Beer – An important part of the Iceland experience

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Iceland, with an unprecedented mix of clean-tasting lagers and craft-brewed ales, stouts, porters and Belgian-style options available to locals and travelers alike.

While Icelanders are fond of their beer, the good times have only rolled in the Land of Fire and Ice since 1989, when the country lifted its national ban on normal-strength beers.

The ban was intended to keep the hooch-loving locals on the straight and narrow, but its widespread subversion by bar owners and party hosts who mixed the watered-down 2% alcohol “Pilsener” with prime Icelandic vodka, led to a release of the small country’s untapped potential as a truly micro microbrewing superpower.

For those who indulge, Iceland offers a potent mix of microbrews.  Indeed, given the size of the market, even its standard lagers would be microbrews anywhere else.  I am a big fan of two: Gull and Brio, which are both brewed at Reykjavik’s Olgerdin brewery and benefit from the pristine Icelandic glacier water with which they are brewed. Olgerdin also has a small visitor’s center and a range of craft micro beers, the Borg range, anchored by Borg’s Garun Nr.19 Icelandic Stout and with more than 60 mainly British, Irish, and Belgian-inspired brews.

My preferences aren’t universally shared: rival lager Viking Beer, from the city of Akureyri in the country’s north, beats out Reykjavik’s Gull as the country’s market leader.  Perhaps its slogan gives some insight: “You deserve to feel like a Viking at heart. You deserve to drink like one too. You deserve Viking Beer.”

Akureyri’s also represented in the world of craft and micro beers, with Einstok, a local brewery. Einstok produces ales, bocks and porters highlighting the city’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, and enjoys good national distribution.

Sampling these brews is easy in Iceland’s often-excellent collection of pubs and beer bars, with Olstofan and Kaldi being personal favorites.  Olstofan is kind of like a laid-back journalists’ bar with enthusiastic bartenders, and Kaldi more like a US fraternity house from the late 1980s.

Outside of the bars and licensed restaurants, finding a decent beer requires some local knowledge.  Unless you go to the state-run Vinbudin, which has a healthy selection of more than 300 beer options, it will be as if 1989 had never happened.

But a cold lightweight “pilsener” with one of Iceland’s distinctive lamb-based hot dogs, or with a hamburger at a gas station lunch counter has its place. It is a traditional part of the Iceland experience.

If you are coming to Iceland, will beer be on your agenda? Helgastina can arrange brewery visits, recommend watering holes and make sure your favorite microbrew type is waiting for you when you Dine with the Icelanders.

Mike Klein is an American writer and Belgian beer enthusiast based in The Netherlands.

Swimming in snow

I remember when I was as a young girl travelling to Cancun in Mexico with my friends from high school. This was back in 1993 when Cancun was still a popular and relatively safe travel destination.

Little did we know as teenagers, the weather in Cancun in May was not what we had been led to expect. It was the middle of the rain season and we had a lot of rainy days. Some people were furious about the weather. This was Mexico, not Iceland! Rain and clouds were not what we had been expecting. Nevertheless, we managed to get sunburnt despite the rain and clouds. I guess our Icelandic white skin wasn´t prepared for such conditions.

When travelling to Iceland a Travel Planner can never promise good weather. What a Travel Planner can promise is weather.  All kinds of it. Several times a day.

When people ask me when is the best time to go to Iceland, I have decided to be very honest because I cannot promise good weather. But I can promise that weather, all kinds of it, is a big part of the thrill.

If you are adventurous like a dear friend of mine who joined me for Christmas in Iceland some years ago, you take it all the way and go swimming outside in the hail. It is amazing to go through that cold shock on your walk from the changing area to the pool and then dip into a warm and wonderful geothermal sensation outside in the darkness. It wakes you up and instantly puts things in perspective. He got hooked and went for a dip every day of the trip.

It is a fact that that the hot tubs at every Icelandic swimming pool is a venue for discussions on every conceivable subject, from early morning to evening. The locals change into English (or Danish!) sometimes to involve foreigners. It shows some kind of common identity when you enter the hot tubs and I think it is a very unique and precious Icelandic thing.

A trip to Iceland is never chosen because of consistently good weather but because of combination of other experiences, people and nature. If you are lucky you get all kinds of weather. Then your trip has been a success.