Have you ever been to Iceland on the first of March?
Yes, the dying days of winter are traditionally a time for chattering Northeast residents to flee for southern warmth. Beaches. Sunburns. A cold Corona in one hand and a Jimmy Buffett request in the other. So why would anyone of this particular predilection want to instead escape the season’s final sucker-punch of snow for a volcanic and geyser-laden Nordic landscape?
There’s the otherworldly glacial scenery surrounding the country’s bustling capital of Reykjavik. There are morning visits to geothermal-heated lagoons, evening servings of Arctic char, multitiered museums dedicated to fascinating Viking history. On March 1, it’s all for the taking.
And so is Iceland’s annual Beer Day, a ragtag affair celebrating the country’s 1989 legalization of barley beverages after nearly 75 years of country-enforced banishment.
Now in its 25th year, the event has fanned out across Reykjavik’s rousing nightlife scene, encouraging celebrants to devise their own “runtur” (or pub crawl) throughout participating locales while enjoying sights and scenes of Icelandic culture. Interested in tasting home-brewed Christmas stouts while gazing across a picturesque landscape? There’s a place for you. Would you rather taste thin vacation beers in a bar devoted to a Jeff Bridges-carried cult classic? Mark it down, dude. Or would you rather wade knee-deep into the country’s budding craft beer scene? I know a place.
Grab your coat and let’s go for a walk – or hop – through the silver anniversary of Iceland’s Beer Day.
There’s no Reykjavik location more responsible for the growth of Beer Day into its current festival state than Kex, a former biscuit factory turned seaside hostel that’s more hipster Hilton than last resort. Its front lobby features a rustic bar, hanging Mason jar lighting and overhead clocks noting the times of Havana, Berlin and Pittsburgh. Front windows expose visitors to breathtaking views of coastline and inactive volcanoes; a rear patio hosts guests on refurbished benches and “Antiques Roadshow”-ready furniture; and the hostel’s PA system plays the Icelandic Sagas audiobook on a loop through bathroom speakers.
Early Beer Day celebrations consisted of Icelanders guzzling limited brands of limp swill that would make Hamm’s look like Ommegang Hennepin. Now, thanks to a growing interest in craft brewing and innovative local breweries like Borg, Gaedingur and Olvisholt Brugghus, residents and visitors expect more – and Kex provides. The hostel now hosts free tastings from these and visiting brewers as part of its intimate, four-day Icelandic Beer Festival they’ve developed as part of Beer Day.
But if you’re used to connecting the words “beer festival” with “unhinged inebriation,” bad news: The Kex affair is a cordial event, with most relaxed attendees looking like they’ve just returned from a Fleet Foxes concert. As I sipped smooth farmhouse ale from Olvisholt, I watched young travelers and tourists in down coats, Chuck Taylors and thick-framed glasses savor selections from small brewers like Fagun under the echo of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”
Ironic, as Kex is somewhere you absolutely need to be on Beer Day.
If you’re looking for the oddest transition available from the backpacking ethos of Kex, you may want to stroll into the delightfully nonsensical environs of Laugarvegur Street’s Lebowski Bar, a must-visit for any Beer Day stroll.
Yes, the joint’s retro, tiki bar flair’s inspired by the Coen Brothers classic, “The Big Lebowski.” Yes, it features a bar accented with sections of the Dude’s rug, a trippy bowling alley built sideways, and a chandelier made of empty Kahlua bottles – all once essential in aiding the bar’s detailed White Russian menu. And yes, Lebowski Bar features ridiculously cheap beers to mark Iceland’s annual toasting celebration.
This year’s occasion featured pints of local favorite Egils Gull for 25 ISK (which translates to roughly 22 cents) from 6 to 7 p.m. To drink any beer while surrounded by photos of Presidents Obama and Harry Truman handling frames provides its own satisfaction. But when you’re saving money on what could be an expensive jaunt through Reykjavik, even better. Most non-happy hour or Beer Day-adjusted selections – even for interchangeable lagers like Gull, Boli or Viking – can cost visitors anywhere from 850 ($8) to 1,200 ($11) KR. That’s why Lebowski’s prices should have started a small-scale riot, serenaded by the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California.”
Thankfully, they did not. Instead, they enticed 20-somethings into pleather-coated booths surrounded by 1950s pin-up girls, photos of Steve Buscemi, and an illuminated Sound Leisure jukebox, cranking timeless hits from Fleetwood Mac and Whitesnake. As I leaned back in a booth for the latter’s “Here I Go Again” and a sip of Boli, I laughed at how universal some bar comforts can be.
After choking down a few bargain Gulls, you may want to cleanse your pallet within Reykjavik’s finest draft haven, Micro Bar. Tucked into the back of the City Center Hotel, the beer-lovers bastion features only local craft selections on tap, as well as more than 180 bottles from across the world.
Opened in 2012 by Gaedingur, the bar not only provides visitors a relaxed, intimate pub vibe, but also a preview of where the country’s headed in brewing from both an offering or appreciation standpoint. Whether Gaedingur’s refreshingly sweet IPA, its smoky imperial stout or Ovisholt’s popular Earthquake (a California Common-style lager), selections provide a great introduction to Iceland’s growing craft community. And, the bar’s expansive menu not only includes selections from the region’s handful of local breweries, but also a cavalcade of American beer geek favorites like Green Flash Double Stout, Rogue’s Yellow Sun IPA, and 11 different selections from Brooklyn’s Evil Twin Brewing.
The bad news? Nothing on Micro Bar’s menu is cheap, with local pints hovering around 1,100 KR ($10) and a 22-ounce bottle of Evil Twin’s Biscotti Break checking in at a cool 6,200 KR ($56). The good news? Within the warm barroom and conversational level of commotion, you can do what I did: Order a Gaedingur Imperial Stout, find a high top and bask in the splendor of Iceland’s flowing freedom.
This is March 1 in Iceland. Orchestral performances take place within Reykjavik’s bedazzled Harpa concert hall. Harbor crafts take tourists on whale watches under the season’s scheduled sunlight, and hungry students visit Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a bustling hot dog stand famous for its remoulade-soaked fare favored by President Bill Clinton.
But for those interested in complementing these options with a taste of the country’s on-tap liberty, there’s Beer Day. Pack your North Face gear, raise a glass – and leave the sandals at home.