James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Strong Icelandic Beer, So Good They Named it Twice

A Strong Icelandic Beer, So Good They Named it Twice

Beer in Iceland

Hólar is a small town in northern Iceland (population 100) with a college (student population 250). It has one hotel, one restaurant, one church, a horse museum, a turf house museum and, most importantly, a beer club—the first of its kind in Iceland.

My husband and I arrived in Hólar when it was hosting Landsmót, Iceland’s national horse festival. The town was empty—everyone was out watching horse competitions—but the beer club, on the grounds of Hólar University College, was not hard to find.

The door was open. The tiny club, housed in a former cow shed, was part dorm-room, part man-cave, but scrubbed clean. Kera, a graduate student, sat alone with an open textbook. We pummeled her with questions. She was studying freshwater biology, and was an active club member. The annual membership fee is 5,000 krónur (US$40) a year. It started out as a club for faculty and students, but is now open to the public. They keep a notebook with tabs on who drinks what, and members get beer at a discounted price.

Then Guðmundur, a founding member, came in. “Why a beer club and not a bar?” I asked.

“We like beer and there isn’t a pub culture in Iceland,” he said. He explained that the club pools its resources so they can buy cases of great beer from around the world that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.

“We try to make the price of beer modest. Anything to do with alcohol in Iceland is always very expensive and taxed a lot. The government sees it as a way of limiting drinking.” Then he added something I’ve heard the Irish say: “Beer is food, it’s floating bread.”

The beer offerings were impressive for such a small place, and for northern Iceland. American beers were the favorites: Founders from Michigan was the most popular, followed by Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada.

They also make their own brew on occasion. The brewmaster—the college’s IT guy—gets the yeast from Germany or Belgium. “We need to add minerals to the water because the water is so pure here it is dead, no taste,” said Guðmundur.

The featured beer on tap was from a microbrewery in Reykjavik: Úlfur (“wolf”) at 4.5 percent ABV, and Úlfur, Úlfur at 9.4 percent. I went for the double wolf, hoping to get quickly lightheaded. It was a perfect beer: friendly to the tongue, crisply thirst-quenching, and full-bodied without being heavy and sweet.

As the horse show’s final ceremonies ended, other members started to arrive, including some of the college’s faculty of fish biology. My husband, an oyster aficionado, asked one of them why there were no oysters in Iceland—a question that had been vexing him since we arrived in the country.

“Because the water is too cold to disperse their seed,” she said, snuffing out my husband’s dream of washing down a dozen Icelandic oysters with his Ulfur.

But we love Iceland, this small island in the middle of the North Atlantic sea, and we love this beer club: a small island of beer drinkers with an exhaustive knowledge of hops and aquaculture.

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