A smokin’ cold country

The Nordic countries are, as the name indicates, situated to the north of just about everything except the North Pole. Made slightly warmer than the latitude would justify by the presence of the Gulf Stream, these countries are populated by people who enjoy lots of daylight in summer, endure lots of darkness in winter, and imbibe lots of beer all year. The Nordics consist of five independent countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, which together measure about 1.32 million square kilometres (about three-quarters the size of Alaska) and are home to about 26 million people (about 35 times the population of Alaska). By far the least populated, most mysterious and furthest away of these is Iceland, a volcanic pile of rock situated so far out in the Atlantic that you can practically smell North America.

Growing up in Norway, we learnt a fair bit about Iceland in school, mainly because the country was settled by Norwegian Vikings who seemed to think that it was a great idea to abandon the relatively mild (!) climate in Norway and start a new life in conditions that even then would have pushed the boundaries of harshness. Naturally they brought their language with them, but because of the remoteness of the island the language evolved much slower than back in Norway, with the end result that to this day, Icelandic is essentially the Old Norse that was spoken by the Vikings more than 1000 years ago – vaguely familiar to modern Norwegians when written, but utterly unintelligible when spoken. Having learnt all this in elementary school back in the 1980s, I have always been fascinated by this place, but never had the chance to visit – that is, until a couple of weeks ago.

In the end, work sent me to Iceland, and the capital Reykjavik to be specific. Reykjavik is actually a fairly big city, housing around two thirds of the entire population of the country. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around unless you’re facing the icy wind, and it’s also full of nice pubs, bars and restaurants that serve up food and drinks of high quality with prices to match. Of course, my main interest once work had finished for the day was to explore the beer scene. On that note, Iceland has possibly the saddest history of all European countries when it comes to beer. After a failed experiment with prohibition of all alcoholic drinks in the early 1900s, wine and spirits were allowed back in the shops in the 1930s, but for some utterly unfathomable reason beer remained banned for another half century. No doubt they knew that the soon-to-be-famous beer blogger would turn 18 in 1990 and thereby start his quest to drink all the beer in the world, so Iceland decided to legalize beer a few months before, on March 1st 1989 to be precise. Iceland has not looked back since, though they may have looked forward to my finally getting around to visiting.

As in almost all countries, a couple of big breweries have risen to become the suppliers of the industrial lager that most people drink – regular readers know what I’m talking about. Of course, since the total population of Iceland is only about a third of a million, there’s a limit to how big these breweries can actually get, and I did not expect a big selection of interesting beer. Imagine my unbridled delight then, when I discovered that there are surprisingly many microscopic breweries on this island, some of which brew very good beer indeed. The main craft brewer seems to be one called Einstök from Iceland’s second city Akureyri, and it was also this brewery that, in careful consideration of my visit, had sent a selection of their finest brews to the first restaurant I happened to stumble upon.
The beer was much better than this picture
I went about the tasting job methodically by ordering one of each. First up was “Icelandic White Ale” which proved to be surprisingly tart and fresh, much better than most continental European equivalents. It was an excellent aperitif beer which doubled nicely as a starter. Next up was Arctic Pale Ale, a pleasantly hoppy interpretation of this style which also had a firm malty body. It was an excellent second beer which also doubled beautifully as the main course. Finally, the highlight of the evening: Icelandic Toasted Porter. Unfortunately, I had not brought a tuba with me because this beer was so good it was worth at least one oompah session, maybe two. As the name hinted, the toasted barley was as much in evidence on the palate as on the label, and since it also avoided the normal porter-trap of being too sweet – in fact, it was delightfully dry – it was perhaps the best porter I have ever sampled. The only problem with it is that my wife also likes it, which means that the small selection I brought home for my fridge is in constant peril. It was an excellent dessert beer which also doubled exquisitely as the cheese plate, espresso, grappa and cigar.

The Toasted Porter.
Impressed and very satisfied, I left the restaurant to explore the city. There were definitely more bars than volcanoes, and loads of people out drinking even on a Monday. It looked like a fun place, but the real Iceland is elsewhere – and you don’t have to travel far to find it. Hop in a car or a tour bus and you’ll find somewhere that emits some kind of steam and/or reeks of sulphur within minutes. The whole place looks about to blow up, but in the meantime you can dive into various hot springs for a revitalising dip. Just make sure that you check the water temperature before you do, since some of them are more suitable for boiling eggs. You can also gawp at wonderful scenery, especially if the fog lifts to reveal it, and if it doesn’t you can always check out Google Street View to see what it would have looked like if you’d visited in whichever year the sun last paid a visit.

The scenery is quite impressive despite some low clouds
In conclusion, Iceland should be on the shortlist both for beery and non-beery reasons. It’s a fascinatingly remote and wild country, and the population speaks excellent Icelandic when they’re tired of showing off their flawless English. I only sampled a tiny portion of both the beer and the country, but I was very impressed. An added bonus is that you can fart as much as you like, because the hot water is not heated, but tapped straight from some sulphuric hell-hole that causes everything to stink anyway. So, go ahead and read up on a few of Snorri Sturluson’s old sagas to get in the proper mood, then book a flight, bring a weatherproof jacket and head off. As the Vikings used to say before cracking open a beer or a skull or whatever happened to be in the path of their axes: Skál!