There’s no need to discuss how weird Icelandic culture can be. All cultures are weird, when you stop to think about it. Can you imagine driving down an American highway with a foreign guy?
What is “Arby’s?”
It’s a roast beef restaurant.
Why is their sign a hat?
Because hats are indicative of beef.
See? Everything is strange and dumb. And so I won’t prattle on about how Icelandic spicy licorice tastes the way your dog’s poop would smell if you fed him Jagermesiter, or how the air in Reykjavik is pleasantly redolent of Ricola cough drops, or how all the food was grossly sweet and the man at the ramen place acted surprised when I told him I didn’t want any white sugar poured onto my noodles. There’s no need for any of that.
This review is about drinking. In Reykjavik, Iceland. If you’re doing more in the country, traveling the Ring Road or whatever, you are most likely one of those Dan Cortez types and all you drink is Aspen Edge. This review is for beer people who want to experience a very new and exciting drinking culture, or who can’t afford to experience it on their own and so just want to read about it on the internet.
THE BASICS: LIQUOR
Because of the understandable alcoholism/suicide concerns related to Nordic climates, full-strength beer has only been legal in Iceland since 1989. Before then, all they could get was wine, a small handful of greymarket liquors, a locally produced schnaaps called Brennivin, and “light beer.”
Brennivin is an unsweetened schnaaps that’s flavored with medicinal herbs. That sounds gross but it’s actually quite good: smells like a smoky vodka and tastes like a tincture made of anis and caraway. There’s other spiced varieties, too.
Other “native” Icelandic spirits exist, but they all seem to be modeled after those inedible licorice candies that Icelanders are so fond of. Here’s one called Opal. It was one of the grossest things I’ve ever drank, and so naturally I brought a bottle home with me.
One important note: spirits are very expensive in Iceland. So is everything else, really, but spirits are nutso: a basic gin and tonic will cost you about $20 USD, and it probably won’t be mixed very well. If you absolutely must drink liquor while in Iceland, grab it at the airport’s duty free shop, where you can score a full 750 ml bottle for less than the price of a single cocktail.
THE BASICS: BEER
Earlier, when I mentioned “light” beer, I should have written it LIGHT, in all caps, because the cut off was 2.2% alcohol, or roughly half the strength of Coors Light. These are the only beers you’ll find in most grocery and convenience stores, and they are deceptively labeled—you really got to squint to see the 2.2.
None of these tasted bad, really. They were all more flavorful than Bud Light. But—it’s the damndest thing, but I could not finish a .5l can of any of them. I would chug and chug and the sons of bitches never got more than halfway finished.
Next up are American-style adjuncts. Of these, Gull is the undisputed king:
Gull is pronounced “Gurdt,” and it tastes like ass. Or, actually, it resembles those Minhas-made Simpler Times beers they sell at Trader Joe’s. It ain’t nothing but a grainbill, and the grainbill is excessively sweet.
If a restaurant only has one tap, their menu might list Gull simply as “draft beer.” Accordingly, I accidentally ordered it several times, and it sort of began to grow on me. It was never enjoyable, but it wasn’t badly brewed. It’s just a flavor I didn’t like, and there wasn’t enough time to develop a taste for it.
Gull is made by Egil, who are like Iceland’s AB: none of their beers are good, even for their styles. The second most ubiquitous beer is Thule (pronounced “To-Lay”), produced by the superior Viking Brewery. It was pretty good. It kind of reminded me of fresh Old Milwaukee: crisp grain with a little bit of a sour complication and a small kiss o’ the hops. Tallboys were easy to come across as concerts and seedier bars.
Before coming to Iceland, I had heard that Viking’s flagship offering, “Viking,” was the country’s most popular beer. I went to over a dozen bars and restaurants, however, and never once did I see it on tap. So I dunno.
Along with these mid-strength beers, Viking and Egil produced “Strong Beers.” If you’re offered a strong beer, this is what you will get:
These are classified as Euro Strong Lagers, which is about as godforsaken a beer category as you’re likely to find. Think of a beer as strong as a truly strong American malt liquor, like OE 800, with tons of sweet, astringent barley alcohol. Only Euro strongs don’t cut their sweetness with corn or rice, so they taste like a King Cobra that was mixed with frosting.
