Imagining Reykjavík without beer is like imagining Amsterdam without hash brownies. However, only nineteen years ago (!) it was against the law to sell and buy beer in Iceland. The long, strange saga began in 1908 when Icelanders actually voted for a hardcore, full-alcohol ban. It eventually went into effect in 1915. The island’s sober, teetotaling party didn’t last long until trouble erupted, as Spain put its foot down and declared if Iceland wasn’t going to buy its wine, they weren’t going to buy Iceland’s fish – a potential death knell for the economy. To remedy this, in 1922 prohibition for wine was repealed, and other alcoholic beverages have been legally imported since 1934, yet, bizarrely, beer was exempt. For nearly a century, boozers jonesin’ for a brewski had to smuggle them into the country. It wasn’t until 1988 that a beer-sympathetic parliament finally stepped in; Alþingi voted 13 to 8 to end the ban. The New York Times reported at the time that there was jubilation in the streets as “a dozen beer-lovers flashed victory signs outside Parliament after the results came in.”
When beer was officially legalised on March 1, 1989, it was truly a night to remember, recalls Ölstofan bar owner, Kormákur Geirharðsson. “I remember a lot of drinking and a lot of pissing all night long and the next days, and it [was] not stopping,” said Geirharðsson. “This was the day Icelanders took the step to try to become civilized. Ölstofan was not open then, but the idea of owning a bar started there.”
According to a report by alcohol studies researcher, Hildigunnur Ólafsdóttir, once the beer ban was lifted, the number of liquor licenses in Reykjavík jumped by 47% in one year. Immediately following the introduction, total alcohol consumption rose by 23% from 1988 to 1989, from 4.48 to 5.51 litres of alcohol per inhabitant 15 years old and over. As of 2007, consumption is up to 7.1 litres of alcohol per capita. Since the repeal of the ban, aside from the bars, beer can be purchased at the state-run alcohol distributor, ÁTVR. Viking is the most popular beer-brand sold there; Thule is second.
To commemorate Iceland’s day of beer freedom in the country, March 1 is considered Beer Day and citizens hoist a brew to spite alcoholic oppression. The legalisation of beer remains a cultural milestone in Iceland and a major seismic shift in the nation’s alcoholic beverage preference, as beer has today become the most popular alcoholic beverage of choice.