Icelandic Beer Guide

Iceland is a country which is playing catch up in terms of producing beer. Following a refrendum on prohibition all alcoholic drinks were banned from 1915. This ban was amended in 1921 when wine was made legal and spirits were legalised in 1935. However beer was banned until 1989, though in the 1980s bars tried to get around the ban by combining alcohol free beers with spirits - a practice which itself was made illegal in 1985. Since legalization beer has become incredibly popular in Iceland with over 20 million litres of beer drunk each year.

Given the origins of Iceland's settlers it's no surprise to find that Scandanavian beers such as Carlsberg and Tuborg are widely available in bars, with the latter brewed under license in the country rather than being imported. Guiness and Irish pubs are also common - much as they are in the rest of the world. In the 70 years since spirits were legalised Iceland has only managed to produce 2 vodkas and a schnapps called Brennivin (black death). However a mere 20 years on form legalisation there are now a wide range of domestic beers available produced by 7 different breweries. These make up the majority of beers consumed in the country.

The most common domestic beers are Lagers which are very similar to the premium continental European brands. Many of the brands come in two versions - a full strength 5% version and a low alcohol 2.25% version - and you will struggle to find a beer of 3% or 4% in strength. Clearly following a ban on full strength beer the last thing people are after are moderately strong beers. The two major breweries are Egils and Viking and the main lagers they produce are called Gull, Gylttr, Thule and Polar Beer. These are all pretty generic with the main defining characteristic being the use of "pure Icelandic water" which gives the beers a softer feel than their continental counterparts. Generally the malted barley used in imported but the Egils Gull and Premium beers use domestic barley, though this doesn't seem to generate a particularly distinctive result yet. More interesting lagers are the rustically hoppy Olvisholt Skjafti and the subtly spicy Mjodur Jokull pilsener.

As well as pale lagers, most breweries also produce a darker Dunkel counterpart. The Olvisholt Mori, Egils Maltbjor and Kaldi Dokkur are all fairly decent with the Mori having elements of an English bitter to it. There are also a couple of Stouts available. The Viking Stout is of standard strength and is very drinkable with a hint of porter and a good balance between bitterness and creaminess - it's probably the best Icelandic beer. The Olvisholt Lava Stout is an Imperial Stout which should have more complexity for it's 9.5% strength for my taste but should appeal to people who like Guinness' Foreign Extra Stout.

Experimentation with beer styles is still quite rare in Iceland. The main innovators are Olivsholt who started brewing in 2007 and have a year round Wheat Ale called Feryja and have brewed an Abbey Dubbel, a Marzen and a Dunkelweizen as seasonal ales - however you may struggle to find these. A new brewrery called nIcebrew have also recently started making an IPA which has limited circulation.

You will also finds malts in most bars. These are a low alcohol beers similar to a Russian Kvass beer. These are a hangover from prohibition with the main example being Egils Malt Extrakt - a sweet, fruity, malty beverage that is 1% abv and tastes like liquid rye bread. They are fairly decent drinks and may appeal to those who like sweet stouts.

To buy alcohol in Iceland you will probably need to visit one of the state liquor stores called Vinbudin. These have limited opening hours, espeacially outside Reyjavik, so don't roll up at 8pm expecting to find it open. You can find a good range of beers at the Icelandic Bar in Reyjavik in the Austurvöllur square by the Parliament building. Overall there is little innovative or truly exceptional to have come out of Icelandic brewing so far, but their best beers are of a high standard and with time they are likely to improve. So if you are in a bar in Reykjavik, make sure you try some of the local beers rather than opting for Carlsberg or Tuborg.

Five Icelandic Beers To Try -

1. Viking Stout: Almost porterish stout with a bitter, coffee grounds taste but with a smooth creaminess to balance things out nicely. Very easy to drink.

2. Olvisholt Skjalfti: Full flavoured lager with a pronounced rustic, dry hoppy edge to it. Well rounded with a gentle bitterness in the finish. Has elements of a biere de garde.

3. Mjodur Jokull: Smooth lager with a gentle bitter floral taste. The makers claim it is fresh as a glacier. It is certainly refreshing. The hop and barley tastes are incredibly restrained. There is a subtle spicy note in the finish that builds pleasingly.

4. Bruggsmidjan Kaldi Dokkur: Mahogany coloured lager, no head. Gassy and malty with a hint of porterish coffee grounds in the background. Light and easy drinking with a nice aroma and little that lingers in the finish.

5. Egils Malt Extrakt: The low alcohol beer that the drinkers of Iceland had to make do with until full strength beer was made legal in March 1989. Dark, malty and sweet - it is basically rye bread in a glass. Fair enough stuff but not exactly subtle.