Reykjavík, Iceland: drinking beer in the land of fire and ice

Reykjavík, Iceland, has the distinction of being the most northern capital city on the planet. But in this hyper connected modern world, no city – no matter now remote – exists in isolation. Fast-moving drink and food trends are represented here too, partially driven by the heavy tourist footfall. Thankfully for us, craft beer is no exception.

There’s something intensely charming about Reykjavík, which can mostly be attributed to the people, who are outgoing and possess a bone-dry sense of humour. In the winter, when temperatures can dip to almost -20ºC and there’s only a few hours of hazy sunlight per day, lights are strung up all over the city to combat the encroaching darkness. And if you look around, you’ll spot colourful rows of houses, cheerful even in the bleakest winter months.

The recent emergence of a craft beer culture in Iceland is tied into the country’s drinking history. Prohibition came into force in 1915 and effectively lasted until 1989. The original blanket ban on drinking became entwined with a sanction on beer specifically, as beer was closely associated with Denmark and the Danish way of life – it was therefore seen as unpatriotic for Icelanders to enjoy a pint. The day that the law was changed, the 1st March, is now celebrated annually as Beer Day (Bjordagur).

Today in Reykjavík, after admiring Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland with its striking tower, and discovering Harpa, the city’s modern concert hall with its beautiful glass honeycomb design, you thankfully won’t need to go far to find a bar.

Skuli Craft Bar Reykjavik, Iceland

Skúli Craft Bar

Aðalstræti 9 Reykjavík, Iceland

Cosy, elegant and chic, this bar had a good mix of locals and tourists on our visit. There are 14 taps pouring Icelandic beer; the menu proved intimidating with a jumble of English and Icelandic words, but the bartender was happy to give us his recommendation (when prompted). The space is open, bright and there’s even a dartboard tucked behind the main seating area of the bar. We were content to linger here as the skies opened up and the rain beat down on the city.

Micro Bar Reykjavik, Iceland

Micro Bar

Vesturgata 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

Descending a staircase into the basement of Restaurant Reykjavík will bring you to the dimly lit and cavernous Micro Bar. When we visited, it was mostly populated by English-speaking tourists grazing on beer flights – even a small craft beer tour group – so we pulled up seats at the bar. This is one of Iceland’s oldest craft beer bars and offers a choice of 14 local beers, but we found that the quality of the beer varied greatly; while a gose and a witbier impressed, all of the lagers that we tried missed the mark, serving as a reminder of how nascent the craft beer scene is in the country.

Mikkeller & Friends Reykjavik, Iceland

Mikkeller & Friends

Hverfisgata 12, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

While London has yet to see its Mikkeller bar open, Reykjavík has been home to one since early 2015. Located in one of the oldest buildings in the 101 area, the house once contained the city’s first X-Ray machine. Inside is like a maze, but ascend the stairs (or ask for directions) and you’ll find the bar. On your way up, keep your eyes peeled for an unnamed cocktail bar and DILL Restaurant, which received Iceland’s first Michelin star last year, spread across other floors of the house. Once you find it, the Mikkeller bar is a characterful space with plenty of dark wood features contrasted with bright circus-themed accents. On the chalkboard behind the cramped bar are 20 beers to choose from, which included familiar examples from Mikkeller’s own range and To Øl on our visit. Of all the bars we enjoyed, this was by far the most popular with the locals.

Within eyeshot of our Airbnb, we stumbled upon the makings of a BrewDog, the familiar blue and white crest swinging in the breeze. It was still under construction, but it seems that the demand for craft beer in they city has caught the attention of some big players. The landscape is rapidly changing – there’s still some work to do when it comes to the quality of the beer – but that undoubtedly improve as the industry grows.

Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, referring to its ever-changing frozen landscape and dynamic volcanoes. As the country learns to embrace beer again and make it their own, there is boundless potential for the coming years of drinking. Craft beer isn’t the only reason that you should visit this magnificent country, of course – but it’s becoming a stronger incentive.

2016 in review: The new East London pub crawl

Yes, 2016 has been an exhilarating year on a number of fronts. Following from last week’s post on two events that didn’t make the Brewing East editorial cut, there’s still more to chuck into the ring. One of the most significant triumphs this year has been the growing list of new places to find beer in East London. Homerton and Limehouse hosted two prodigious openings this month alone.

But first, an event held at my current favourite drinking haven.

