The history of beer in Iceland is interesting, not least for the effect of the prohibition, that in the case of the beer, was surprisingly long. The prohibition started in Iceland in 1915, when a total ban on alcohol was instituted. The ban for wine was lifted in 1928 and for spirits in 1935. For beer it wasn´t lifted until March 1st, 1989. For 54 years Icelanders could get drunk on Vodka and the Icelandic Brennivín (aka Black Death), but beer was out of the question.
Ale has been brewed in Iceland for centuries. Malt and sweetgale were imported, but yarrow was commonly used instead of sweetgale as a spice. The ale was usually not hopped and was easily damaged by infection of various origins. The word “bjór”, meaning beer, gained popularity when imported hopped beer was introduced. The popularity increased further in the 19th century, with more import from Denmark and Germany. The quantity of imported malt extract indicated also that homebrewed beer was quite popular, and some bakeries brewed their own beer in order to maintain their yeast for baking. Danish and German beers controlled the market.
The party was over in 1915 with the start of prohibition which lasted 74 years for beer. Cold beer was warmly welcomed again with new legislation that was in force in March 1989. Five types of lager were sold, both domestic and foreign, with Denmark and Germany leading the pack. Soon more types started appearing and the party was slowly getting louder again.
But . . . ! While the legislation was good per se, it didn´t do the trick for homebrewers. Homebrewing was, and still is, illegal in Iceland, regardless of whether it’s for personal use or selling to others. Brewing anything stronger than 2.25% ABV is subject to fines and/or imprisonment up to six years. There you go! Brewing a hazy lager from liquid kit, originating from a tin can could earn you jail time. The kits sold some decades back came with specific instructions by the storeowner on what NOT to do. “By all means, do not use 5 litres less water and add 250 grams of sugar, or you will end up with an illegal beer of approximately 5%.” Luckily the authorities had common sense and only went after moonshine dealers.
In recent years there has been a huge change in every aspect regarding beer in Iceland, homebrewing included. Part of that revolution was led by bold pioneers who started microbreweries, introducing beers that were quite far from the mainstream line, some of whom have won international awards. Starting in 2005, the introduction of more and more ambitious beers has been a trend that is in full growth. In 2009, FÁGUN, an organization of homebrewers was founded. Part of the agenda is to provide a platform where homebrewers can discuss techniques, recipes, and all the issues related to fermenting alcoholic beverages, and part of the agenda is to try to enlighten the legislators, so that our hobby won’t be illegal anymore.
Defying the current legislation is a part of that. On the third Saturday in August every year, Reykjavik City holds its annual Cultural night. The city is buzzing with events, culminating in concerts in the City Center in the evening with a big show of fireworks. And the homebrewers sneak in there as well. In a nice central location, FÁGUN hosts a party, where homebrewers bring their own beers, for all interested to taste. This event is growing in size and this year there were 14 homebrewers that brought their beer for others to taste. So far there haven´t been any attempts to stop the event. We will eventually become legal.
So . . . remember to raise a toast to us Icelanders every March 1st. We will prevail! SKÁL!