What is the best beer in Iceland? Where can you find the best beers? Do Icelanders brew their own, or is all beer in Iceland imported? Read ahead to learn about the top nine beers in Iceland.
Photo above from Guided 2.5 Hour Reykjavik Beer & Schnapps Walking Tour
Beer has always been my tipple of choice, and since coming to Iceland, I have been delighted by the enormous selection on offer. There are hundreds of different brands from dozens of different breweries, who are in a constant state of competition to produce the most unique and delicious lagers and ales on the market.
It seems that half of the country is invested in the craft-beer mania, with new labels and microbreweries emerging all the time. It is almost inconceivable, therefore, that beer has only been legal in Iceland for around three decades; it was banned for nearly a century, from 1915 to 1989.
Initially, this was part of a complete prohibition throughout the country; wine and spirits, however, were decriminalised within two decades. The reason it took so much longer for beer to finally be legal again was the belief that it fed into loutish, anti-social behaviour.
As a Brit who has been dragged to several football games, I reluctantly can concede I understand; regardless, most Icelanders grew to share my opinion that such a ban was nothing short of appalling.
In 1989, the government finally came around to the idea of legalising the sweet nectar, starting to value the freedom to choose your beverage over antiquated stereotypes of the traditional beer drinker, and the nation rejoiced. The first beer was served at the bar Gaukurinn, which today is a premiere venue for live events, particularly heavy metal and drag shows.
After initially getting over the excitement of being able to enjoy a nice cold lager or warm ale, however, Icelanders decided that it was not just economical to start brewing their own beverages; this was also a way by which they could bottle and market their national identity. From modest beginnings, a culture of craft breweries blossomed into the giant it is today.
But what is the best beer out there? With so many brands on tap and on the shelves (although, sadly, these shelves refer only to those in government-run alcohol shops called Vinbuðin, and of course those at the airport), you could be forgiven for overlooking the Icelandic options and going for a safe, internationally-known choice such as Stella.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Danninja
To do so, however, would rob yourself of a unique taste of Icelandic ingenuity.
I have, therefore, compiled the following list to guide you through a hazy evening of drinking the best beer the country has to offer. To make this list, the beer has to be brewed in Iceland by Icelandic residents, to make sure you are getting an authentic taste of this quirky nation.
If you are into craft beers only and want to experiment with what is on offer, be sure to also check out this guide to the Best Bars for Craft Beer in Reykjavík.
Photo by Borg Brugghus
Úlfur, which translates to ‘Wolf’, is an Indian Pale Ale that is renowned for its hoppy taste, with active elements of grapefruit and pine. It has a vivid golden colour, a frothy head, and a strong, sweet aroma. Though a few find its bitter aftertaste conflicts with its sweetness, it is still very popular. It is available in Vinbuðin, in bottles at many bars, and occasionally on tap in a few, such as Slippbarinn.
Úlfur is just one of dozens of beers produced by Borg Brugghús, a craft brewery that started delighting the palates of Icelanders in 2010 and now has its own bar. Úlfur is 5.9% proof, but as it is usually served in bottle-form for a higher price than the beers on tap, this brew is better for the cultured drinker seeking refreshment, rather than the party-goer looking to forget a great night.
Kaldi Blonde is the most popular bottled beer in Iceland, and it is little wonder why. Brewed in the Pilsner tradition and inspired by Czech lager, it is a coppery, golden colour, with a smooth texture and tantalising, bitter taste from the roasted malt. At 5% proof, it is a great ‘after-work’ beer; at the bottom of the bottle, you are sure to be refreshed with the weight of the day off your shoulders.
Kaldi Blonde was the first beer produced by the brewery Bruggsmiðjan Kaldi, which was formed in 2006. Its popularity allowed the craft supplier to flourish, and produce many other brands. Today, they even have a bar, called Kaldi, where you can get Blonde on tap, as well as many of their other unique and delicious labels.
Bruggsmiðjan Kaldi is a notable brewery in the sense that it does not add any sugar or preservatives to any of its beers.
Photo from Borg Brugghús
The reason they have made this list, and are tying for a place, is the fact they were selected for their strength. At 14.5% ABV, a bottle of either is only for the responsible drinker.
Which one you select is entirely down to taste. Both are very dark, but while the 8.2 has a vanilla tang to it and a heady, oaky aroma, the 8.4 is bitterer, with elements of liquorice, dark chocolate, coffee and burnt sugar.
Photo from Borg Brugghús
Bríó is another Borg Brugghús beer, that can be found on tap in many bars. With an earthy, biscuity aroma and taste, sweet undertones, a velvety texture, and foamy head, it is a delicious choice of tipple for a night out. It is not remarkably special in any way, but a very decent, solid beer than many connoisseurs will be surprised at how much they enjoy.
Bríó has a very standard 4.5% proof, thus you are pretty safe having a few without becoming too tipsy. In 2012, it won the 'World's Best Pilsner' category at the World Beer Cup. It's name means joy, vigor and vitality.
Photo from Einstok
Fifth place is also a tie, between the four most readily available Einstök ales; the White Ale, Arctic Pale Ale, Toasted Porter, and Wee Heavy. All produced by the Einstök brewery in Akureyri, each brand is the result of years of hard work, testing, and ingenious new ideas. They are also all renowned for their use of Icelandic ingredients.
