Beer in Iceland has had a long and troubled history, dating back to when the island was first settled by Norsemen in the mid-800's. Production was difficult and spotty - the country, though notoriously green (unlike Greenland), is too cold for barley to grow in any substantial way. Combine that with the fact that, for most of the 20th century, beer was either outlawed or regulated to within an inch of its life, and it appears miraculous that Iceland has any beer at all.
They do have beer, however, and it's pretty dang good. Since the final restrictions on beer were lifted in 1989, finally allowing brews above 2.25% ABV, Iceland has grown a small, but respectable, brewing industry. Our first beer was from one of the very few Icelandic breweries to establish a foothold in the US, Einstök Beer Co., a leader in the Icelandic craft beer scene. The rest were from Brugghús Steðja (brugghús means "brewery") and came in a diverse and flavorful sampler actually procured for us in Iceland. We here at Brooklyn Brew Shop are always fascinated by the flavors that arise in foreign beer markets. Let's take a look at some of Iceland's intriguing offerings.
Einstök has climbed to international acclaim while managing to remain mostly shrouded in self-imposed mystery. Information on the brewery is limited, but we do know that it's just 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and that they use water that they claim comes from "prehistoric glaciers" and "ancient lava fields." Paleozoic water notwithstanding, the Icelandic Pale Ale has always been and continues to be Einstök's flagship brew. It poured crystal clear, with a light, orangey amber color and a small, bone-colored head.
On the nose, the Icelandic Pale was hoppy and herbal with a faint sweetness, a combination that inspired multiple calls of "Riiiicoolaaaaaaa" from around the group. The taste was balanced, with a real sense of polish. Resinous pine notes emerged, without being sticky, and though the beer started tame, it built at a glacial pace to a pleasantly bitter finish. The few who hadn't tried Einstök's brews before were surprised they'd never given it a try - it's pleasant, but unique, with immense drinkability.
Like Einstök, Stedji is also highly interested in crafting their own mythos. The brewery draws its name from a towering rock formation nearby in the shape of an anvil (Stedji means "anvil"). They also call their location on the west coast of Iceland "a place of folklore and magic." Sure, why not? Whatever you want, Stedji.
The first beer in their sampler pack translates to "summer beer," and it fits the description well. The Sumar is an astonishingly light beer, looking like ginger ale or cream soda more than beer. The nose closed that gap, however, containing clear notes of caramel malts and creamed corn, giving it an earthy warmth that then followed through on the tongue. Slightly buttery and malt-forward, with a clean corn detail and effervescent mouthfeel, the Sumar is simple and should be refreshing during its titular season.
"Stedji beer is not just a beer, it's an alchemy of pure genius." This is, hands-down, our favorite quote from the Stedji website, and the Dokkur was probably our favorite of the tasting. Its name means "dark beer," though it was not the darkest we tried. Instead, this filtered, alt-esque brew poured a beautiful copper color, with a rocky head the color of bread dough.
Intriguingly, the Dokkur and the Reyktur (the last beer of the tasting) both follow the traditional Bavarian brewing law Reinheitsgebot, which outlawed any ingredients outside of water, hops, and barley (before they knew about yeast). Of the three, the most apparent in the Dokkur is the barley, which gives the beer the warm, pastoral aroma of toasted bread, with aspects of salt, honey, and whole grains. Said toastiness also comprised much of the beer's flavor, complemented by a remarkably thin consistency (considering the color) and an elusive, dank sourness on the tail end. It emerged as our favorite because it was unique, without detracting from its beer-ness.
Okay, we're gonna level with you: the Reyktur is one of the few beers we've tried that we would describe as "shocking." We went in blind and were unprepared for the fascinating flavors in this beer's molasses-hued depths, and so were startled by them. For all you adventurous beer drinkers out there, read on - this khaki-topped brew is unlike anything you've ever tasted.
Perhaps we could have taken the hint from the barbecue aroma wafting from our glasses, but one learns not to assume that flavor and smell are identical. Surely, the beer could not taste that smoky, couldn't be that meaty. And yet, we were wrong. The only accurate descriptor for the taste of this beer was "smoked ham." We didn't think it was possible, but Stedji proved us wrong. It's certainly not what someone usually looks for in beer, but if you're hankering for a brew to go well with (or replace) your smoked ham sandwich, the Reyktur might be it.