If you want to know how a hip microbrewery like Beljandi ended up in Breiðdalsvík, a tiny town in Iceland’s remote East Fjords, ask Elís Pétur Elísson about the mounted reindeer head that overlooks his pub. The story—like, perhaps, many good stories—begins with a hunting trip and a bottle of whiskey. In 2016, after a long day spent hunting, Elís cracked open a bottle of whiskey with his friend Daði Hrafnkelsson. Both Daði, a dentist in Denmark, and Elís, whose investments in local fishing had paid off, wanted to use their spare cash to revitalize their hometown. But how? They tossed around ideas, working their way through the whiskey.
By the middle of the bottle, it was agreed: they would open a brewery. “We shook hands and started planning,” Elís says, “but of course by the bottom of the bottle we were way too drunk to put together a business plan.” Completely serious, if not sober, they proceeded with the project, returning to Breiðdalsvík with the kernel of an idea, a hangover, and the massive reindeer head that now surveys the spacious beerhall like a guardian spirit, memorializing the brewery’s boozy conception.
Uses and abuses
Like many small fishing villages, Breiðdalsvík had suffered a slow, but steady recession over the previous two decades: younger generations were moving away, leaving an aging population and few opportunities for cultural growth and civic pride. But Elís and Daði saw promise in the disused, crumbling buildings that dot the town’s small centre. Shortly after their excursion, they bought the abandoned building that now houses Beljandi. Built as a slaughterhouse, its subsequent uses and abuses left mounds of rubbish for the two to clear out.
Still, they were intent on preserving the character of the building. With few major architectural interventions, it’s easy to imagine herds of sheep huddled downstairs on the killing floor where the gleaming gadgetry of beer alchemy now stands. The upstairs space, once used for salting and drying sheep pelts, now houses the cozily spare beerhall—Breiðdalsvík’s only bar. Elís and Daði aimed to fundamentally alter day-to-day life in this town of 139 residents. “If people wanted to grab a drink, they used to have to go to someone’s house,” Elís says, “Now they can go to the bar, sit down, and have a chat.”
Beljandi, however, is not Elís’ sole experiment in reimagining the town’s social possibilities; with his wife, Helga Rakel Arnardóttir, Elís has breathed new life into Kaupfjélagið, the old general store directly beside Beljandi. Decorated with wares and ephemera from a predigital world, the reimagined Kaupfjélagið is as much a repository of local history as it is a convenience store: signs and archival documents on every wall blazon the provincial minutia of Breiðdalsvík’s past. By opening a casual eatery in the shop—dishing up local fish and chips, homemade cakes, and the occasional reindeer burger—Elís and Helga have nestled within their nostalgic time capsule a vibrant and contemporary community hub. In the sitcom of everyday life in Breiðdalsvík, Kaupfjélagið is, without a doubt, the primary set piece. A regular cast of locals trade breezy banter over bottomless coffee; a carton of milk is simply a pretext for seeing who’s around.
In a town like Breiðdalsvík, with its abundance of cheap, unused properties, Elís underscores how easy it can be to affect societal change. “Things don’t happen by themselves,” he says, “But if people are willing to take some chances, to do something out of the ordinary, you can make a huge change in a small place like this.” It helps, of course, if that agenda for societal change includes the promise of a crisp, hoppy IPA.