One of the most interesting things for me about visiting any new country is discovering its beers and bars. So how would I fare in Iceland – a country famed for high prices and one in which beer was illegal until 1989?
Anyone on a tour of Reykjavik’s beer and bar scene should stay in one of the “Character Rooms” in the new extension of the Best Western hotel on Rauðarárstígur, which was once the city’s oldest brewery. There are nods to the buildings brewing past in the rooms, and the chimney on top leaves no mistake. It’s not far from the downtown area, has an included buffet breakfast and has a happy hour at its bar (two drinks for the price of one from 5pm – 7pm).
Before heading out on the town, we organised the proverbial piss up in a brewery and had a couple of cans in our room. It’s worth noting that outside of licensed premises, beer is actually quite hard to get hold of. Supermarkets can only sell beer under 2.2% in strength, which is confusingly called pilsner – anything stronger can only be picked up from one of the state-controlled liquor stores. The duty-free shop at Keflavik’s international airport is another option, and was doing a roaring trade when we landed – it was bizarre to see departing pilots stocking up with crates of beer.
So, how much is a beer in Iceland? Not quite as pricey as I had feared. Expect to pay around 1,000 ISK (£5/$7) for a pint, although there are happy hour deals at most places which are a bit kinder on your wallet. If you download the Reykjavik Appy Hour app, you can see where and when these deals are. For example, a pint at the trendy Kaffibarinn is 1,000 ISK after 8pm, but costs a more manageable 650 ISK (£3/$5) before 8pm.
The most I paid for a beer was 1,100 ISK at the swim-up bar in the Blue Lagoon, the country’s biggest tourist trap. However, this was one of the more memorable pints I will ever have – drinking outdoors in a snowstorm wearing swimming trunks in the world’s best bathtub. Drinking in Reykjavik is actually cheaper than places like Dublin and Amsterdam, and although we didn’t see any stag dos/bachelor parties, I could see it developing in that kind of tourism.
Before I talk about beers and bars, here’s a bit of history that might surprise you. Prohibition was introduced in Iceland in 1915, and although spirits and wine were later allowed, beer was still outlawed until 1989. The beer ban was finally lifted on 1st March that year, a day celebrated annually by the nation as Beer Day. Beer festivals, pub-crawls and drunken debauchery allegedly ensue. I’d loved to have experienced Beer Day in the bars of Reykjavik, but unfortunately got there four days too late!
Our first beer stop was the infamous Kaffibarinn (Bergstaðastræti 1). Every blog and guidebook mentions this place, saying it’s one of Reykjavik’s coolest hipster hangouts. With its London Underground sign above the entrance, it was always going to be a favourite of Blur’s Damon Albarn. According to legend, he went to Iceland to re-charge his creative batteries in the mid ’90s, passed out in Kaffibarinn two nights in a row and then on the third night decided to buy a share in it. Apologies for the rather, ahem, blurred photo below.
I was expecting it to be full of raucous locals, but was a bit disappointed to see it full of American tourists instead. We did visit on a Thursday though – Icelanders are supposed to do their drinking on weekend nights. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Wednesday night, there is free cheese on offer.
Reykjavik’s main drag is called Laugavegur which merges into Bankastræti. On Friday during happy hour we popped into the busy Prikið (Bankastræti 12), which seemed more like the real deal – at least there were more beards here. Prikið is the oldest bar in Reykjavik, and I’m not sure the gents toilets have been cleaned since it opened, so after paying a bargain 1,000 ISK for two beers, we supped up and moved on to Kaldi (Laugavegur 20b).
I only chose to go to Kaldi as it shares its name with my boss at work, so I wasn’t expecting much and didn’t recall reading about it in any guidebooks. Maybe that’s the reason it seemed to be the place to be in Reykjavik. The bouncer let us squeeze in, while locals were happy to wait in line outside in freezing cold and snowy conditions to get in.
Not only is Kaldi the name of a bar, it is also the name of the beer on sale there. Kaldi is one of several micro-breweries that have sprung-up in Iceland since 1989 making craft beer. There are several varieties of Kaldi – IPA, Lite, dark lager and light lager. The owners are big fans of Czech beer, so they import hops, barley and malt from the Czech Republic and even employ a Czech brew-master.
A good place to sample more of these local craft beers, and bottled Belgian and German beers, is Micro Bar (Austurstræti 6) – if you can’t find it, persevere, as it’s a tiny place hidden behind a hotel foyer.
In addition to these relatively new beers, there are beers made by breweries that were in existence before prohibition began. The most prevalent of those seemed to be Gull, which is what I drank at the Blue Lagoon. It’s a very palatable thirst-quencher and is proud of the fact it is made from Icelandic barley and Icelandic water – the clearest you will ever taste.
On the transfer back to the airport, I noticed a bar I’d have loved to have visited – Mikkeller & Friends, from the cult Danish gypsy brewery, Mikkeller. A bit of a coup, I thought, for Reykjavik to host a bar from everyone’s favourite craft beer manufacturer, and one of the many reasons I’ll be returning to this wonderful country soon.