Today is “Beer Day” in Iceland. On this day in 1989 – yes, 1989- beer became legal in Iceland after a long and arduous struggle with prohibition. This is the story of beer’s long journey through the Land of Fire and Ice.
The country of Iceland is known for its sagas, epic myths and legends that tell the history of the island nation from its founding and through its often bloody battles with the new religion of Christianity. But there is another saga, another epic journey that remains unknown to most people outside of the country: the journey of beer. This intrepid beverage, enjoyed around the world for, took almost the entire 20th century to claw its way out of rabid disfavor to become the most popular alcoholic beverages in the country. So pull a seat up to the fire as recount the history of beer in Iceland…
In early times, Icelanders drank their share of both beer and mead, but much like the United States, the temperance movement began to rise in the early 1900’s. Beyond the normal religious arguments against alcohol at the time, imbibing had also come to be viewed as unpatriotic. The grains necessary to make beer could not be grown in Iceland’s climate and had to be imported. Iceland was struggling for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders began to associate consumption of it with their unpopular rulers. The Danes apparently enjoyed lots of alcohol, especially beer, and so doing the opposite of what they did came to be seen as patriotic.
In 1908, shortly after gaining home rule, a little over 60% of Icelanders voted for full prohibition. The law didn’t take effect until 1915, but for a short time all alcohol was banned on the island. It didn’t last long. Spain, a major producer of wine, stepped in and made a threat. They threatened to embargo all imports of cod, Iceland’s top export, if the Iceland didn’t re-legalize spirits. So for economic reasons, a deal was made and the island legalized wine – but only red and rosé wine, and only from Spain and Portugal. Beer was still disparaged and discouraged.
It remained that way for 12 years. Then, in 1933 the country allowed a vote on legalization of hard spirits. 57% of the citizens voted to bring back booze, but resistance against beer remained strong. The pro-temperance and anti-beer forces argued that beer’s cheaper price would lead to increased rates of alcoholism. They were successful. That means that from 1933 to 1989, Icelanders could drink all the wine and hard spirits they wanted, but they could not legally drink any beer containing more than 2.25% alcohol.
It gets stranger. As World War II gripped the region, Great Britain and the U.S. saw Iceland’s position halfway between Europe and North America as a strategic necessity. Likewise, Iceland had no interest in being invaded by the Nazis. So, with government permission, British forces took over a strategic area on a western peninsula (now the international airport) to upgrade it into a military base. The British soldiers liked their beer, but were dismayed to find that the pints they so commonly found in London pubs were outlawed in Iceland.
Once again, Iceland changed its laws to appease another country, but only slightly. With special dispensation from the King of Denmark, they opened exactly one legal brewery and allowed it to brew beer, but only to be “exported” to the British at the military base. Suffice it to say that jobs on the base were in high demand with the locals.Beer remained illegal to all those outside the base, but contact with other nations had awakened Iceland’s taste for a good brew. For decades, only airline workers, boat captains, and others whose job took them overseas had access to beer. An exception to the law allowed some of these people as well as foreign tourists to bring beer into the country. They did this, but often sold it on the black market to taxi drivers, who would keep cases in their trunks. If anyone called a cab company and asked for a “good taxi,” cab drivers knew what that meant: a little chance to profit from selling brews on the down low.
Locals did other strange thing to satisfy their growing taste for this elusive beverage. Since 2.25% beer was prohibited, but the hard stuff was perfectly legal, they got creative. And not in a good way. They developed a sort of beer cocktail. It started with a pitcher of the legal, low-alcohol beer. The bartender would then dump copious amounts of vodka and Brennivin, Iceland’s national schnapps, into the pitcher to create a cocktail that was both strong and patriotic. The thing is, Brennivin (AKA “Burning Wine” or “Black Death”) is flavored with caraway seeds, so it has the distinct flavor of rye bread. Use your imagination. I tried this concoction in Reykjavik. It was terrible. Yet, this was what passed for Icelandic beer through most of the last century.Pressure built through the 70’s and 80’s. Beer was available out of taxis for anyone who wanted it. The import law was challenged in 1979, and suddenly any Icelander could import beer duty free. They did so with abandon. Beer was being consumed around the island, but the government was getting no benefit from taxation. As so often happens, it was the money issue that finally swayed the people to legalize the drink. On March 1, 1989 Icelanders bought their first legal beers in almost a century. They celebrated in ways you can probably imagine. Today, it is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country. Beer had achieved victory! So today, raise a pint to Icelandic Beer Day and remember all who fought and drank for the right of others to do so. Cheers- or as they say in Iceland- Skoal!