Viking gathering

Sometimes (often) in the world of craft beer, you’ll suddenly start to hear the same suggestion cropping up again and again, from different people, in slightly different contexts.
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Sometimes (often) in the world of craft beer, you’ll suddenly start to hear the same suggestion cropping up again and again, from different people, in slightly different contexts. In February, that suggestion was “are you going to Iceland at any point?” So when the invitation come through to attend the annual Icelandic Beer Festival in Reykjavik, we booked flights and accommodation within about 15 minutes.

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We arrive in Reykjavik in the midst of an unusually violent (even by Icelandic standards) snowstorm. There’s a freezing wind blowing in from the east, battering this sparsely-populated expanse of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Fortunately, we’ve come prepared with Scotland-grade layers of clothing, which is only just enough. The drive from the airport doesn’t bode well, with momentary breaks in the sheets of horizontal snow revealing a completely barren, igneous landscape. In no time at all though, the weather clears and we’re on the outskirts of Reyjavik, with the imposing and mountainous Viðey Island rearing up in the distance.

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Our hostel is delightfully toasty, and as we arrive with an hour to spare before the tastings begin, we’ve got one thing on our mind; Breid. Having heard all about Iceland’s traditional rye bread from our Hop-Chocolatiers (see issue #24) we can’t wait to get some baked goods in our bellies. Handily, Reykjavik town centre is quite compact, and there’s a highly-rated bakery – Brauð & Co – on our way to the festival, which provides us with some much-needed sustenance.

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The Kex hostel, home to Kex Brewery, which is hosting the festival, is an unassuming building right on the waterfront. Having said hello to our wonderful host, Áslaug from the Icelandic Tourist Board – who organised this entire trip for us – we join the queue of thirsty punters waiting for their first taste.

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Kex hostel is a former biscuit factory, the ground floor of which is a fashionably industrial events space, which is today lined with around 30 breweries from across Iceland and around the world. Local stalwarts including Borg, Ölvisholt and Kex themselves rub shoulders with Mikkeller, Cloudwater and Brewski. The atmosphere is excitable but polite, and a steady stream of beer-lovers stamp through the door, peel off their snowy outer layers and survey the scene.

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We head straight to Kex Brewing’s stand, where there’s a glorious imperial stout on the chalkboard, One and Done. It was originally brewed for the previous year’s festival, and was thought to have been drunk dry. This final keg was only found when stocking up for this year, so we dive straight in with a generous pour of this truly endangered beer. It’s rich and decadent without tasting boozy, and a great way to kick off the festival; we resolve to keep a close eye on Kex’s chalkboard for the rest of the weekend.

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One name we’d been keen to try was Lady Brewery, having first spied them on social media; an all-female, nomadic brewing team serving up some fascinating flavour combinations (a seaweed beer, served with a massive bowl of dried dulse seaweed was a particularly impressive and memorable offering).

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Borg is by far the biggest of the Icelandic craft breweries, famed for its big and boozy dark beers. We found this reputation to be well deserved and were hugely impressed by everything of theirs that we sampled. At the smaller end of the spectrum, we found new breweries like Mono pushing the longboat out with more subtle European styles, including saisons and nuanced fruity kettle sours.

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Broadly speaking, Iceland’s home-grown brewing scene is not as focused on hearty dark beers as one might expect at this latitude. It’s obviously too far north to have its own hop harvest (although we do find out that they’re Europe’s largest banana plantation, housed in incredible greenhouses) so we were genuinely surprised to find ourselves faced with an abundance of Icelandic IPAs.

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It makes sense, as Hinrik from Kex explains it: roughly equidistant between the US and Europe, Iceland’s craft beer scene – both in brewing and in drinking – is probably a little behind both, at least in terms of style, though certainly not quality. While the brewers are experimenting on a small scale with more adventurous beers, IPAs are what sell here, so there’s just about every variation on the theme you could imagine, with DIPAs, TIPAs and NEIPAs pouring from every visible tap.

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Many of these are excellent examples, though we do begin to notice a common reliance on Mosaic as the main aroma hop in many. Again, it falls to Hinrik to explain that most of the country’s brewing ingredients come through one relatively small importer, and the choice of available hops – which is inevitably more limited than we’re used to in the UK – has really shaped the emerging Icelandic signature style. By the end of the day, we’re grateful for the international contingent, as the distinctive Mosaic character has started to wear a little thin.

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The hop situation – which will undoubtedly improve as the scene here develops – does however reflect one genuinely lovely aspect of Icelandic craft beer: collaboration. It’s obviously not an alien idea to UK brewers, but the sense of collectivism here is truly one of the great strengths of this growing scene. Even well-established breweries like Kex and Lady Brewery not only share suppliers, but even brewing capacity, working together and investing in new equipment that they perhaps couldn’t afford alone, allowing them to grow much more rapidly. This spirit has arguably also allowed them to forge close bonds with the US and European brewers here today, many of which are also here to take part in collaborations during their stay. Generally, the prevailing sense is that Icelandic brewers are exceptionally welcoming and easy to work with, and that’s certainly borne out by our interaction with them.

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Heading upstairs to the bar area of Kex Hostel, we light upon another cluster of visiting breweries sharing their wares, including Voodoo, Other Half and Ghost Lambic. There’s superb food on offer here – Kex is also responsible for running Reykjavik’s Mikkeller & Friends bar – so we kick back with a burger and a goat’s cheese salad, and enjoy an unexpected live set from Iceland’s most popular rapper. Who is also a builder and lives just across the street. Welcome to Reykjavik folks.

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