If you’ve been clocked in the head with a bottle recently – as one occasionally is during a proper night out in Reykjavík – chances are the beverage it once contained was of Icelandic origin. On most weekends discarded Víking, Egils and Thule containers litter the moonlit landscape of downtown Reykjavík and sometimes provide us with the hauntingly familiar sound of breaking glass reverberating through our long winter nights. Some foreign brands even have their own production facilities in Iceland. Using sales figures as a map, and our unsavoury reputation for beer-fuelled mayhem as a compass, they navigated their way across the oceans to our thirsty shores as soon as the famous beer-embargo was lifted.
It’s not surprising, then, that the sales figures for locally made brews are impressive. Out of the top five best selling beers four are manufactured in Iceland and three are native brands. The reasons are many fold.
Accolades from Abroad
Sigfríð Arnardóttir, marketing director for Vífilfell, believes recognition from outside the country has played an important role in boosting the standing of Icelandic beer locally. “We noticed a massive surge in the popularity of Thule after it came third in a Danish beer tasting competition back in 1998 – establishing the fine reputation it has today. The three medals won by Víking also had a noticeable effect. Icelanders take a certain amount of pride in drinking top quality beers that are locally brewed,” Arnardóttir told the Grapevine. “Our market research definitely indicates that most Icelanders prefer to drink beer made from Icelandic water,” she added.
By far the biggest seller in the Icelandic beer market is Víking Gylltur; with well over three million half-litre cans selling every year. A somewhat surprising statistic, given the fact that this particular brand is 5.6% alcohol by volume, noticeably stronger than most other big brands and ludicrously potent compared to mainstream beers in the English-speaking world. The cynic might think this explains everything: Icelanders drink brands like Víking for the simple reason that it gets them really messed up really fast – and Icelandic breweries know how to cater to these tastes. Arnardóttir thinks not: “Different people look for different things in a beer. I think the taste of Víking is what has proven to be a big hit amongst Icelandic consumers, the amount of alcohol is almost incidental. Víking Lite, at 4.4%, is now the fourth-best-selling beer in Iceland.” It would seem, then, that Iceland’s alleged (hard-) drinking culture can’t explain all the trends evident in the nation’s choices of beverage.
In the heady days after beer’s re-legalisation the alcohol market here changed dramatically. Icelanders began switching to beer in droves, with nearly seven million litres sold in the first year alone. But due to the extremely long hiatus there wasn’t any local brewing tradition to speak of. The closest we had to a real brewery before the laws were passed was soda-maker Egill Skallagrímsson’s malt factory.
Although the country’s love affair with beer may only have begun in earnest after the drink was re-legalised in 1989, in truth the amber nectar of the Gods has a longstanding role in Icelandic culture. It was in a large part the lack of beer on our fair shores, as well as our oft-cursed alcohol taxes, that once made Icelanders notorious drunkards around the world. Less than two decades ago losing control of oneself on foreign soil was a common and entirely acceptable pastime for tourists and serious travellers alike. As a nation we were new to travel but even more unfamiliar with the inevitably dire results that come from of substituting beer for all other liquid intake for a fortnight or so. Wherever our countrymen were found unconscious in the eighties, be it on a beach in Benidorm or outside a conference hall in Brussels, the reason was almost always the same: too much beer. Practically everyone bought the maximum allowance of one case of beer from the duty-free store in Keflavík. Those coveted cans and bottles became a form of currency for frequent travellers; if you didn’t drink it, someone else damn sure would.
Doing it For Themselves
Now that beer is no longer the valuable commodity that it once was, the residents of Iceland have the chance to imbibe quite a wide variety – and, let’s face it, quite a large quantity – of excellent brews from across the world. The fact that local products outsell them is a testament to the fact that Icelanders have thankfully learned to brew some pretty damn passable beers of their own. This is more important than you might think, for as the late prophet Frank Zappa noted: “If you don’t have your own airline and at least one brand of beer – you shouldn’t count as a real country.”
The Grapevine could have left it at that, but being a hard-hitting news organisation we decided some additional in-depth research was in order. A crack-team of taste-testers was put to work tasting Icelandic-made beers one evening. The results are as follows:
-A less than glowing review for the much-hyped Thule. Our tasters found it too watery and bland for their palates, a good accompaniment to a slice of pizza but nothing to write a drunken postcard home about.
-On the opposite end of the scale from Thule, Víking Sterkur has a robust taste and weighs in at 7% by volume. It packed a punch for the liver and tastebuds alike, definitely a bit too much for some people. Which is to say that it was a resounding success with the small band of drunkards we had assembled.
-Tuborg Grön and Carlsberg, both brewed in Iceland, were a predictably average affair that left no particular lasting impression.
-Good old Egils Gull didn’t disappoint or thrill anyone. Always a quite drinkable, if somewhat average, lager.
-Top marks for the more ambitious Egils Premium. It’s brewed with Icelandic barley and was judged to be a very pleasant lager indeed. A slightly metallic aftertaste might be accounted for by the can, but overall the flavour was full-bodied yet surprisingly soft. Especially considering that it’s 5.7% alcohol by volume.
-Two out of three testers confessed themselves quite fond of the taste of Víking Gylltur, while all agreed that it went down incredibly smoothly considering how sinfully drunk a few cans will make you. Additional samples were duly requested and after sampling them dutifully for several hours our testers fell into a deep sleep from which they could not be roused – the Icelandic seal of approval.