Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

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The Saga of Beer in Iceland

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.


The Egill Skallagrimsson Brewery in Reykjavik was theonly legal brewery in the country for decades. [Source: Wikipedia]

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.

Our Icelandic bartender creates the Beer/Brennivin cocktail. [Photo: Tim Titus]

Our Icelandic bartender creates the Beer/Brennivin cocktail. [Photo: Tim Titus]

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!


Icelanders celebrated Beer Liberation on March 1, 1989. [Source: Europeenses]

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!


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My limoncello recipe: With time to make it for Ostara

I posted this last year, and people seemed excited about trying their hand at making their own limoncello.  So why not re-post for those who’s like to try some liquid sunshine this Ostara?

Limoncello is a glass of liquid sunshine.  As the light grows and we approach Ostara, the Spring Equinox where the light overtakes the darkness, there is no better drink to celebrate the season.  Sweet, tart, strong, and delicious, a little glass of limoncello is like drinking in the growing sun.

Some pagans make mead, others brew beer, others steep all sorts of fruits in any strong drink they can find.  I make limoncello.  I first learned of limoncello while traveling in Italy.  We were staying in Sorrento, a seaside town with much the same climate as my native southern California.  The local drink was this delicious concoction of local lemons, sugar, water, and booze.  I had to try it.  After I did, I had to find the recipe.

I acquired this recipe by purchasing an apron with the recipe printed on it (in Italian)  in a touristy gift shop.  I took it home, translated it as best I could, and started making this wonderful little glass of happiness for myself.

It got even better when the lemon tree in our backyard suddenly started producing mounds and mounds of lemons.  I had to find something to do with them – and, strangely, I had just the right idea.  Every March, local newspapers publish story after story about what do with your proliferation of Myer lemons.  Lemon pies, lemon meringue, lemon bars, lemonade – all good ideas, but not nearly as special as this drink.

Last year, limoncello was the product of struggle.   Our beautiful lemon tree caught a nasty disease, and I fought for half of the summer to nurse it back to health.  This year, it is vibrant and healthy, a beautiful pop of sunny yellow that has grown throughout the winter.

Lemon Tree starts limoncello

Our lemon tree healed from its struggle with illness and produced some of the best lemons ever. There’s a lesson there.

So here is my limoncello recipe, loved by everyone who has tried it.  Using lemons off your own tree is wonderful, but you can feel free to use lemons from a grocery store.  The final product is pretty much the same, although our local Myer lemon may be a bit sweeter.  You will need nine days for the lemons to steep in the alcohol, so plan ahead.

Limoncello starts with two major ingredients: lemons and Everclear.  You need the high proof Everclear to really macerate the lemon zest. Later, when the mixture is diluted, you’ll be glad you used the strong stuff.

Lemons for limocello

Our tree’s lemons are huge.

Everclear is better than vodka for limoncello

Use Everclear rather than lower proof alcohol. You’ll be glad you did.



Zest of four lemons

2 cups of Everclear

2 Cups sugar

2 cups water

Wash the lemons.  Peel the zest off of them.  You can use a zester tool for this, but I find that a regular potato peeler works fine – and it’s much quicker.  Just be sure to use a light touch.  You only want the outer, yellow skin.  Leave the white on the lemon.

Tools to zest lemons

You can use a real zester (left) or a potato peeler. I prefer the potato peeler because it’s quick. Be sure to peel only the yellow part of the skin.

Lemons after zesting

Keep the white stuff on the lemons. Use the lemon juice for anything you want: cooking, cocktails, even cleaning.

You’ll be left with a pile of lemon zest.  Place the zest into a mason jar or other sealable jar.

Zest for limoncello

The zest of the lemons is all you need to make limoncello.

Pour the Everclear into the jar.  Seal it.  Label the jar “limoncello” and write the date on it.  Let it sit for nine days.  Shake the jar every day or so.

Lemon zest steeps in alcohol for nine days

Steep the lemon zest in the Everclear for nine days.


After nine days, strain the mixture into a bowl.  Press on the lemon zest to squeeze out as much flavored alcohol as possible.

In a saucepan, combine the water and sugar.  Bring to a full rolling boil and keep it boiling for one minute.  Pour the sugar and water mixture into to lemon-infused alcohol and stir to combine.  While it’s still hot and combined, pour the entire mixture into a bottle that seals.  Let it cool.  Seal it.  Place it in the freezer.

More pictures nine days from now when my current batch is ready!

Serve limoncello super cold, preferably from the freezer, in a cordial glass.  A little goes a long way.

Drink in the spring!