2 years, 10 months ago
Iceland was slowly but surely snaking its way up to the top of our 2016 must-visit list anyway. We were already smitten by WOW: the little, purple-liveried, Icelandic airline flying out of Gatwick, Bristol and Edinburgh, doing budget for real and throwing a Reykjavik break into long-haul deals. Then remote fishing villages, desolate landscape and long, long, empty roads (standard movie shorthand for ‘isolated, something bad is about to happen’) drew us in even deeper. And BBC’s claustrophobia-fest, ‘Trapped’ – year’s best title sequence so far – was the final hook. Or so we thought. Until we discovered Icelandic Beer Day. Yes, not content with being mysterious, intriguing and melodramatic, Iceland dedicates the 1st of March to drinking. If you really need to know more, read on.
Way back in 1908, Iceland held a referendum and voted in favour of a total, countrywide ban on alcohol – bad news for drinkers, great news for enterprising folks with boats. Spain’s refusal to buy Iceland’s fish until the country imported Spanish wine, loosened prohibition’s grip in the early 1920’s. And the sale of spirits was legalised again in 1935. But Icelanders continued to say a big ‘no’ to beer in vote after vote. Was it because beer was such a big part of Danish culture and Iceland was having none of that after winning independence from Denmark in 1944? Was it because the government was full of teetotallers? Or was it just because beer loving Icelanders simply added a shot to non-alcoholic Pilsner and weren’t really that affected by the ban? Whatever the reason, beer was finally released from booze purdah in 1989. And almost everyone who was around at the time remembers drinking the stuff non-stop for days, loving it and never looking back. Today it’s Iceland’s most popular drink, there are award winning breweries all over the country and on March 1st, anyone with a mouth and access to a pub, celebrates Icelandic Beer day like prohibition was going to be re-introduced on March 2nd.
A pub crawl or ‘rúnter’ is the traditional way to mark Icelandic Beer Day. It’s not a custom restricted to Reykjavik – rúnter translates as ‘round tour’ and can take place anywhere that sells drink, from three-house hamlets to cities. But for best choice in brews, liveliest crowds and late, late hours, Iceland’s capital is unrivalled. Pubs open early on March 1st and don’t close up shop until at least 4am the next morning. And, unless you know Reykjavik well, the best street to crawl is Laugavegur. It’s the city’s designer shopping district during the day and the place to party at night in a parade of pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafés. Bear in mind this is where the prettiest people hang out so even if beer is your main focus, dress up a bit to avoid any ‘door policies’ putting a crimp in the rúnter.
You might be up for whatever’s on-tap, but if you’re a connoisseur of unusual beer, Iceland has the motherlode. For its fantastic minimalist label and world’s weirdest brewing technique try a bottle of Fenrir Nr.26. It’s made from malted barley, slow-smoked over a bed of sheep droppings and described as ‘citrus and hoppy with a distinctive flavour’. The ‘World’s Best Wheat Beer 2015’ was Iceland’s Sólveig Nr.25, only available on home-territory at the moment. And when you get to the stage where beer makes you feel abnormally cool, witty and smart, Bríó is the pilsner Iceland created for its growing ‘hipster’ population.
Iceland doesn’t have the monopoly on beer this March and were you in the mood to drink your way round the world you really couldn’t pick a better time. In the UK, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) is out in force with events in London, Loughborough, Wigan and Bristol. BeerX in Sheffield celebrates the country’s best independent breweries for four days. And Leeds is linking up Beer, Cider and Perry for a three-day event themed on canals and waterways. The US is awash with festivals from New York to Tampa. And if you need an excuse to spend a bit of spring in Barcelona, the 5th Annual Barcelona Beer Festival is on at the city’s Maritime Museum. It’s showcasing over 300 craft beers this March and there’s a big emphasis on fantastic Catalan street food as well as live music, entertainment and ‘meet the brewer’ sessions.
Naturally, wherever you are, we strongly advise you to drink responsibly, remember you’re a guest and – apart from that – Skal, as they say in Iceland.