Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. — Robert Frost, Poet
Some of us craft beer geeks grumble at the idea of driving out of the way to visit a brewery in US, and ultimately that’s understandable, but is it worth the guff? If a journey is the true path to discovering great beer with a unique story — in a breathtaking location — then this is the case with Ölvisholt Brugghús (Olvisholt Brewery), and craft beer in Iceland.
On a recent vacation to the volcanic land of Iceland I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Brewmaster Elvar Thrastarson, he allowed me to look around their steam-powered brewery and chat for a while.
In the Beginning
As most stories being, the location is the opening scene and emotionally driving visual associated with the plot. It builds the character and ultimate outcome of a stories appeal. Much like Tree House Brewing, or Hill Farmstead, there is a great tale and the indelible charm associated with the location of a brewery. Without getting too existential, it’s sort of this interesting place of being that enhances the beer beyond just being, in itself, great beer.
The Key to Discovery is the Journey
Located in the south of Iceland, just slightly north of the village of Selfoss, known in large part for its proximity and view of the volcano Hekla, sits Olvisholt Brewery.
Driving West, away from Reykjavík on Highway 1, and on to winding dirt roads, you’ll find a building sitting inconspicuously within a small mound of green rolling hills and empty pastures, you might not even know you’ve passed it — as the building is unrecognizable from the road. It’s inside this rustic farmhouse, set into the side of a hill, where the brewing magic happens. It’s really quite beautiful, and compliments the stunning landscape of Iceland perfectly.
Ölvisholt is a small brewery that was started by neighboring farmers using their existing dairy farm and properties to house the brew house. With a bit of retrofitting, sneaking in some tanks — a brewery was born. As the facility is not open to the public, I was thrilled to hear that I would be allowed to stop by.
Fortunately for me, there was some action that day — bottling. As many brewers, and home brewers know, bottling can be a true — to put it kindly — pain in butt.
Lucky for me — but not for Elvar and Brewery Assistant, Skuggi Baldur (above) who were a bit behind that day as the bottling line was behaving as one might expect — I got to watch the fun unfold. This isn’t meant to be negative, as every brewer knows, it’s just part of the daily routine. Even with the evolution of brewing technology, there’s always something that needs fixing in a brew house. It’s the nature of the craft, and some might say it’s what makes it fun. Sort of.
It’s All About The Beer
Currently brewed are 5 main beers with 3 seasonal offerings, and they range across the map in terms of style and variety. While they don’t brew beer with real lava yet, a joke I ignorantly made — with a stein beer in mind — they do brew a beer called Lava, which is a remarkably delicious Smoked Imperial Stout, and this thing is smoked. It’s really good, and if you have a chance to try it you should.
Since they gave it name Lava, as the story goes, on a not-so-cloudy day you can see the volcano directly through the brewery door. Unfortunately for me, it was a cold and rainy week so I missed out on the view, but I’m sure it’s a stunning sight worth naming a great beer after. Just following the floor drainage line in the photo below, it would be straight out in the distance. Magnificent!
Some other beers they brew include: Skjálfti, freyja, móri, and skaði. In order, they are a Steam beer, Witbier, Red Ale (which was being bottled on my visit), and a Saison. There’s been plenty more brewed over time, as pictured below, but these are some of the lineup. Skjálfti is the local best seller, while Lava hits high marks outside of the country. I have a personal suspicion that Iceland’s history with the legality of “strong beers” may play a part in the reasons behind that being the case, in addition to pale lagers being the most common global style.
Elvar got his start in the beer industry through homebrewing, and eventually got his degree in brewing at Brewlab in the UK. After returning back home, as luck would have it, there was an open position for brewmaster. While his influences are not based on British ales, as one might assume due to his degree and some current styles they offer, his approach to brewing is based on personal interest — and of course continuing to brew and tweak the previously created recipes.
One really interesting point that he made in our chat, is that approximately 1% of the Icelandic population may be involved in homebrewing. They are registered through the countries homebrew club (Fágun) — which currently has over 900 registered members. Evlar implied that this is likely not equal to the number of people who actually homebrew, but rather it’s just a sizable portion. This is really intriguing, as the country may be headed for a surge in beer popularity down the road, much like the US and other countries have — so this is just the tip of the iceberg.
People are realizing beer is more than just a Pale Lager, and hopefully we will have some kind of beer revolution. — Elvar Thrastarson, Brewmaster
As palates expand and beer begins to grow in popularity — at some point in the future we may be seeing lots more from Iceland.
Legalizing Iceland’s Most Popular Alcoholic Beverage
Here’s a bit of brief history on beer in Iceland that needs to be explained, as it has had a big impact on brewing. Until 1989, strong beer — which was anything over 2.25% ABV — was illegal, as they had a prohibition in place that began in 1915. This only applied to beer, as hard alcohol was allowed from 1935 onward, in order to continue exporting and importing products with Spain. On March 1st, 1989 the law was obliterated from existence, creating what is now known as Beer Day in Iceland, a day truly worth celebrating! However, it also remains illegal to homebrew beer above 2.25%, which may still hinder the growth. Maybe that will change soon?
Growth and the Future of Beer in Iceland
With 3 new breweries and one brewpub in Reykjavík that have recently opened, only time will tell how beer expands, but it’s a remarkable starting point and I can’t wait to return to enjoy the uniquely inspired brewing scene.
If you happen to find yourself visiting for vacation, and I absolutely recommend that you go, be sure to find some Ölvisholt beer. It’s currently sold in the state run liquor stores as well as a few bars, in bottles. Some of the more recent craft beer bars also have it on draft — such as Micro Bar and Skúli.
This was a great journey, and I’m glad to have headed onto the road less traveled by — and as they say in Iceland, skál!