Wednesday 1 May 2013

Iceland — the country that is not the Kerry Katona ad

The phone goes and a woman at the other end of the line says she’s from Customs & Excise. ‘Are you expecting a parcel from Iceland?’ Yes I reply, it’ll be beer. ‘How strong will it be,’ she continues. I don’t know, I say, it’s a mixture, I’m being sent them, I write about beer for a living. This perplexes her (but at least I don’t get the best job in the world comment), but once she’s sure that this is not some dodgy deal it’s all sorted. And the next day the delivery man struggles up the path, a terrier trying to nip his ankles, with two cases from Borg Brugghús, about whose Brio I have written about before here. I only wanted a couple of cans and a branded glass for the purposes of photography, but Óli at the Reykjavik-based brewery said that they would be sending me a few extra beers as well, whether I liked it or not.

And I am glad he did what he did as when they arrived an intriguing variety of beers popped out of the cases, including a barley wine, wheat beer, imperial stout (two kinds), porter and an IPA. Dare one whisper Icelandic craft?

As for Borg it’s a micro owned by Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the biggest breweries in Iceland (I suspect there aren’t that many). As I researched a bit more into beer in Iceland, I found out that ‘strong beer’ (that is, beer above 2.25%) wasn’t allowed to be sold until the late 1980s, though apparently it was ok for brennivin, a distillation of potatoes containing about 40 percent alcohol and often called the Black Death, to be sold — I did read somewhere that the relative cheapness of beer compared to brennivin meant that legislators thought that the common people would get legless all too often (nothing really changes does it?).

Anyway that was then — there didn’t seem to be much concern about ‘strong beer’ now as several of the beers I tried were 9% onwards, which was the strength for Imperial Stout Nr 15, which had a rich wonderfully expressive espresso coloured head under which lay a bubbling fornication of mocha coffee, chocolate, treacle toffee, earthy hop (as in the small of wet earth). And to drink it was to lie in a storehouse of more coffee, spirituous chocolate, milky sweetness with a dryness spreading around the palate like radio waves girthing the globe. I think I liked it.

The beers continued Everest-like in their climb with the 10.5% Júdas Nr. 16 Quadruple, which again had that morning glory espresso-coloured collar of foam spread across the beer’s surface like a temptation. Soft zephyrs of milk chocolate drifted across the nose on first pass, but then there was the sternness of a rye cracker or even Marmite, plus a vinous note that was suggestive of an old wine barrel (funnily enough I got pineapple chews on another bottle). It was fiery and fruity on the palate with nougat, cherry brandy, woodiness, toasted marshmallows (one for the camp fire?), sugared cold coffee and a juicy full mouth feel. Yes please.

And finally, another Imperial Stout, this one with the designation Nr 8.1 and 13% worth of alcohol (it was also aged in French Cognac barrels). This was a beauty, as dark as the darkest thought that comes to you in the middle of the night, while the stygian theme continued with the nose, though this time with an added grape-like ferociousness and plenty of cognac character. I took a swig and there it was a rich dark knight smoothness and creaminess, more chocolate, liquorice, some hint of apple sourness, mocha coffee, a soothing hand on the brow with the flavours bombarding the palate with the frequency of a metronome. This was a dessert beer, a massive spread of a beer that was leathery, bible black, tobacco road, ancient lights and old books all rolled into one glass. 

Whether these are Icelandic craft or not they are truly remarkable beers that pulsated with flavour and favour. And next time the Customs & Excise woman calls I’ll be able to tell her a bit more about Borg. 


  1. "Dare one whisper Icelandic craft?"

    ...Icccelandic craffft...

    Yep, that worked.

  2. Ye might piss thy pants when thy get a hold of the latest miracle of Borg... "Ulfur Ulfur"

  3. May I introduce you to the Icelandic beer Museum. Privatly ownd buy a young lad. it holds
    over 200 specimens of Icelandic beers only.

  4. We're very proud of our budding Icelandic craft beer industry. As recently as 10 years ago most Icelandic beers were rather neutral lagers. OK, but uninteresting. There has been an explosion of new types since and a lot of healthy experimentation.

  5. Borg isnt a "micro brewery" as it uses the facility of a large brewer, it is also the same brewmaster from the Egill Skallagrímsson. As Helgi is pointing out, there is a trend in Iceland towards better beer and Borg is merely a marketing operation.

    For microbreweries in iceland, i'd advice asking gædingur or ölvisholt

  6. Anon 1 — thank you for that description ;-) — I had the IPA, very enjoyable
    Anon 2 — thanks for that, sounds very interesting
    Helgi — the ‘craft beer’ revolution seems to girdle the globe
    Sam — marketing or not, to me they were excellent beers, but I would love to investigate further, just need to persuade a magazine that I should go to Iceland…

  7. You need to drink beer in Iceland...nuff said :)

  8. Sam

    That is not entirely true, and one might think you are bending the truth a bit.

    Borg is not privately owned, it is owned by Ölgerðin and operates within their facilities. Borg has their own equipment, has their own brewmasters and own public relations.

    I also presume that you like craft beer, and how on earth could you label Borg as a marketing operation? If it was a marketing operation they would be handing out not-so-good beers in fancy labels (Einstök springs to mind but that is another story).

    So again, putting out creative seasonals and keeping up with demand for some good sessions beers is a marketing operation? You do realize that the two brewmasters are the best of the bunch here in Iceland? Valgeir is well educated, the orginal creator of the now very popular Lava and Skjálfti from Ölvisholt, and Sturlaugur is a Russian River alumni.

    The smaller breweries that you mentioned make pretty good beer, but labeling Borg as a pure marketing operation over the fact that they make some good beer is a biased opinion. This is just like living in the states and not buy Goose Island products because John Hall sold it to InBev.

  9. The Icelandic Beer Museum is a collection of Icelandic beer which counts over 220 items and is still growing.

    Every item is pure Icelandic product and items with specially designed labels.

    Until now i have personally bought most of the items, and i store it at home.

    The dream is to open it for public somewhere in the town of Grundarfjörður.

    Tommi, Owner @Bjórsafn Íslands/The Iselandic Beer Museum

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