Thankfully, Viking’s Sterkur (which translates as “strong”) reminded me of Carlsberg’s Elephant. It was totally okay, even if got really burny near the end.
Sterkurs are popular with Icelandic derelicts. Icelandic derelicts appear much more wizened and mysterious than their American counterparts, because they wear scarves and smoke unfiltered cigarettes. Do not be fooled by these appearances. If you happen upon these men in the park, they will tell you poorly translated jokes about sheep farmers and keep begging you for rolling tobacco.
But, like I said, you can’t buy these at just any store. You have to go to a state-run liquor store, or a store that has a special license. They are often kept behind the counter, so you have to ask for them special.
THE “HOT STUFF”
Icleland’s home to a handful of legit craft breweries, but the only one that’s easy to find outside of designated beer spots is Borg, particularly their porter. Borg’s imperial stout got a little bit of hype a year or two ago, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. The regular porter was solid.
Many restaurants will advertise “craft beer” on their signs. This is just a signal that they’re trying to be hip to contemporary American dining trends. Unless you’ve heard of them elsewhere, these places will typically have 3 taps maximum and the fanciest beer will be Borg’s porter.
To find the good stuff, you got to go to good places. And, brother, there’s a couple of real good places:
First up, the relatively old standby, Micro Bar.
Micro Bar was the first American-style craft beer bar in Iceland, and their dedication to craft is astounding. They offer 10 constantly rotating taps that mostly feature Icelandic beer, though I saw Brewdog and a couple of Scandavian offerings. Their bottle list is the among most impressive I’ve ever seen:
They will often have Cantillion and Westy bottles, but unfortunately none were available during my trip (even though Westy 12 was on the chalkboard and I was totally willing to shell out 45 bucks for it). The rarest thing they had when I was there was that 45% ABV IPA from Brewdog, which was packaged in a terrifying paper bag. No way was I gonna put that shit in me.
Micro Bar is attached to a mid-priced hotel and the décor reflects as much. This is actually nice, as it’s classy and accessible without seeming oppressively formal or self-consciously weird.
They offer .25 and .5l pours, and the prices aren’t much steeper than what you’d pay at, say, Map Room, Blue Palms, or Lord Hobo. There’s also a daily happy hour that knocks a couple of bucks off of each drink, and they offer reasonably priced flights of all their taps. And the Belgian bottles actually cost less than what you’d pay at most American bars. Pretty slick.
So there I was, thinking that Micro was just the bee’s knees, I’d found my resting spot, when I traveled a few blocks away and happened upon this gem:
Mikkeler and Friends is self-consciously weird, but it pulls it off. There’s a difference between the fun guy who owns a pink couch and has all the episodes of Family Ties on VHS just because he’s fucking weird and the other guy who gets “I’M ZANY” tattooed across his neck because he wants to pretend to be weird. Mikkeller falls into the former category. The bar is circus themed and lined with the brewery’s pleasantly European bottle art:
The decor exudes a dull trippiness that’s enough to keep you engaged without jarring you awake—like a good David Lynch film. The storefront itself is narrow, maybe about half the length of your average American bar. The bar area features track lighting and a very comprehensive chalkboard listing nearly 2 dozen tap selections. There’s a primary seating area alongside the bar, which features Mikkeller artwork, and then attic seating upstairs.
The prices are quite high, even for Iceland. Pours at most places are 500 ml. Here, they are 200 or 400. High-abv beers cost about 1,500 ikr for a 200 ml pour, which is about $11.25 for 6.8 ounces of beer. Ooch.
Everything else is wonderful, though. The crowd and bartenders are friendly. Even on a solstice Saturday night, with the rest of the city descending into drunken bedlam, M&F remained peaceable and friendly. I asked why this was, and the bartender explained that this was the sort of place people go to have 1 or 2 nice beers. The Severe Drunkards, myself notwithstanding, frequented louder joints that served hard liquor and don’t cost so much.