Travel Stories

Geysers and Gulls — Beer in the Fiery Land of Iceland

Arriving at Keflavik Airport is as close to landing on the moon as most people will ever get. If you're disinterested or not cut out for space travel, book a flight to Iceland. Plus, they have beer. 

Exit the airport, and once you leave the small town of Keflavik, you're confronted with what has to be some of the most foreign-bording-on-alien terrain you've ever seen. A single road cuts through a black, rugged landscape that looks as if it's frozen mid-boil. Rounded mounds crack and split at the top the way bread does as it heats from the inside and rises to its breaking point. In a way, that's what's happened here after thousands of years of volcanic and geothermal activity. Steam from the Blue Lagoon rises in the distance. Vegetation and people are eerily scarce. 

It's a notable juxtaposition once you reach the outskirts of Reykjavik, my destination for the next four days. I've come for a music festival, ATP Iceland, and to squeeze in as much local beer hunting as I could. For that, I’d need population and cultural density. 

Factories and businesses begin to rise at the edge of the road, giving way to the small, tightly-grouped houses that make up Reykjavik's neighborhoods. Walk down any street and you'll come across a number of cheery, brightly colored homes that contrast the apocalyptic landscape around them. Flight-weary and sufficiently checked-in at the Icelandair Reykjavik Marina at noon, it was time for our first taste, a Gull Lager—a standard Icelandic pilsner from Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrimsson. It’s nothing to write home about (even though I am), but as I stare out the window and see a shipyard stretching out into the marina, it becomes clear that it’s an unobjectionable companion. 

It’s overcast, gray, and a bit misty—all recurring Icelandic themes, it turns out. Along the water, we make a quick stop at Harpa, Reykjavik’s newly-opened concert hall and home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In 2013 it won the Mies van der Rohe award for contemporary architecture, and it’s easy to see why—repetitive, angular geometric shapes made entirely of glass. Set just at the edge of the water and surrounded by nothing but the marina and distance, it’s an arresting visual adding to the alien quality of the landscape. Inside, the geometric theme continues: glass in hexagonal shapes from floor to ceiling. 

Wandering into downtown proper, the swanky 101 Hotel includes a stool and a bartender who can dish on the local beer scene. Ölvisholt Brugghús, of course, is in good supply. First, Fósturlandsins Freyja, a Belgian witbier brewed with orange bark and coriander. It’s light and refreshing with a nice, fruity ester note from the Belgian yeast and orange. And the Móri, a red ale that strikes a nice balance between hop bitterness and malty sweetness. We're starting to feel the Icelandic beer vibe. 

Post-beer hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur was a quality decision, if not obligatory. The original, famous stand just off Tryggvagata is nearby—an establishment no larger than one you might see peddling hot dogs at a small town fair in the States. Luckily for us, the weather seems to have kept the notorious lines away. We order ours in the traditional manner with fried onion, ketchup, and remoulade.

And that’s when we found MicroBar. The fittingly-named micro bar became a bit of a second home for the rest of the trip. A small bar housed on the ground floor of the Center Hotel just a few blocks from the water, but its offerings are anything but tiny. First round is an assortment of small pours and flights, trying to gain a perspective on the scope of the country’s offerings. After a day of flying and wandering the streets, we needed a literal and figurative footing. The early standout, by far, is from Gæðingur Brugghús, a wonderfully bright and hoppy IPA. Straw-yellow with a huge aroma of citrus and pine, this is an IPA I wish I could bring home as proof that these people are on the level. 

Iceland hasn’t had a beer culture for long. The country entered into prohibition around 1915, and while it slowly chipped away at the banning of alcohol for various international trade reasons, it wasn’t until 1989 that a 13-8 vote completely lifted prohibition. You’d think in a small country with a landscape this desolate, that alcohol would be more of a pastime than a prohibited beverage, but it seems that the country didn’t waste any time in re-invigorating its beer production. Einstök, Ölvisholt Brugghús, Egillm Skallagrímsson, Vífilfell, and a couple others make up the majority of the country’s output. But like most places on the planet at this point, smaller rumblings are underway, and just like the shift in American brewing, a lot of that has to do with imports.

American beers here in Iceland were mostly known as being crappy,” he recalls. “But the people that know just a little bit about beer know that that is bullshit. America makes some of, if not the absolutely best beers in the world.

