It was Slati Bartfast, the planetary designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy who was particularly proud of his handiwork in penning Norway’s fjord coastline (“the fiddly bits”). Rightly so, he did a cracking job, what with their soaring cliffs, spouting waterfalls and magnificent base jumps, if that’s your thing. In fact, I find the map of the whole North Atlantic fascinating, from the mouth shaped bite of Scapa Flow on Orkney, to the fine filigree fingers of the blustery Shetlands and the Faeroes with their whale-backed mountain ridges, arching as if ready to dive. Then beyond, to Svalbard and across, to the land of ice and fire itself: Iceland, precariously perched just below the Arctic Circle on one of the world’s most active volcanic boundaries.
Iceland has always fascinated me: when I was younger, it was the Norse mythology, the Cod War and the Sagas, many of which are set on the island and spelt out the lives of the brave wanderers who had upped sticks and island hopped until they settled on what we now know as Iceland. It shows how tough these characters were when you consider that they thought the island verdant and warm compared with where they had left. In fact, it’s said that those original Norse settlers called it ‘Iceland’, despite its greenness to discourage further immigration and leave more of the land and resources to them. In an ironic twist, Erik the Red, later banished from Iceland for sundry pillage, brawling and fornication related misdemeanours, settled on the icy landmass he found further west and called it ‘Greenland’ to attract more settlers (before buggering off yet again and investigating the coast of today’s Labrador and Newfoundland).
I went to Iceland in 1991 after leaving University, to dig pits, study soil and ice sediments, measure glacier melt and do various climate-change related activities in the days before anyone seemed to be bothered about that sort of thing. What I did not do was drink beer: firstly due to a lack of geographical proximity to any licensed premises and secondly, because I was poor and beer was – is – tear-inducingly expensive. For the first four weeks, I stayed on a farm in the far north, Dalvík. Our party, split into two: one half, my research tutor, his wife and young child stayed with a farmer who they had known for many years. The other half, me and a small party of German researchers, stayed on a deserted farm a few miles further on. Beer was so prized that it was the way we paid for our hospitality, along with a case of good single malt. The reason was Prohibition – at the time, Iceland had only legalised beer two years prior; its strength was strictly controlled, as was who could sell it. Like many Scandinavian markets you could only buy alcohol from a Government licensed shop. And because the ban on beer had only just been lifted there were no Icelandic brewers and so everything was imported, everything expensive.
22 years on and the situation has changed. I can’t tell you this from primary research (I plan to go back soon but haven’t made it yet) but through other means, chief of which is the small but growing number of Icelandic breweries I’ve been keeping an eye on. Back in 1991, when I met my brother in the final week in Reykjavik, we pushed the boat out one night, wandering down to the sea front area and treated ourselves to a pizza and a Pripps Blå: a nondescript margherita and a nondescript Swedish euro beer but *ouch*, it dented my wallet when I could least afford it.
Today though I am drinking a beer from one of the nascent craft breweries. This one in fact is close to my affections as it’s from Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest settlement and situated just below the Arctic Circle. It was the place I flew into all those years ago before heading even further round the northern coast to the farm. It was here we did our shopping; buying delicacies such as caviar in metal tubes or vac-packed puffins. It was here too that our Jeep broke down and we ended up making an impromptu meal on a camping stove from air-dried cod, turnips and a can of tomatoes, just off the forecourt of the most incongruously placed Esso filling station imaginable, before eventually fixing the engine problem with a pair of old tights. There was no brewery back then. Today there are a few, including Iceland’s largest, Villifel (Viking) and a smaller, craft ale brewer, Einstök Ölgerđ. It was beers from the latter that I found in the Harvey Nics pop up shop in The Trafford Centre of all places.
I bought a couple of bottles of the Pale Ale, a 5.6% affair, presented in a dark blue Scandinavian minimalist label-set, featuring some bearded bloke with a horned helmet and crossed axe detailing. All very dark ages chic. It’s a good beer: very much in the style of an American pale ale, with a melted caramel colour and a grassy, lemony, wheaty aroma and a soft, gently carbonated body with a sharp hop tang. It’s a beer perfect for these high latitude dark nights and short days, when the sun hardly seems to rise above the horizon.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013