The reason they are tied is due to their high quality of production; the best will depend entirely on your taste. Personally, I most enjoy the White Ale, which is one of the most refreshing beers I’ve ever had, tinged with orange peel and coriander. The Arctic Pale Ale uses three different kinds of hops for its unique flavour, which will remind the experienced of the great American style of beer production. These beers are 5.2% ABV and 5.6% ABV respectively.
For something darker and stronger, you may prefer the Toasted Porter, which has delicious bitter elements such as dark chocolate and toffee. Although its black colour makes it look very noxious, it is a relatively average strength of 6% ABV and is very smooth to drink. For something stronger, however, you could go with the Wee Heavy, which, as its name suggests is heavily inspired by Scotland; it is 8% ABV.
Einstök is notable in the sense that it does not throw out beers unless the brewery is confident they are up to standard. They also, however, produce some amazing seasonal beers, that fall short of this list only due to their lack of availability.
I confess to liking a fruity beer; every summer, therefore, I am thrilled at the return of the Arctic Berry Ale, which is flavoured with hand-picked bilberries in Iceland. The Winter Ale, however, is also a welcome arrival, due to its smoky, chocolatey taste, perfect for staving off the cold; it’s 8% ABV helps with the winter weather too. Over Christmas, you can indulge in the festive Doppelbock Ale, which is malty, also chocolatey, and extremely delicious.
Photo from Borg Brugghús
Another beer produced by Borg Brugghús to make it on this list is Leifur, named after Leif Eriksson, the first European to settle the Americas, and one of Iceland’s oldest heroes. As ambitious as its namesake, Leifur Nr. 32 seeks to blend the ingredients of this country’s nature with a Belgian Saison style. It does so very successfully.
As you sip Leifur, you can taste the Arctic Thyme and heather. In spite of these sweetening flavours, it is still a bitter ale, which gets even bitterer and drier the further into your gulp. Though an acquired taste for this reason, it one of my personal favourites, and near essential-drinking for those who seek to experience true Icelandic flavour.
Photo from Borg Brugghús
The bronze medal winner in our list of top nine beers of Iceland is the final one from the Borg Brugghús brewery, Surtur Nr. 47, an Imperial Stout. Surtur Nr. 47 was recommended for this list by a visitor to Iceland when another was removed after it was discontinued; following a single sip, it instantly found its place in the top three.
The most notable thing about this stout is its scent; the aroma of strong, freshly made coffee is a powerful punch and a good indicator of how refreshing this beer is. In terms of flavour, the theme of coffee is continued, with elements of burned sugar and chocolate joining the party. The coffee used in the production of Surtur Nr. 47 is, in fact, roasted by Iceland’s most popular cafe, Te & Kaffi, outlets of which can be found across the country.
The product is named after a malevolent giant in Old Norse Mythology, Surtr. This monstrous creature, with his sword of flames, is prophesied to help bring about Ragnarök, the end of the world. With its delicious taste but surprisingly powerful 10% alcohol content, be sure to drink it responsibly, or else it may fulfil its namesake and help bring a swift end to your evening.
Photo from Gædingur
Beer and chocolate compose the vast majority of my diet, so if I have enough in my account to justify more than a Viking Classic and a Mars bar, Gædingur Stout is where I turn. The fusions of the flavours are unmatched; with caramel, chocolate, coffee, and earthy, almost straw-like tones, it is nothing short of succulent.
This stout is also produced by the micro-brewery Gædingur. It can be bought bottled from Vinbuðin, or at special bars that focus on craft beer, such as Microbar. At Microbar, you can also indulge in Gædingur’s other flavours, which rotate on the tap.
Photo from Ölvisholt Brugghús
Produced by Ölvisholt Brugghús, a brewery in Selfoss, Lava Beer is one of the most internationally renowned of all produced in Iceland. A Russian Imperial Stout with 9.6% ABV, it is a pitch-black beer flavoured with dark chocolate, roasted malt and smoke, with a dark brown head. In 2012, Lava won the US Open Beer Championship contest for the best imperial smoked beer.
One sip will reveal why, and why I consider it to be the best beer in Iceland.
The Ölvisholt Brugghús brewery has been operating since 2007 and has several other beers on the market year-round, with some seasonal options.
One beer that I wish could make it onto this list is the Mikkeller Hverfisgata Spontanale. Available only at Mikkeller and Friends, it was the only beer I managed to get for free when telling bar-staff about this article (in spite of many, many failed requests).
While of course, free beer is the most delicious beer, I was also captured by the many unique flavours hiding within its cloudy golden body. Unfortunately, it falls short of the top-ten only as it is produced in Belgium and Denmark.
International inspiration and national ingenuity seem to be the two main ingredients in Iceland’s craft beers, and the results of their combination have allowed the industry to blossom beautifully over thirty years. Whether you like your beer light or dark, sweet or bitter, noxious or mild - even if you exclusively like certain styles, such as Indian Pale Ales or German Gose - you’ll no doubt find what you are looking for.
This top-ten list is based on my (admittedly very broad) personal tastes, from the whole range on offer. Although you will no doubt find your own favourites, if you are simply trying to get an authentic taste of Iceland, any of the above choices are sure to impress. Experiment, enjoy, and remember to drink responsibly.