During my second visit to MicroBar, I’m lucky to meet the manager, Steinn (Steini) Steffánson, who's more than happy to entertain my curiosity about the state of the country’s beer development. He offers me a bottle of Logsdon Peche ‘n Brett, and it's one of those moments where I realize just how global craft beer has become. A guy from New York City walks into a bar in Reykjavik, and is offered a sought-after Brett Farmhouse Ale from Hood River, Oregon. Peche ‘n Brett is lightly acidic with a touch of funk and no shortage of peach aroma and flavor. And it’s a perfect leaping-off point as we discuss the influences on the Iceland brewing scene. 

Steffánson, 30, has been in the business since 2004, and was initially involved with the wine industry. He’s a homebrewer, and has been a part of Gæðingur since 2012. In 2012, Gæðingur contacted him about running a bar they were planning to open. Gæðingur was having trouble getting their brews into bars around Iceland due to contracts with the major Icelandic breweries. Opening their own bar seemed to be the best way to circumvent this. MicroBar decided to carry only Icelandic microbrews on tap and augment that with a large bottle list. Hence the Logsdon. 

“We have around 200-250 bottles from around the world” Steffánson says. “AleSmith, Mikkeller, Evil Twin, To Öl, Founders, Logsdon, Rogue, and a ton from Belgium. We even carry Cantillion and Westvleteren today.” It’s refreshing to hear that there’s a growing, albeit still small by American standards, craft scene in Iceland. Steffánson says approximately 7% of beer sold in Icelandic bars is now craft, and much of that can be attributed to MicroBar’s influence. “After we opened MicroBar, a lot changed. People in Iceland were more willing to try other stuff, and they wanted to try something other than Gull and Viking (the Icelandic version of Coors and Budweiser).” 

Luckily for Icelanders, Steffánson thought beyond their shores, recognizing that great beer from other places like the States, Denmark, and Belgium would help build a customer base.

“The importing scene is growing really fast,” he explains. “We work a lot with one importer called Járn og Gler. When we opened in 2012, they were importing around 10 bottles. Now, they carry 100-150 different brands. They are also the reason why we have a cellar here at MicroBar. They can get us a lot of crazy stuff.” 

According to Steffánson, the American scene seems to cast a long shadow over the global market these days. He’s quick to point out the previous view that Icelanders had of American beers, which was based on only having access to beers from the macros.

“American beers here in Iceland were mostly known as being crappy,” he recalls. “But the people that know just a little bit about beer know that that is bullshit. America makes some of, if not the absolutely best, beers in the world. But a random Icelandic person only knows about Budweiser and Coors.”

While Steffánson's wife was pursuing a Master’s Degree, they lived in Brooklyn for about a year. Furthermore, he’s made subsequent trips over visiting New York and Florida, but doesn’t intend to stop there. “I also have a couple of friends that are working and brewing at Ninkasi in Eugene, so we are planning a pretty big U.S. trip," he says. "Boston, Vermont, Portland, and then hopefully brew some co-up beer at Ninkasi.”

We wake the next day for what will be our biggest excursion while here, a trip outside of Reykjavik to explore the Golden Circle. It’s misty and blue-gray, but kinda perfect. I imagine Iceland is beautiful when sunny, but for myself and my fellow travelers, there’s something about the moody, almost-oppressive clouds that seem to hover just above the mossy green fields and black rock that feels harmonious, complete. 

Outside of Reyjkavik, a single black ribbon of asphalt cuts through the terrain leading us away from town. The Great Geysir, Gullfoss Falls, and Þingvellir are in the distance. Bubbling collections of water and burn warnings sit just beyond fences, making it clear that while beautiful, this landscape is red in tooth and claw. Violent eruptions occur periodically along the way, continuously reminding us that it’s time to move on.

The presence of Gullfoss Falls is made audibly clear long before we lay eyes on it. A slatted wooden path before you, a hiss and rumble in the distance. Descending the final set of stairs, vapor rises to meet us. The falls are actually a series of ridges, one leading into the next, the final and most impressive ridge jutting to a point. Where gravel ends, jagged rock begins leading you closer and closer, mist constantly swirling round. A final vista allows you to stand, surrounded by rushing water. Conversations raise to a shouting level. The drifting tectonic plates of Þingvellir complete our journey for the day. Atop a ridge overlooking a valley at the end of a long, thirst-inducing hike, we look down at the earth below, the terrain separating into discount plates, split open before us as easily as a grain sack.


 

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Beer is a global culture — often the only passport you need to to see a people and a place for who they truly are. GBH's travels take you deeper than a brewery tour, or a night out on the town — we connect with the influencers in the local brewing scene, capture their stories, and show you how the future of beer is shaping up, on a global scale.

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