One of the coolest things I was able to do while in Iceland was sit down with the brewers of Borg Brugghús , Sturlaugur Jón Björnsson and Valgeiri Valgeirssyni. They had a lot to say about Icelandic beer culture, the challenges and opportunities, and how they are brewing a craft beer revolution on the island.
The interview doesn't follow the standard pattern, we started at the bottom, worked to the middle, went from the top and ended up off script. So while I could organize it a bit I chose not to and went with the conversation as it occurred over tastings of Borg's excellent brews.
|Valgeiri Valgeirssyni (Valli)|
and Sturlaugur Jón Björnsson (Stulli) are
brewing up an Icelandic beer revolution.
So let's talk about your beer, what is your current line up, what is the current production you have going?
Current production is Brio Beer #1, though it has been moved over to the big brewery to keep up with demand. It is a pilsner, what we are drinking now.
You didn't go with a pale ale?
Stulli: I'm sure that you realize that the beer culture in Iceland is so young, so it is pretty understandable that people just don't know any better. What Valli started with Ölvisholt Brugghús and when I came home what we had on our agendas was to introduce what beer is about, more than what most people think it is.
Has the community been receptive to the new beers?
Stulli: Yes, I would say it has really been going well, a lot of young people of our generation are getting into smaller scale production things and actually wanting to know what they are drinking and thinking about what they are consuming. They are looking for more interesting flavors and stuff like that.
Has the jump for beer and food really taken off here yet?
Stulli: It is something that we are working on. Valli was sort of the trailblazer for beer and food when he was working with a restaurant downtown where they offered a menu paired with beers.
Valli: There has been a big rise in Scandinavia food culture, but the drinks have been a little bit slower taking off, but because there is a high demand for Icelandic food, specialized Icelandic food spiced with Icelandic herbs, naturally they wanted to have Icelandic beverages available with them.
Was there an Icelandic beer before prohibition?
Valli: People say there was a special type before what we call Jólabland. That is an Icelandic Christmas drink mixed with orange soda.
Stulli: I would say if there was it was the maltextrakt, similar to what they have in Germany. Other than that, farther back in the past there wasn't really much of a beer culture anyways. Being such an isolated country with trade routes that weren't very active, only the bare necessities made it here. There really wasn't much demand for the raw ingredients for beer making or for importing beer either.
You can't grow hops here either can you?
Valli: No, and we are barely growing barley as well and that is just a recent thing as well.
Stulli: So the drinking culture here for centuries has been mainly strong liquor when available. Thinking about economics it is much cheaper per alcoholic unit to ship in a barrel of gin or akvavit than a barrel of beer. It would be a waste of space in the ship for cargo.
Prohibition is repealed in 1989, though restrictions on liquor and wine had been lifted much earlier. Why?
Stulli: That's a good question.
Valli: They forgot about it basically.
Stulli: No, I think it was stubbornness, like in politics. It is a serious problem here in Icelandic politics, always has been. Prohibition started in 1915 and a couple of years later because we were refusing to take wine in trade of salt cod the Spaniards and Portuguese said they won't trade with us anymore if you aren't going to be buying our wine. So they allowed the sale and consumption of wine, shortly thereafter because of all sorts of corruption issues with doctor and such they allowed spirits. Spirits were technically legal but you had to get a prescription. So they allowed strong liquor, but probably as a compromise within the Alþingi, the minority would allow that if they did not allow beer. Which is hard to imagine but very likely with how politics are here in Iceland. So it was a very hard stubborn issue of minority that the ban would not allow beer. There were brief discussions in the 80s and finally they allowed it. All of the beer knowledge that Icelanders knew back then was just from going abroad. That was a lot of students going to Denmark and sailors going to Germany. That was mainly what they knew of beer. Of course at the time light lagers where the norm everywhere. It was the high point of light lagers.
So what is the state of beer in Iceland now?
Stulli: I would say, compared to how short of time it has been since beer has been allowed we have come a fairly decent way.
Valli: Compared to that there was absolutely nothing.
It is fascinating that you are located in one of the major producers of beer on the island and they do all the soda.
Stulli: Actually this company was started as a brewery.
Valli: When they started they thought prohibition would go away sooner rather than later. They had two years to produce beer
Stulli: Yes, they then produced non-alcoholic or 'light' beer which is 2.5%ABV, and maltextrakt, and soda. Through various deals this company expanded around the year 2000 and got into wholesale and importing.
It is fascinating that they have taken the chance with Borg to be creative and mad scientists.
Valli: It is a very big step when they decided to do that, personally I don't think they had any idea what they were really going into.
Stulli: No, not at all. When I came here they didn't even know about the things I was talking about, that beer is available in different shades of color and there are different flavors of beer. I don't think that anybody here actually knew how diverse beer could be.
You should have sent them on a field trip to Belgium.
Valli: They would have just drank Stella and found it amazing.
What are your favorite styles?
Valli: Well that varies of course. For me it is the more the merrier. At the moment imperial stouts and double IPAs. The beer geeks favorites.
Stulli: Yes, I really like pretty much everything if it is well done and conditioned. The right atmosphere and right people. If I sit down to enjoy a beer definitely reach for a nice sour Belgian. Back in the day Orval is what got me into loving beer and still is my favorite.
Look for Part 2 tomorrow where Stulli and Valli talk about Borg's reception, if they will be exporting, and other challenges they face.