Brewery opened in Heimaey in 2016, the attitude towards alcohol consumption on the island changed for the better—Jóhann and the team take pride in their contribution to challenging social biases around the topic, which was until recently considered taboo.
“We just had fun drinking beer, and now we can have as much free beer as we want,” reiterates Jóhann, adding: “Pretty much a lot of time I just walk here, have a beer after work and walk home. I think it’s paradise.”
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