Iceland rediscovers beer

Were you to go strolling down Reykjavík’s main street, Laugarvegur, on a Friday or a Saturday night, you would never suspect that beer…

Were you to go strolling down Reykjavík’s main street, Laugarvegur, on a Friday or a Saturday night, you would never suspect that beer used to be banned in Iceland.

Though a cheap large beer never costs less than $8 (Cdn), this doesn’t seem to stop anyone.

In fact, one could suspect the fervent nightlife resembles Viking celebrations. (Though, of course, the ancestors would have been dressed and decorated differently — less makeup and more fur).

Anyway, you could be excused for not believing beer had once been banned.

Underlining that would be the next-morning evidence — week after week, the same areas are littered with beer bottles, urine stains, vomit and plastic beer glasses.

OK, I’m exaggerating a bit.

But it’s true that, for 74 years, it was impossible — and illegal — to buy beer anywhere in the country.

Throughout history, the daily thirst quencher in Iceland was a mixture of whey and water, unlike Germany, where the drink of choice was beer.

The main reason for this was probably how difficult it is to grow grain in Iceland, with barley being one of very few grains that grow here, and then only very slowly.

(Many say this has its part in Icelanders’ drinking habits — of no drinking during the week, and then a lot at parties.)

Still, beer or ale was the drink of choice at Icelandic parties until the 1600s.

The drink was originally made from barley. One only needed germinated barley, water and yeast — with the last ingredient usually coming from the previous batch.

Later, people started using hops, which did wonders for storage.

It is likely that Icelanders added tree bark or juniper to the drink for taste, as did the Norwegians.

Some wealthier farmers even had a special heated house for brewing beer.

In the 1800s, bakers brewed and sold beer for the simple reason of always having live yeast at hand, but a law, set on January 12, 1900, banned that practice during the era when people throughout the western world were becoming more and more worried about alcoholism.

Prohibition spread like wildfire around the western world; even the Yukon was touched by it.

Fifteen years later, the sale and making of all alcohol was prohibited in Iceland

Of course, like elsewhere, the moonshine industry boomed, only in Iceland this product is called “Landi,” or a Fellow-Country-Man.

But. Interestingly, while strong alcohol was later allowed in Iceland, beer was not.

In 1933, Icelanders voted in national elections to allow alcohol again, but beer containing more than 2.25 per cent alcohol was still banned.

Politicians believed the drink would lead to more drinking, and took as examples our European neighbours, the Danes and the Germans, who have long favoured a beer or two or five at lunchtime.

So it was not until March 1989 that beer was allowed again, and then only after much debate on all fronts.

It was a large event. No, let me rephrase that. It was a huge event.

On March 2, 1989, 340,000 beer cans sold in Iceland — a considerable number for a nation of about 270,000 people.

Following the lifting of the beer ban, bars sprouted up across Reykjavik, and nowadays downtown is littered with cozy little taverns.

And the semi-prohibition defendants were proved wrong.

Since 1989, though the consumption of alcohol has increased, the amount of alcohol consumed has gone down, and police have not noticed any worsening of social problems.

In fact, since 1989, consumption of hard alcohol has declined by half, while beer consumption has doubled, according to the health department.

Icelanders now have laws similar to those of Canadians. Liquor is only sold in specific, state-run stores, and no off-sales exist.

Two breweries control about half of the Icelandic beer market and competition between them is fierce, though their products are rarely much cheaper than imported ones.

These breweries have slowly been improving their wares and their products have even won international awards.

Some argue the reason is the clean water in Iceland — indeed, Icelandic water tastes very much like the water that flows in the Yukon’s alpine region, only without the danger of giardia.

Still, many favour the longer-standing tradition of German or Dutch beer, and the only liquor store that sells Moosehead swears it sells like hotcakes.

Nowadays, pubs attempt to make March 1 Iceland’s equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day, albeit without the green food colouring.

To be honest, it’s more of a tourism trick than a real event. This day passes today without many people noticing it.

However, since the legalization of beer, people have been showing an interest in the history of beer in Iceland.

One of the beer factories, Ölgerdin Egill Skallagrímsson, has started a fund to buy back Icelandic drinking horns from other countries.

About a year ago, Ölgerdin presented a gorgeous drinking horn from the 14th century, called Maria’s horn, which is one of the oldest drinking horns in the world. It can be viewed at the Icelandic National Museum.

The beer factory has started this fund simply because the museum does not have enough money to bring such treasures back to Iceland.

So, whether you believe my description of Reykjavík nightlife or not, you can believe that since beer’s been made legal again, Icelanders have surely taken to the drink again.

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