Category: General Blogs | Tags: beer

Hunting for the Northern Lights and Discovering Local Beer

Skál! That’s how you say “cheers” in Iceland. But think of how a Viking would say it—that should be the delivery.


Over pints of Ölgeroin’s most popular beer, Engils Gull, two Scots, two Americans, an Australian and a Londoner learned that beer wasn’t legalized in Iceland until 1989. Yes, 1989.

One of the largest and oldest companies in Iceland, Ölgeroin (which means brewery in Icelandic) was founded in 1913 and today not only produces beer, but a number of other drink and food items.

I spent six days in Reykjavik, Iceland, last month with the main goal of seeing the Northern Lights. Mission accomplished on the last night of the trip—it was worth the wait.

In the meantime, the country has so much to offer in and around its capital city. Among them was the brewery tour at Ölgeroin Egill Skallagrímsson.

It turns out that Iceland also went through a Prohibition era of sorts that lasted 73 years. Our guide relayed that the people of Iceland voted in 1908 to ban all alcohol. The ban however, didn’t go into effect until the beginning of 1915.

Don’t think “Boardwalk Empire” though with underground bars and clubs and an Al Capone-type figure leading a squad of bootleggers. It wasn’t exactly like that in Iceland.

There was a partial repeal of the ban in 1933 when the country was threatened by Spain with a trade ultimatum. If Iceland didn’t begin importing Spanish wine, the Spanish would stop buying Iceland fish—the country’s largest export. So wine was allowed.

In 1935, the production of liquors was permitted and that was the first occasion where Iceland’s national drink called Brennivin, a schnapps-like spirit distilled from potatoes with 40 percent alcohol, became available.

Though beer was still outlawed, it was being brewed, just not for the locals. Ölgeroin was brewing beer for export, but in fact, beer like Polar Beer (a light golden lager with 4.7 percent ABV), was brewed for occupying armed forces during WWII and later to the American military base outside of Keflavík. Our guide told us that the “bootleggers” were also the taxi drivers who would have cases of beer in the trunk and sell it to their passengers.  

We got to sample Polar Beer as well as Egils Malt and Appelsín (a fizzy orange drink), which have become a traditional part of Icelandic Christmas celebrations. We also got to sample some selections from Ölgeroin’s microbrewery, Borg Brugghus, which was started in 2007. The microbrewery makes a selection of seasonal and limited-edition brews, many of which sell out soon after they hit the shelves, our guide informed us. They are numbered brews—we got to sample number 10, Snorri. It’s brewed from domestic barley and seasoned with Icelandic organic thyme that mixes a fruity nose with local wild herb flavors. The craft beers were lined up along the top shelf of the back bar in the tasting room of the Ölgeroin building, which it moved into in 2009. The building is one of the best warehouses in Iceland, the brewery proclaims.

The last thing we sampled that evening before hitting the town: a shot of Brennivin, often referred to as Black Death. Skál!

Share this Article: