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The Battle Over Beer

The Battle Over Beer

Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published March 10, 2017

Iceland’s Parliament is currently debating whether to allow alcohol to be sold in supermarkets, and everyone has a strong opinion on the subject. This is but the latest battle in a long struggle going back over a hundred years. Iceland, it seems, has never had a normal drinking culture.

In a 1916 referendum, the people voted in favour of banning alcohol in the country. The prohibition was partially repealed, however, in 1922, when Spain, the largest importer of Icelandic fish, threatened to slap Iceland with tariffs unless the country continued to buy Spanish wine. Strong liquor was allowed in 1935, but beer, bizarrely, not until 1989.

Icelanders might have happily continued to booze on Brennivín for most of the century had the country not, in 1940, been invaded by legions of beer-swilling tjallar (slang for “Charlies,” or Englishmen). Finding no beer in the country, they turned to the strong stuff, while previously unemployed local men found work building airfields and were suddenly flush with cash. It is said that there has never been as much drinking in Iceland as there was during World War II.

In the autumn of 1940, the government reacted by imposing strict controls. Drink stamps were introduced, and the monthly allowance was two litres of spirits or four of wine for men, and half that for women. This led to a thriving black market and reports of grannies hurrying to the liquor store to procure their quota, probably intended for others. Weddings were allowed an extra share of alcohol, and some suggest that people got married merely to get their booze allowance. Alcohol was banned from all restaurants except Hótel Borg, but this seemed to have had little effect.

Rationing was only abandoned in August of 1945, but in the meantime there were further qualms. While foreign soldiers could buy their drink on the black market, there was simply no beer to be had anywhere in the country. Military authorities insisted that their men be allowed access to beer, and threatened to import their own if the local government did not remedy the situation.

The issue was fiercely contested in Parliament in the autumn of 1940. Iceland’s surgeon general gave an impassioned speech arguing that beer was a gateway drug to hard liquor (which was allowed), and if beer were brewed for the occupying power, it would soon become legal for Icelanders too.

However, others pointed out that if Icelanders would not brew beer for the troops they would simply import their own, which would not be taxed, and the government would hence miss out on important revenue. This won the day, and the first beer, named simply Pilsner, appeared in early 1941. One soldier claimed it was the best beer in Europe, but others were more sceptical of its quality.
The surgeon general need not have worried, for the beer was only sold to soldiers under strict rationing, with officers getting first access to the meagre quantities. The natives had to wait another half century until beer was finally introduced.

The one remaining feature of the prohibition era is the ban on selling alcohol outside the state-run liquor stores. Every now and again, the issue is raised in Parliament. The last time was on January 20th, 2009, but a revolution broke out later that day and so the motion did not pass. It does not seem as if it will this time either.


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