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Beer in Iceland

REYKJAVIK, Iceland- Real beer — that which exceeds 2.25% alcohol — was illegal in Iceland until March 1, 1989. This day marked the end of a long prohibition period in the country, and has been celebrated ever after as “Beer Day” — the day that Icelanders could desist from mixing vodka and home brew liquor with with their low [...]

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland- Real beer — that which exceeds 2.25% alcohol — was illegal in Iceland until March 1, 1989. This day marked the end of a long prohibition period in the country, and has been celebrated ever after as “Beer Day” — the day that Icelanders could desist from mixing vodka and home brew liquor with with their low alcohol beer. But the end of prohibition in no way lead to a liberated beer front in this country.


French traveler with Icelandic beer

“It is light beer, are you sure you want it?”the girl behind a counter in a gas station warned Pierre. When he replied in the affirmative, she looked at him like he was a royal wimp. It was a worthy warning on her part, as what is known as “light beer” or “Pilsner” in Iceland is not really beer at all. In fact, I’d dub this stuff a “beer like product,” as, at no more than 2.25% alcohol, it is not truly acknowledged as a beer — even in Iceland. But this is the “beer” that is most readily available and affordable in this country. This is the “beer” that is sold in gas stations and supermarkets and restaurants in Iceland for what seems like a reasonable price. But few people buy it, and it usually just sits on the bottom shelf of these facilities collecting dust, with the only hope of being purchased falling to a wayward tourist who does not full understand the implications of his purchase.

Most Icelanders prefer what could be called “real beer,” which is what the world just calls “beer.” According to its 5 to 8 percent alcohol content, this stuff is the drink we all have grown to love. But this beverage is only available in bars and government sponsored liquor stores which tend to have repressively short hours.

Real beer in Iceland also costs roughly five to eight times more than its “light” beer impostor. It is possible to get a half liter of light beer in a grocery store for 100 krona — a little under 1 USD. But for a similar size “real” beer you are looking at spending 400 to 800 krona. This is an incredible mark up for the couple additional points of alcohol percentage, but most Icelanders pay up.

You may reason here that Icelanders could just drink 4 times as many light beers and get twice as drunk as they could for the same price as drinking “real”beer, but it doesn’t really work like that:

Light beer — perhaps by design — is such a disgusting concoction that it defies even the boldest attempts to consume it. One pint is all I have ever been able to stomach (and this is just barely) in any one sitting. On a couple occasions I have picked up a can of light beer with the plan of enjoying it while sitting out at camp while considering the lilies and mountains. But I invariably just end up taking a few sips and tossing the disgusting liquid in the trash: it is truly THAT bad. Getting drunk off this stuff is truly not an option, and this comes from a guy who spent his youth shot gunning hundreds of cans of Natural Ice, Pap’s, and Genesee. Like how the couch syrup companies combine chemicals in their product to make people vomit who attempt an intentional overdose for narcotic purposes, Icelandic light beer provokes a similar gag reflex. It is my impression that only us tourists are dumb enough to drink this shit. In point, light beer is not worth the low price or the time and effort required to consume it.

Icelandic stout beer

In Iceland, “real” beer is the only option. But this substance is highly taxed by the government and its sale stringently regulated. The Icelandic government often bulks at claiming they know the habits of their people well, and seems prone to devising rather invasive legal strategies to mold the shape and behavior of their society. Six months of winter without daylight, a high rate of unemployment, rampant under-employment, a cold climate, and a population that tends to find great solace in getting drunk, has provoked the government to turn nanny and tax the hell out of a substance that many people in this country seem to truly enjoy consuming.

Perhaps this is a wise move — very rarely have I seen daytime, Sunday – Thursday drunks stumbling through the streets of Iceland — perhaps it is just another way for government to control a population, shape-shift behavior, and spin revenue off of a voluntary tax. Either way, drinking in Iceland is an investment — and one that very few people can afford to do over a couple of times per week. On Sunday through Thursday Iceland seems like it is run by Mormons, while Friday and Saturday nights the bulkheads are flung open and beer and drunken extravagance flows freely through the streets.

But in this climate, many seem to find that even the “real” beers in Iceland tend to come up lacking on a global scale. I have no explanation for this, as Iceland seems to value beer very highly.

“Do you like this beer?” a guy who gave me a beer at a bar in Olafsvik asked me. Knowing that most men of the world tend to be proud of their country’s beer and not wanting to offend a guy who was sharing his drink with me on such a trivial technicality, I nodded in the affirmative.

“Yes, this Viking beer is pretty good.”

“You lie!” he roared while smashing the bottle upon the ground, “this beer is shit!”


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Filed under: Alcohol, Europe, Food, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • Seth Barham December 5, 2011, 4:51 pm

    This policy is very similar for all of the Nordic/Scandinavian countries, with good ole Denmark being the exception. Since I have been studying in Sweden, I have never gotten used to the Systembolaget, the state alcohol monopoly. You cannot buy a beer higher than 3.5% anywhere, unless it’s in these stores or a bar. Needless to say, drinking a 3.5% Corona was very interesting.

    It has good hours during the week, but it’s very sneaky on the weekends. They close at 3pm on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays, so if you forget, the government is basically jumping with glee because that’s one less drunk they have to deal with on the weekends. And they know you won’t go to a bar to get drunk…who spends $8 a beer?

    I’m very fortunate to be about a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen, where the beer is significantly cheaper, can be bought at a 7/11, and comes in cases. So whenever I’m in the area, I bring my backpacking pack.

    I’m actually going to be in Iceland in two weeks, so it will be interesting to see how these super regulatory systems compare. As for the beer itself, Swedish beer in general tastes terrible, with a few exceptions…

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    • Wade Shepard December 5, 2011, 5:57 pm

      Yes, the Scandinavian beer system is pretty nuts, Let us know how Iceland compares with the rest of the region. Good luck drinking in Iceland, the beer is pretty bad there too, but there are a few “warm up” bars in Reykjavik that sell drinks for $5. Not good, but probably the best price you can get while out.

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