A century ago, Iceland banned all alcoholic drinks. Within a decade, red wine had been legalized, followed by spirits in the 1930's. But full-strength beer remained off-limits until March 1, 1989. Megan Lane asks why it took so long for the amber nectar to come in the from the Icelandic cold.
When the mercury hovers below zero, a cold beer is not the first drink that springs to mind. A warming shot of schnapps might be more appropriate. But on March 1, 1989 - when the top temperature in Iceland was a -5°C, beer was exactly what drinkers had in mind. It was the first time in 74 years they'd had a chance to legally order beer. This red-letter day is marked annually as Bjordagur (Beer Day). A generation on, beer accounts for 62% of the 7.1 liters of pure alcohol consumed each year by the average Icelander. That's higher than in traditional brewing countries such as Germany and Czech Republic (54% each) and the UK (37%), according to the most recent World Health Organization figures.
When full prohibition became law 100 years ago, alcohol in general was frowned upon, and beer was especially out of favour - for political reasons. Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles. "The Dances were drinking eight times as much alcohol per person on a yearly basis at the time," says historian Stefan Palsson, author of Beer: Around the world in 120 Pints. As a result, beer was "not the patriotic drink of choice".
It didn't take long for Prohibition to be undermined. "Doctors started prescribing alcohol as medicine in huge quantities. Wine if you had bad nerves, and for the heart, cognac." says Palsson. But beer was never "what the doctor ordered", despite the argument some put forward that it was a good treatment for malnourishment. There were other leaks in the Prohibition armor too. The Spanish threatened to stop importing salted cod - Iceland's most profitable export at the time - if Iceland did not buy its wine.
Politicians bowed to the pressure and legalized red and rose wines from Spain and Portugal in 1921. Over time, support for prohibition dwindled, and in 1933 Icelanders voted to reverse course. But even then the ban remained in force for beer containing more than 2.25% alcohol. As beer was cheaper than wines or spirits, the fear was that legalizing it would lead to a big rise in alcohol abuse. The association of beer with Denmark also continued to tarnish its image in a country that only achieved full independence in 1944. Polls throughout the 1980's showed about six in 10 Icelanders supported legalizing beer. Finally, in 1988, Iceland's parliament, the Althing, voted to legalize beer. Today, Icelanders drink less than many of their European counterparts. Ordering an Icelandic beer isn't always easy, unless you happen to speak the language. Some, such as Borg Snorri Nr. 10 and Ulfur Ulfur Double IPA Nr. 17 are just about pronounceable, but others - Olvishold Suttungasumbi, for example, or Viking Islenskur Urvals Einiberjabock - are more of a challenge.
Once you have the glass in your hand, though, it's easy. You just say "Skål!" and drink.
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