Beer in Iceland: Everything You Need to Know

Beer in Iceland: Everything You Need to Know

James Taylor James Taylor
5. Jun 2023 ∼ 6 min. read

The History of Beer in Iceland

Delve into the diverse and vibrant world of Icelandic beer with our comprehensive guide, "Beer in Iceland: Everything You Need to Know." To fully savor the unique brews across the country, consider the convenience and flexibility of renting a camper van in Iceland. Renting a camper van not only allows you to explore the best breweries at your own pace but also provides a comfortable and mobile base for your beer-tasting adventure. From the craft beer scene in Reykjavik to the remote microbreweries tucked away in the countryside, a camper van ensures that your journey through the Icelandic beer culture is as enjoyable as it is immersive.

The Beer Prohibition

One of the main talking points that comes up when discussing beer in Iceland is the fact that it was banned up until 1989. The Icelandic beer ban stretched from 1915 to 1989 as part of a larger prohibition, which also included wine and spirits. However, Iceland was selling a lot of salted cod to Spain at the time, who became angry when suddenly Iceland stopped buying their wines – soon after, the wine ban was lifted. The ban on spirits was also lifted after just two decades, but beer remained a banned substance. And why was that the case?

The answer lies with the perception that Icelanders had with drinking beer. It was a drink associated with the Danish, and at a time when Iceland was struggling to gain their independence from Denmark, most wanted nothing to do with beer. The Icelandic government believed that drinking beer led to anti-social and undesirable behavior and were also afraid that it would lead to a big problem with alcohol abuse as well. 

But just like in America, there were ways around the prohibition. Alcohol-free beers were available, and some people simply poured a shot of Brennivín (the Icelandic Black Death) into their pints. Fishermen also smuggled cases of beer into the country, storing it in their garages and gifting it out to their friends. There was also an uptick in homebrewing, with Icelanders across the country brewing potent liquor in their garages. 

The Slow Path to Legalization

Soon, cracks begun to show in Iceland’s ban on beer. Where once there was widespread support for full prohibition, Icelanders began to look on with envy at other European countries where beer bans had been lifted. Still, in Iceland, any beers above 2.25% remained banned. 

In was in the 1970s, and the rise of the city break tourism, that the tide began to turn for good. London became a hot spot for Icelanders to go on shopping trips, and while there, they would of course venture into the pubs for meals and drinks. Suddenly, this was something that Icelanders wanted back home, a warm and cozy place to gather in the evenings and enjoy a drink and conversation with friends. The mounting pressure caused a law to be passed in 1979 that gave all Icelanders the right to bring duty-free beer into Iceland – not just pilots and other airline staff. It became a tradition to buy beer and other alcohol in the airport when returning home, and one that has stuck to this day. As you arrive in Iceland, tourists might head straight to the baggage carousel, but Icelanders will head straight into the duty-free shop to stock up. 

Finally, in 1989, the beer ban was lifted completely and met with raucous celebrations in pubs around Iceland. The day became officially known as Beer Day, although you won’t find many big celebrations.  

The Unique Characteristics of Icelandic Beer

Since the ban was lifted, Iceland has developed quite a strong brewing scene. There are intrepid Icelanders around the country creating delicious craft beers, and like most good brewers, pushing the limits of flavor by experimenting with whatever they have on hand. 

Locally Sourced Ingredients

Icelandic craft beer is renowned for its emphasis on using locally sourced ingredients, harnessing the unique flavors and qualities of the region. Craft brewers in Iceland take advantage of the country's pristine environment, which provides access to pure glacial water, an abundance of unique Arctic herbs, and other interesting Icelandic ingredients such as rhubarb, wild berries, seaweed, and more.   

Arctic herbs in Iceland

Icelandic Craft Beer

Icelandic craft beer combines traditional brewing methods with a modern twist, resulting in beers that reflect both Icelandic heritage and innovation. Craft brewers often draw inspiration from historical brewing practices, incorporating traditional techniques and the olden-day recipes. However, they also embrace modern advancements in brewing technology and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of flavor and style with the help of all those fantastic Icelandic ingredients. This fusion of tradition, modernity, and unique ingredients create a dynamic craft beer scene in Iceland.

Exploration of Unique Flavors and Styles

Craft brewers in Iceland have a penchant for exploring unique flavors and styles using all these ingredients on offer. The result is a diverse range of beers that are different every year. Whether it’s a darker beer with subtle hints of wasabi grown in East Iceland or a crisp ale that incorporates wild berries, there’s an adventurous amount of flavor combinations possible. 

Berries from Iceland

This is just one of the reasons why the Icelandic craft beer scene is so interesting, with brewers thriving in the pursuit of new and exciting flavor profiles. Iceland isn’t just a place to visit for its fantastical landscape; combined with a fast-growing craft beer scene if you’re a beer enthusiast Iceland should be on your radar for a trip.

The Best Craft Beer Breweries in Iceland

If you’re keen to sample some Icelandic craft beer on your campervan trip around Iceland, we’ve got you covered. This article rounds up all the current craft beer breweries on offer around the country, letting you plan to camp some nights near a brewery. We update this article every year as well. 

Icelandic Summer and Winter Beers

Another important thing about the Icelandic beer culture is the abundance of summer beers and winter (i.e., Christmas) beers. These are specially made brews for the seasons, with all of Iceland’s major brewers taking part and producing something unique each year. 

Summer beers are meant for the long evenings of daylight, crisp and fresh, often infused with the sweet flavors of foraged berries that grow across Icelandic in the warmer months. Lighter ales and lagers, they’re the perfect end to a long day of exploring, sitting in the quiet golden light of a summer evening. 

Winter beers, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. These are the dark and full-bodied beers, meant to leave you warm and satisfied on a cold, Icelandic night. Subtle hints of things like caramel, smoked barley or whiskey, and others bring a comforting taste. 

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