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.
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.
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.
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.