Where to Drink in Reykjavík, Iceland

Destinations by | Jun 2016 | Issue #113
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

Imagine a world without beer under a Prohibiton that never seems to end. In essence, you’ve got Iceland for most of the 20th century. After the country’s oldest brewery Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson was founded in 1913 in Reykjavík, Prohibition promptly followed. When it was partially lifted in 1935, an ABV cap on beer remained, so Icelanders were stuck with a piss poor Pilsener of 2.25 percent until March 1, 1989. Nationwide, Icelanders celebrate the anniversary of the end of Prohibition on what’s now known as “Beer Day.”

At the time, a beer-drinker’s options were limited. There were lagers from Ölgerðin and Sanitas, a brewery founded in 1966 whose lager, now known as Víking, remains ubiquitous. Imports were limited to Budweiser from the US, Löwenbräu from Germany, Kaiser from Austria and Pripps from Sweden. By 2004, selection improved to a wide variety of lagers and several ales, but the micro beer revolution had largely passed by this island nation. Icelanders weren’t yet ready for beers with taste.

In 2005 though, an unemployed fisherman in a hamlet in Eyjafjörður thought he might start a brewery. He hired a brewer who had worked at the Krušovice brewery in the Czech Republic, and in 2006 the Bruggsmiðjan brewery released Kaldi, a Czech-style lager of considerably better quality than Iceland was used to. Ten years later, the brewery has grown its annual production from 150,000 to 650,000 liters, and is experimenting with new styles, like IPAs and Stouts.

Bjórsetur Íslands, a tiny brewpub in an old bishopry at Hólar Skagafjörður, opened in 2007. It got its start when beer lovers at a small university got a license for a 50-liter unit. It’s also the venue for the only beer festival to feature all Icelandic breweries, held annually in June. Ölvisholt opened in 2008 as a farm brewery and produces 300,000 liters annually. Its lineup includes five distinct beers: Móri, an Amber Ale, Freyja, a Witbier, Skaði, a Farmhouse Ale, Skjálfti, a lager, and Lava, an extra smoky Imperial Stout.

To keep up with the country’s newfound innovation, Ölgerðin opened Borg, a microbrewery that has cranked out more than 40 creative beers since it opened in 2010, like Úlfur, a West Coast-style IPA, Þorlákur, a Brett Saison, and Garún, an Icelandic Stout. In 2011, the small but innovative farm brewery Gæðingur opened in Skagafjörður. Known for its flagship lager, Stout, Pale Ale and IPA, it also puts out experimental beers that can be found at its Reykjavík pub.

Close by in Borgarfjördur, the Steðji farm brewery gained fame (and some controversy) for using ground whale bones and dung-smoked whale testicles in two beers brewed for Þorri, an Icelandic midwinter festival. One of Iceland’s newest breweries, Segull 67 opened in late 2015. Located in one of the northernmost villages, the small operation’s flagship is an unpasteurized, unfiltered dark lager.

Despite Iceland’s late entrance to the global brewing revolution, the country has hastily made up for lost time, and Reykjavík is the center of the action.

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The country’s capital has a thriving beer scene, although it’s rather expensive, with half a liter setting you back around $9 (remember, in Iceland you don’t need to tip). Find your way by visiting these spots, lined up from east to west over a 2-mile stretch.

Close to the city center, the 16-story Fosshótel’s Bjórgarðurinn is a modern, industrial take on a beer garden. The bar’s 23 taps and about 100 bottles offer plenty of local options and a good selection of Belgians to pair with a sausage bar or fish and chips. There’s also an outdoor space to enjoy in the summer months.

Reykjavík’s main shopping street, Laugavegur, is home to many bars in a short stretch. Start at Hlemmur Square, a hostel and hotel bar with 10 taps from two micros and a careful selection of bottles. This bar has some of the best prices in town, and housemade sausages. Two blocks up you’ll find K-Bar, a Korean-inspired eatery with eight taps and 120 bottles that’s open from breakfast to late-night. Come for the local beer, stay for the kimchee. Pop into nearby Bunk Bar [bunk.is] for tacos (with fillings like fried squid and tiger shrimp) and 12 taps featuring beers from locals like Einstök and Víking in a cozy pub with a backpacker vibe.

Public House Gastropub pairs its eight taps with Japanese-style food made with Icelandic ingredients. For a taste of unfiltered draft beer from the country’s first microbrewery, head to Kaldi Bar where eight consistently rotating taps of beers like Kaldi Imperial Pilsner and Borg’s IIPA keep things interesting. Popular after work, it’s located in an old stone house with a terrace. Meanwhile, the vibrant and eclectic bar and restaurant Íslenski Barinn focuses on Icelandic breweries with its eight taps and bottles. Just around the corner, climb a steep flight of stairs and you’ll find the atmospheric attic space home to Mikkeller & Friends. The décor blends the brand’s trademark illustrations and pops of color with a circus theme, while 16 taps offer mostly Mikkeller, plus other imports from Europe and the US. Ask for the 0.2 liter glasses to make sampling them all much easier.

Next, head downhill to Aðalstræti, the oldest street in Reykjavík, where buildings date back to the 18th century. At the lively English Pub soccer fans congregate around large TVs or the dartboard. There’s live music nightly and the 10 taps are heavy on lagers from across Europe. Close by, Skúli Craft Bar is known for its events, like meet-the-brewer nights and tap takeovers in a classy environment with outdoor tables. Its 14 taps heavily feature Borg, plus experimental brewers like Denmark’s To Øl, Norway’s 7 Fjell and Sweden’s Omnipollo.

Walk toward the harbor to reach MicroBar, opened by the Gæðingur brewery owner as a taproom for his beers. The city’s oldest craft bar at just 4 years old, MicroBar’s success gave rise to the city’s other specialty beer bars. The 16 taps include guest brewers like Ölvisholt, Belgium’s Het Anker and Thornbridge from the UK. The bar’s massive bottle selection is a beacon for beer geeks, with hard-to-find beers like BrewDog’s 32 percent ABV Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

Closer to the water, fans of seafood shouldn’t miss Forréttabarinn [forrettabarinn.is] where you can pair Kaldi lager with halibut ceviche or cod filet and crispy pork belly. And Bryggjan [bryggjanbrugghus.is] is a waterfront brewpub in a trendy area of the old harbor where old fishery sheds have been converted into hip restaurants. With views of both fermentation tanks and of the pier, you’ll find house beers on tap and fare like Icelandic lobster, grilled mackerel and smoked shrimp.