Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Why was beer banned in Iceland?

For those of you who have gone (or are yet to go) to Iceland, you will discover that beer is largely present in Icelandic social life. Reykjavik’s nightlife has gradually gained fame and followers. Their nightclubs and the weekend vibe would not be comparable if beer was not on tap. Perhaps nowadays it seems totally normal for this delicious drink to be a part of our lives, but it hasn't always been this way. Iceland actually banned beer in the early 1900s, much like American Prohibition in the 1920s. Why would Iceland ban beer you ask? Let's find out.

Three beers on counter in Reykjavik bar

According to historians, this alcoholic beverage was created by the Egyptians and Sumerians. It is one of the oldest drinks in the world and seems to have developed along with bread about 10,000 BC. The result obtained from the fermentation of barley and hops is a bitter-tasting drink that can vary in hue from light to dark. It has been a part of both Eastern and modern Western cultures throughout time.

In the specific case of Icelanders, this particular brew came to the island at the time of colonization by the Norwegians. Self-production and the creation of breweries in Iceland was almost impossible because the land was not entirely suitable for growing barley. Most of the product was imported from countries such as Norway or Denmark, countries where this drink was part of their culture and daily life.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the notion of beer changed radically. It got to the point where it was flat out banned in Iceland. But why? Well, there are several reasons for the prohibition of beer in Iceland. A social movement called the "Temperance Movement"began to grow. This movement and its activists were completely against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. These ideas not only had an impact on Iceland but also extended to the Anglo-Saxon world. The Temperance doctrine was based on religious and moral principles. It equated the consumption of alcohol with inappropriate behaviors that trigger problems such as alcoholism and domestic violence.

1920s man holding alcoholic drink and sign

Apart from the social and moral aspect, there were also political reasons. It was about the same time that Iceland, then under Danish rule, began to develop a movement for independence. The Danish Crown's lack of interest in the needs of the Icelanders, the development of an increasingly hegemonic society and a growing national consciousness were fueling such uprisings. Norway and Denmark were still the biggest importers of Icelandic beer at this time. As a result, drinking beer began to be associated with the Danes and it was viewed as an unpatriotic option for Icelanders.

In 1908, Iceland held a referendum to approve the prohibition of importing alcohol and 61% of the electorate voted in favor. Soon, those strongly in favor of prohibition would begin to weaken their stance. Iceland’s ban on alcohol affected imports of wine from Spain and Portugal. These countries responded in kind by deciding to stop imports of salted cod to the Iberian Peninsula. This threat to the Icelandic fishing industry caused the rules to loosen a bit. Prohibition was partially lifted in 1921 and lifted altogether in 1989.

As you can see, Iceland spent some time with alcoholic beverages, especially beer, being banned. Does this mean that the Icelanders went all that time without it? Nothing could be further from the truth. You know how human nature is. When you tell people they can't do something, what’s the first thing they run out and do? As the old saying goes: Where there's a will, there's a way.

When there was a full ban, there were smugglers who brought in various alcoholic beverages. When the ban was partial or on a specific proof of alcohol, the Icelanders still managed to get beer imported. They also created secret breweries. To get around proof limits, they produced beers with a legally allowed alcohol proof and then later added in Brennevin. This is a typically Scandinavian distilled alcohol made from potatoes.

Icelandic beer being poured into a glass

All of these limitations affected the behavior of Icelanders with respect to alcoholic beverages. After lifting the ban, the Icelandic society stopping consuming stronger drinks and wine and beer became the norm. Today, twice as much beer is sold in Iceland as any other alcoholic beverage. With Iceland's growing tourism industry, this is certainly a good thing for tourists as well.

It's quite easy to find craft breweries throughout the streets of Reykjavik. There are also many pubs that specialize in local as well as international beers. And although the price of beer is still quite high (about € 8-9 for local beer and € 9-15 for imported beer) you can always go to bars in Reykjavík during everyone’s favorite time: Happy hour. The Appy Hour app will show you when and where to get discounts on beers in Reykjavik. Happy drinking and bottoms up!

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