A rather belated happy Beer Day to Iceland
May 8, 2020 8:52 AM   Subscribe

A century ago, Iceland banned all alcoholic drinks. Within a decade, red wine had been legalised, followed by spirits in the 1930s. But full-strength beer remained off-limits until 1 March 1989. Megan Lane asks why it took so long for the amber nectar to come in from the Icelandic cold. Why Iceland banned beer (BBC). Bonus video: Female-run microbrewery celebrates "witching" history (AP News clip), adding some female representation to Iceland's male-dominated beer scene (Grapevine.is).

More from BBC's 2015 article:
When full prohibition became law 100 years ago, alcohol in general was frowned upon, and beer was especially out of favour - for political reasons. Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles.

"The Danes were drinking eight times as much alcohol per person on a yearly basis at the time," says historian Stefan Palsson, author of Beer: Around the World in 120 Pints.

As a result, beer was "not the patriotic drink of choice".
More history from Guide to Iceland
People still wanted to drink this golden liquid, and some people drank what is called 'bjórlíki' or 'Beer Likeness'. This normally consisted of a weak pilsner (with less than 2,25% alcohol in it), mixed with a bit of vodka, whiskey and some wine, bringing the alcohol level up to 5%. Not exactly the same taste as of beer, and people still craved the original.

'Bjórlíki' was sold in one of Reykjavík's first pubs, Gaukur á Stöng (Gaukurinn, which still exists) and was quite controversial, leading to also being banned in 1985.
Skipping back a bit, AP News fills in history on what changed Icelanders' notions of beer: Happy Beer Day! Iceland marks 30th anniversary of end of ban
A thirst for change began in the 1970s when Icelanders increasingly started vacationing in sunny European beach resorts and developed a taste for a cooling beer.

Back home, local bartenders responded by inventing the “bjorliki” cocktail, a pseudo-beer made by blending non-alcoholic pilsner with aquavit — in very variable ratios.

Yet a large part of the population still opposed lifting the beer ban when parliament debated the issue for the last time in 1988.

Steingrimur Sigfusson, who is parliamentary speaker today, at the time painted a gloomy picture of the chaos that would result as “hundreds of taverns” opened up to crowds with no experience of the beverage. He voted against the proposition.

He still defends the country’s restrictive alcohol policy that aims to limit binge and teen drinking.

“The worst-case predictions never came true but underage drinking did increase,” Sigfusson said.

The ban finally ended on a Wednesday. All four bars in Reykjavik were jam packed with drinkers toasting their new-found freedom while the country’s population of 260,000 celebrated by buying more than 340,000 cans of beer at overcrowded Vinbudin monopoly stores.

Another few bonus links: the dark history of women, witches, and beer from Big Think.
Beer was originally produced nearly exclusively by women, so say archeologists who study fermentation. With the ancient division of labor putting men out on the hunt, it was up to the women to collect the ingredients and brew the drinks. Evidence of brewing can be found as far back as the fifth millennium BCE in Iran and may have been referenced by an alewife in The Epic of Gilgamesh (Siduri), the oldest work of literature known.
How women brewsters saved the world (Beer and Brewing).
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Some Icelandic beers are just too horrible to contemplate and should have remained forbidden: Iceland brewery makes whale testicle beer!
posted by monotreme at 9:22 AM on May 8

When I was staying in a small town an hour or so out of Rejkjavik a few years ago, the only affordable alcohol I could find in the local supermarket was Viking Light Beer, one of the half-strength beers developed in the prohibition era. It was okay, but if that was the only booze the Vikings had in Iceland it's no wonder they started searching for Vinland.
posted by rory at 9:46 AM on May 8

2.25% is far too little for a light beer; with that, you may as well go to an <0.5% “non-alcoholic” beer (some of which taste decent these days, at least to have with a meal, though probably not as something you'd drink in a bar), which, as a friend who abstains from alcohol for medical reasons pointed out, also has the advantage of technically being an isotonic sports drink (any more alcohol and it doesn't rehydrate you). Being allowed a beer with 2.25% alcohol by volume feels like you're being punished by someone who hates joy.

I find that the Swedish folköl standard of 3.5% being the maximum amount of alcohol in a beer you can buy (to take home) without going to the state-run liquor shop is more reasonable (and, indeed, quite lagom); 3.5% is not much weaker than a number of English ales (and they even make nigh-imperceptibly weakened versions of London Pride for the Swedish supermarket shelves), and gives the experience of having a beer (as long as the experience you're looking for isn't the hammer-blow of a 9% Belgian lambic or something). Having a 3.5% beer doesn't feel as impoverished an experience as having a 2.8% or 2.25% beer, at least to someone who has lived in the UK.
posted by acb at 10:47 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]

Hope this isn't too much of a derail, but something interesting in the English-language coverage is that when they quote an Icelandic person, they identify them first by their full name, and in subsequent instances by their last name, as they normally do for English-speaking interview subjects. Is that something that makes sense, since Icelanders' "last names" aren't family names, but patronymics?
posted by pykrete jungle at 11:01 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

The "happy hour" scene in Reykjavik was amusing. Our hotel's restaurant and bar was packed at all hours. Einstök's smoked porter was a nice fireside sipper, and the white ale is delicious, too.

All this talk of low-alcohol beers made me want to survey the contents of the fridge downstairs. I just stocked up for the weekend uh, month, with a delivery from a local brewery. 7 percent is the lowest, and there are a few double IPAs at 8 percent.
posted by emelenjr at 11:32 AM on May 8

All four bars in Reykjavik were jam packed

Had a mefite meetup there in Midsummer 2014 in 'downtown' Reykjavik... so many happy drunks wandering around
posted by Mrs Potato at 12:42 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

the Swedish folköl standard of 3.5%
This has also led to an interesting situation of local brewers making beer to the standard, to allow easier sales outside of the liquor store monopoly.
The Icelandic brews I've sampled have been OK, but I kind of fail to see the point when all the raw ingredients must be imported in order to make a run of the mill beer for export...
posted by St. Oops at 1:50 PM on May 8

when they quote an Icelandic person, they identify them first by their full name, and in subsequent instances by their last name, as they normally do for English-speaking interview subjects. Is that something that makes sense, since Icelanders' "last names" aren't family names, but patronymics?

It doesn't, and in fact, Wikipedia articles about Icelanders have a formulaic header which reads something like “This is an Icelandic name. The last name is patronymic, not a family name; this person is referred to by the given name (Björk/Ragnar/Guðmundur/&c.)”, to remind people that, unlike family names, Icelandic last names are less salient than given names,
posted by acb at 3:10 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

I kind of fail to see the point when all the raw ingredients must be imported in order to make a run of the mill beer for export...

There's something to be said for Icelandic water, and/or the myths thereof. To the point where there's a brand of English gin (whose name I forget, though I used to have a bottle of it back in London) whose concentrated distillate is sent to Iceland to be blended with Icelandic water. Perhaps with the beer it's similar?
posted by acb at 3:12 PM on May 8

I think that would be (based on a quick search ;) ) Martin Miller's Gin: England Distilled, Iceland Chilled. It seems that the value (quantified or perceived) of Icelandic waters is a thing.

This brings to mind three prominent sake producing regions in Japan, known for the quality of their water and their rice.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:01 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile in Russia, beer (and anything with less than 10% alcohol) was only re-classified as an alcoholic beverage in 2011.

That's not too far from the reasoning behind Iceland's beer prohibition: beer is not an alcoholic beverage, consumed by alcoholics for whom there is no longer any hope, but a sinister gateway drug, threatening to seduce impressionable youngsters to a life of inebriation.
posted by acb at 3:27 PM on May 10

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