Until recent years, many of Iceland’s small rural towns have had—despite a couple of top-notch exceptions—very limited options when it comes to dining and drinking. Due in part to the country’s ongoing tourist boom, today this situation is changing. With more potential customers travelling around the country year round—especially in the easily accessible South—there are new opportunities for entrepreneurially-minded foodies to do something interesting, bringing insular communities together and realising long-held dreams in the process.
This is the story of Ölverk, a brew pub and pizzeria in Hveragerði, just a short drive from Reykjavík over the dramatic Hellisheiði mountain pass. The town is mostly known for the Reykjadalur “hot river” bathing spot, and the plentiful geothermal energy that helps run large greenhouses that glow brightly throughout the dark winter, but Ölverk is seeking to put itself on the map.
The project is the brainchild of general manager and brand ambassador Laufey Sif Lárusdóttir, plus her partner and brewmaster Elvar Þrastarson, and a third investor named Ragnar. In little over a year, their cosy bar and restaurant, with delicious pizza based on a family recipe served alongside craft beer brewed on-site, has developed a reputation as one of the best meal stops and drinking holes in southern Iceland.
“It all started eight or nine years ago, when Elvar started home-brewing beer in our back garden,” says Laufey. Absorbed to the point of obsession with brewing, Elvar decided to go and study in the UK, leaving the then pregnant Laufey behind in Iceland. “The decision was controversial at the time,” laughs Laufey. It did, however, pave the way towards their impressive operation—a fully functioning 300 litre micro-brewery that sits in the back of Ölverk, feeding fresh beer straight into the taps.
Fresh is best
The stoical, mustachioed Elvar walks us through the process. The building, it turns out, is connected to the local geothermal steam system. “We use geothermal energy in the process,” he says, venting one of the tanks dramatically. “The steam is piped in at 150 degrees, and it heats up the freshwater, barley, hops and yeast.”
Each batch takes 11-15 days to make. “Beer is a fresh product,” says Elvar. “It should be drank fresh, with the exception of sours. The beer we serve was made 20 metres away; it was stored at a constant temperature, not transported, and not exposed to sunlight. It is as fresh as it can be. We make small batches because we want it to be served fresh. The beer usually sits for just a week—three weeks at the very most.”
Ölverk’s beer is also available sporadically on a few taps in Reykjavík, and other rural bars. “Right now you can find a few of our winter beers at Session Bar, MicroBar and BrewDog,” says Laufey. “It’s good advertising, and a good way to make links with the beer community around Iceland.”
Their beers are not currently available to buy by the bottle or keg. Laufey and Elvar explain that Iceland’s laws regarding the small-scale production sale of craft beer are outdated; the laws surrounding alcohol are based on a model that existed before Iceland’s micro-brewing revolution started to unfold.
“We’d like to sell growlers, for example, that people could refill and take home, and that are more environmentally friendly,” says Laufey. “Brewers are making jobs in small, fragile communities all around Iceland. We need the law to change, to allow us to sell bottles to guests to take home for enjoyment and as souvenirs. Also, designated drivers can’t really taste the beer. They should be able to buy a few bottles to enjoy later.”
A head of steam
The issue, she says, is not being handled well, as it falls between government departments. “It needs to be addressed in a professional way, with support for new businesses,” she says. “Tax discounts up to a certain amount of litres would let the craft beer industry thrive, innovate, and employ more people.”
For now, Ölverk is diversifying by offering tours of their facilities, as well as “brew days” spent making beer, and tasting sessions that attract beer enthusiasts from near and far. As we stand in the brewery sipping early versions of some new experiments and seasonal winter brews, Laufey and Elvar’s pride and enthusiasm is absolutely justified by the quality of the beer they’re making. With such great results, their geothermal brewing experiment looks set to continue gathering steam.
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