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.

Is Reykjavik too touristy?

Reykjavik is crowded with tourists. Shops on the main shopping street are increasingly geared towards visitors. The cafés have English speaking staff, the food culture is changing, and the atmosphere is different than before. Is that all bad?

No, I don´t think so.

But you need to know what you are doing in every interesting city of the world. Reykjavik is no exception.

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A curious resident at the Reykjavik Pond

 

I think it is fantastic that Reykjavik is getting so diverse. And it´s not simply because of the tourists. Icelanders often live abroad for some time for work, for study and for adventures. Life on an island requires many of us to get away to maintain our sanity at times.  So, our culture is more and more influenced by those people returning home to Iceland after a stay abroad. Food, design, languages, way of being in general.

Some people want Reykjavik to stay as it was. or as they imagined it was.

But those who do want the city as it was, are perhaps not aware of some of the great things about this small but vibrant and diverse city that have occurred in recent years. Things that have added to the charm of the city.

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A street sign in Reykjavik

 

Reykjavik is one of the easiest cities to visit which combines dramatic natural beauty, a vibrant lifestyle, and lots of unique features. I mean there is a salmon river in the middle of the city. There are cafés on nearly every corner. Green areas, the harbor, the beach, the mountains, the trendy restaurants and hotels, cinemas, museums, music, skiing areas on the outskirts of the city, playgrounds, geothermal outdoor swimming pools, wonderful old houses and cozy streets with cats hanging around and kids playing.

The center of Reykjavik is not the only Reykjavik. It is a city of parks and neighborhoods, so if you want to explore even more you have to go out of your way and bike, walk, drive or take public transport for 10 minutes. Then, you are in the most amazing green areas of the city among the Icelanders who often have chosen to live in the outskirts of the city, near to nature and sometimes with their own horses in their backyard.

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(Picture by Sif Gudbjarts)

 

So those cursing the development and blaming it on tourists should just take a side street from the main shopping street, like you have to do in every major city of the world, to get an authentic experience, meet the locals and and perhaps even some cats. Or hop on a bus to the unknown. Life doesn´t need to be so complicated and the only thing you need to do is get out of your comfort zone and explore.

Keeping it real in the face of Iceland’s tourist boom

I remember when growing up in Iceland and traveling with my parents around the country, that people were curious about each other. The smallness of the country was sometimes too much for a globe trotter like me, but it was also amazing how people managed to find out how they were related or connected with a two minute conversation. And everything changes when you suddenly know people or someone they know. The world becomes smaller and there is a common interest.

Iceland has become of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. When I meet people from around the world, everyone wants to go there, and everybody knows someone who has been there or is planning to go there. This makes me proud because when I was young and adventurous in Brazil in 1990 many people didn´t know where Iceland was, and at the University I attended it wasn´t even on the map in the classroom. Of course I drew it on the map for them on the spot, not willing to accept this ignorance of my fellow students.

What’s at risk with a tourist boom like what is happening now in Iceland, is that the personal touch goes down the drain. People get greedy and want to make everything big and exciting and commercial for all the curious tourists arriving. I read somewhere that Iceland is expecting 1.6 million tourists in the year of 2016. Notice that the population of Iceland is 300.000. So this means a big pressure on the infrastructure and a need for a lot of people to service the crowd.

Iceland to me is personal, real, and authentic. Not a Hilton Hotel next to the Geysers or 18 busses next to the Blue lagoon.

When I discovered that my favorite guesthouse in Reykjavik had been bought by a huge firm owning 70 apartments in the center of Reykjavik I was truly disappointed.

The personal Iceland I want to present focuses on providing access to the authenticity of the country, introducing visitors to people who want to share the best of Iceland’s culture, nature and unique way of living, to lodging places that reflect the real traditions of this special place, and to locations beyond the reach of the usual tour busses and tourist circuits.

My personal Iceland is the real Iceland. Let me share It with you.

All further information on www.helgastina.is