In Iceland, March 1 is also known as ‘Beer Day.’ In this modern age, where ‘days’ are ascribed to anything from International Canned Cocktail Day (Sep 10) to International Gruit Day (Feb 1) it would be easy to assume that this is another such marketing gimmick. But for Icelanders, March 1 has a genuine significance – because until that date in 1989 beer was BANNED.
Prohibition began way back in 1915 and went on to deprive a whole generation of the taste of beer (although it was actually the Icelandic public who voted for the ban, with 60% in favour). In the subsequent decades, some booze was made legal, but not beer: wine was allowed in 1922 (but rather bizarrely, only Portuguese and Spanish wine); and in 1935 spirits and other boozes were legalised.
During this agonising period there were a few exceptions. In 1940, Churchill ordered an invasion of the nation, fearing that neutral it might soon be targeted by Germany (Iceland was neutral and didn’t have its own military). An Icelandic brewery, Ölgerðin, was given permission to brew a beer, Polar Ale, solely for the British Navy. US Army Troops, who settled in Iceland in the 1950s, changed the name to Polar Beer for their own consumption (you can still buy that same product today).
There was one other exception to the beer ban – it was permitted if it contained an alcohol content of less than 2.25%, which was enough to keep some breweries going through the dark days.
Making up for lost time
When the ban was finally lifted, Icelanders quickly began making up for lost time. Between them, the population of 260,000 bought 340,000 cans of beer.
One of the reasons for implementing the ban was that beer was seen by a large portion of the population as a drink to get drunk on, rather than to enjoy and, unfortunately, the country still has a problem with heavy alcohol consumption. To combat this, heavy duty is paid on alcohol and it’s only available from government run stores.
Following the legalisation of decent strength beer, the Egill and Viking breweries established themselves as the country’s leading lager producers. Over the subsequent years, several more breweries made a success of the beer business, producing exceptional beers that are now being enjoyed the world over. These include ‘Lava’, a Smoked Imperial Stout brewed by Ölvisholt Brugghús, that has won several top international awards; Kaldi Blonde, a pilsner that is the most popular bottled beer in Iceland, brewed by Bruggsmiðjan Kaldi; and a wide range of craft beers from Einstök, which is the most familiar brewery seen on british supermarket shelves.
Brewery focus: Einstök
The Einstök brewery, Based in Akureyri, could hardly seem more Icelandic. It uses water from the local spring ‘Hesjuvellaspring’ that flows from the Hlíðarfjall Mountain and is naturally filtered through an ancient lava field. The brand capitalises on the appeal of the modern Viking, with a Viking design for its logo and an ethos that encourages a global kind of adventure that places Iceland at the centre of the world.
The brewery was formed in 2010, just five years after Iceland’s first microbrewery, Bruggsmiðjan Árskógssand, opened. It began exporting to the UK the following year and in 2016 could claim to be the country’s number 1 craft beer and its biggest alcoholic beverage export.
The four most familiar Einstök beers are Icelandic White Ale, Icelandic Arctic Pale Ale, Icelandic Arctic Lager and Icelandic Toasted Porter. The first three of these both share a crisp and dry characteristic, as if drawn directly from the icy landscape. The White Ale is brewed along classic witbier lines with orange peel and coriander seeds among the ingredients, and it’s an instantly refreshing drink, with the subtle citrus and space flavours making it the perfect accompaniment to food.
Both the Pale Ale and Lager have similarly refreshing qualities, with the former marrying gentle bitterness with contemporary fruity American hop notes, and the lager having a notes of zesty lemon to brighten the clean brewed malt. Our favourite of the four is the Toasted Porter which, at 6.0%, packs plenty of toasty, chocolatey dark grain flavours but still maintains an easy drinking crispness common to the lighter brews.
If you’re feeling like an adventurous, modern kind of Viking then get hold of some Einstök beers and, whether it’s March 1 or any other day, raise a glass to the lifting of Iceland’s beer ban.
For more information on Einstök please visit einstokbeer.com
Einstök beers are available from Waitrose
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