Taste the Saga Brewery Tour & History of beer in Iceland

When people travel they often have a common list of similar things that interest them that they choose to see or do in each city, town, village they visit. For some it might be churches, the most common tourist attraction, McDonald’s, museums, you name it and for me it’s breweries.

I never use to like beer, honestly I use to hate it but now I’d choose it over water if I could because I mean it has water in it right….? Maybe right about now you should also be reading my earlier post “How to get drunk in Iceland“.
When planning my trip to Iceland just a few days before departure I got extremely excited when I saw that Iceland Excursions had a brewery tour called “Taste the Saga”, doesn’t that sound like an epic tour to go on? This brewery tour wasn’t the best or most entertaining brewery tour that I have ever been on but it was still pretty awesome. (The Guinness Storehouse beats it hands down of course but also the Alexander Keith’s brewery tour in my home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia where your tour guides, while dressed up in period costume, sing and dance and pretend that it is 1820.)

Saying that it wasn’t as great as those tours however isn’t fair. Guinness and Alexander Keiths have been in full operation since 1759 and 1820 respectively and from 1915 until 1989 Icelanders weren’t allowed to drink beer! You read that right folks, blaspheme I know.

Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson (the breweries full name) was founded April 17th 1913 and makes beverages as well. They hold the license for Pepsi products in Iceland and also produce a Malt Extract (Maltextrakt) drink that is mixed with Orange Soda at Christmas time as a popular Christmas drink (Jólabland) (FACT: Icelanders don’t drink much around Christmas time, whats wrong with them!?) but we aren’t here to talk about their other products we are here for the beer.

I was picked up at my hotel and I jumped onto a bus filled with 9 friendly Americans and we were taken on a 10minute drive to reach the brewery. With production stopped for the evening aside from our lovely guide we were the only ones in the whole place. We walked into the bar sat down with our first drink of beer called Gull.

(The following is what I remember being told on the brewery tour as I was “enjoying” the brewery tour and is also from some research.)

In 1908 someone had the not so smart idea of voting for Prohibition in Iceland, at the time it was thought that Icelanders were a bunch of drunkards and drank way too much so they put it to a vote and only men over the age of 40 that owned property could vote. The ban didn’t go into effect until 1915 and in 1912 all imported alcohol was banned so the Icelanders were basically given 3 years to finish up and drink what they had. At this point no alcohol, beer, wine, spirits you name it was allowed in Iceland. This lasted several years until 1921 when finally Spain came to them and put a trade embargo on them saying “If you don’t buy our wine we aren’t trading fish or any goods with you.” So Iceland said “OK Spain we will buy your red wine”. However white wine, beer and spirits were still not allowed.

Finally in 1933 there was a national referendum, women were allowed to vote now and 60% of the vote went to allowing all wine and spirits back into the country. But where was the beer? They didn’t want to have it all come back in at once, so unfortunately beer still was not allowed, however Pilsner was. Pilsner is the Canadian equivalent of what we like to call “near beer” but our near beer is 0.5% and Icelands is 2.5% alochol. Huh?

Icelanders were dying for beer at this point so they started taking Vodka and Brennivin and pouring it into their Pilsner so they would still have that beer taste while now also having the alcohol content. On the tour we had the chance to taste this and it actually wasn’t that horrible, even though in my Iceland video (soon to come) I do mention the mixture kind of tastes like tooth paste…

Also on the tour we were given just straight up shots of Brennivin made with the caraway seed that tasted just like it’s slogan suggests “Black Death” Yes that is actually their slogan. I unfortunately (or fortunately you decide) took my shot too quickly not realizing we were all suppose to take it as a group, so I was “forced” to have another shot… (Brewery tour Tip: Drink fast, they will pour you more and consider it punishment to give you more if you drink with out them… I don’t call that punishment I call that getting my moneys worth and then some! haha)

In the 1940s British soldiers who were stationed in Iceland were upset by the fact that there wasn’t any real beer so then Icelanders were allowed to export beer and they would make it and send it to the base however they were still not allowed to have it for themselves. At this point my notes from the brewery tour are becoming slightly illegible (they wouldn’t let me film inside) but eventually in 1989 on March 1st, 74 years since it had first been banned Beer was allowed in Iceland again.

Iceland was the last country outside of the Islamic world to allow beer!! March 1st is now officially known as Beer Day in Iceland and on that  day in 1989 when prohibition was lifted over 340,000 cans of beer were consumed in a country of less than 300,000 people at that time and March 1st is still celebrated today. So now not only do I want to visit Iceland again in the summer but also on March 1st.

After we were given our history lesson on beer in Iceland we were told about the various beer Oldergin makes including their micro brewery BORG. We then put on extremely attractive hair nets and were taken through the plant to see where the magic happens. Back to the bar in the brewery we had a couple more and before I knew it the 90min tour was over but I was happy and had my fill… I’m sure I could of definitely stayed for more though. If you visit Reykjavik I highly reccommend taking this tour and no this one isn’t a sponsored post I really liked it.



(Cheers in Icelandic – it actually means bowl or skull from when the Vikings use to drink beer / mead from their enemies skulls after they had killed them… yikes!)



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