Mason & Co’s Northern powerhouse takeover (Thursday, 20 – Sunday, 23 October 2016)

Perhaps the most welcome addition to the East London landscape is Mason & Company, a taproom-style bar situated in the new Here East development in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Brainchild of Ed Mason, owner of The Five Points Brewing Company, this venue lies between Stratford and Hackney Wick. Previously, only Tap East, a diamond in rough plonked down in the behemoth Westfield Shopping Centre, excelled as an oasis for good quality beer on keg and cask in the E20 postcode.

Since June of this year, Mason & Co have hosted a series of events, including tap takeovers from the likes of Beavertown Brewery and Cloudwater Brew Co and a Thanksgiving feast for American ex-pats (or merely the eternally hungry). Their kitchen is manned by Capish?, who serve up legendary meatball subs slathered in their trademark marinara sauce or chicken parm sandwiches that hit the spot every time. 

Their excellent Northern Powerhouse Takeover event showcased an expansive selection of beers from breweries up North. The beer list ranged from old favourites to the rare, with a couple of collaborations thrown into the mix. For an astounding five quid, a wristband could be purchased that entitled drinkers to three 1/3 pint servings of the beer and a souvenir Mason & Co branded teku glass.

Some of the featured breweries included Northern Monk Brew Co, Magic Rock Brewing Co, Wylam Brewery and Track Brewing Co. I remember the beers that I tried, which were surprising and excellent in equal measures. First was Attack on the Bounty, a coconut black IPA developed by Northern Monk with tattoo artist and illustrator James Butler and Siren Craft Brew. It was packed with tropical flavours with strong aromas of coconut and pineapple. Opaque inky black with the addition of some roasted malts, imparting rich chocolate notes, this was a liquid marriage of a Bounty Bar and a piña colada. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it resonated with me.

This was followed by my first taste of the juicy Hypnotist from Magic Rock, a modern take on a hazy New England IPA, and Hops ft. Epic, another IPA from Northern Monk alongside Epic Brewing Company from New Zealand.

All in all, it was fantastic value for three gorgeous and memorable beers. The event had attracted some large groups who were happy to put a few fivers down and work through the menu. It was one of the most fruitful Saturday afternoons spent in 2016.

Craft Beer Co Limehouse opening (Tuesday, 6 December, 2016)

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The preview party for E15’s Craft Beer Co christened the new venture, which lies adjacent to the Limehouse DLR station and offers the area a fresh prospect for a varied beer selection. Across 21 taps and 6 cask lines, the selection on the night was solid and a crowd of brewery representatives showed up for the occasion. Little Things that Kill, a session IPA from Weird Beard Brew Co and Tartelette from Redchurch Brewery’s Urban Farmhouse project tasted beautiful and fresh. The Siren Craft Brew’s Squealer, a Sour/Berliner Weisse fermented with raspberries, was one of the most talked about beers of the evening – and the keg had shown up just the day before, so it was a late addition to the inaugural line-up.

The venue is comfortable and convenient if you're in the area. Management and staff were enthusiastic and helpful and it’s been a bustling spot since it opened to the public. Patrons are assured an extensive selection of rotating beers as expected from Craft Beer Co in a small, but very comfortable, setting.

BrewDog Homerton opening (Friday, 2 December 2016)

Some will remember the locally-loved Hommerton pub, The Plough, which closed its doors last year to much anguish. Today, in its place is a shiny new addition to the BrewDog franchise. This BrewDog boasts more casual environs when compared to its larger, more ostentatious central manifestations. It’s a softened, watered-down incarnation without the heavily industrial touches of exposed piping and ventilation systems. Instead, it’s a neighbourhood convening point with couches, group tables and some stools pulled up at the bar. There’s no lit-up marquee display of the beers on offer, instead a wall of A4 papers displayed on clipboards on plywood. There’s a roaring pizza oven and a tidy food menu that caters to carnivores and vegans alike. Local guests have consistently included Hackney’s The Five Points Brewing Co.

This subtle incarnation of a BrewDog bar seems to have slipped under the radar, despite being only a few minutes away equidistantly from the Homerton and Hackney Central overground stations. The staff are enthusiastic and passionate about beer and the Assistant Manager is friendly with a vast knowledge about everything on tap. It’s another worthwhile addition to East London and only a moment away from the excellent community-saved Chesham Arms, making a pub crawl across Homerton and Hackney something to get into your 2017 diary.