Craft beer masters, BrewDog opened a bar in Reykjavík in September 2018. Since then, they have nurtured a reputation as a top spot to sample the hottest independent brews in town. Curious to see what was on the BrewDog menu, I went along for a festive beer tasting and the total BrewDog Reykjavík experience.
The origin story of the legendary Scottish brewery, BrewDog, began in 2007 with just two friends and a dream to challenge mainstream standards of flavourless lagers. In only their second year of operation BrewDog became Scotland’s largest independent brewery and by the next year, their Punk IPA had become the best selling IPA in Scandinavia. Fast forward to 2018: BrewDog boasts over 50 bars internationally, including one in Reykjavík, Iceland.
Craft beer in Iceland echoes this rags to riches tale in that, in the last five years, the number of independent breweries in the country has more than doubled and the variety of tasty artisanal beers has exploded.
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There is perhaps no better time to sample delicious craft beers than during the festive season. It is customary for the larger breweries in Iceland to release Christmas beers and the smaller establishments are following suit much to the delight of Icelandic beer buffs.
So, on one dark and rainy December afternoon, I popped along to BrewDog Reykjavik for some Christmas beer drinking and a comprehensive lesson on the art of craft beer tasting.
A BrewDog Reykjavík Welcome
Walking in from the rain, the warm and stylish interior of this downtown establishment immediately caused shivers to cease and my muscles to relax. And that’s before any alcohol had entered my system!
The bar has no less than 20-taps and the products on offer frequently rotate on the basis of what is available (and, as I found out later, what the bar staff want to try!). Not only are you confronted with a huge variety to choose from, but you’re also left with the desire to return in a week, as the beer menu may be completely unrecognisable.
I walked to the bar and met my beer tasting master and guru for the next two hours, Hjörvar Óli Sigurðsson. It was obvious from the get-go that this is more than a job for Hjörvar; his passion and love for beer is apparent in his sizeable knowledge of the craft and his enthusiastic and helpful introductions to each new beer we sample.
He goes on to explain, “Beer is a living, breathing, changing thing, but it’s also very present. Trust your senses and experience beer in the present”. And with that excellent advice, we began our exploration of the Icelandic Christmas beer on offer.
At the time of my visit, BrewDog had five local Icelandic Christmas craft beers on offer from a total of five separate breweries. All of the beers are listed on a backlit board alongside the brewery they came from as well as their alcohol content (ABV).
I’m excited to get started and Hjörvar explains it’s best to start with the lower ABV as the stronger alcohol content beers can often represent a greater level of flavour. It sounds like a good idea for me! I wouldn’t want to get too tipsy too soon.
M&A (4.5%) – Local Tap – Ölverk brewery
‘M’ stands for Malt, an Icelandic syrupy malt drink and ‘A’ stands for Appelsín, a sweet orange soda loved across the nation. Mixed together, these two ingredients are known as Jólaöl, or ‘Christmas ale’, a non-alcoholic drink which is a staple refreshment at any festive feast in Iceland.
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The brewmasters at Ölverk have done a marvellous job to capture the orange essence that this beer’s inspiration is known for and on first taste, the dry but fruity notes blend seamlessly with the fullness and sweetness of the roasted malts. As a starting beer, it serves well to put me in the Christmassy mood.
Nestled in the town Hveragerði approximately 40 km from Reykjavík, Ölverk brewery opens daily to visitors and also serves excellent wood-fired pizzas. Business is booming and it’s the perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner whilst on a Golden Circle tour or to recharge after a hike to the Reykjadalur hot springs.
Skyrjarmur (4.2%) – Sour – Borg Brewery
Next up, Hjörvar pours me a dark red glass of Skyrjarmur which resembles a dessert wine far more than a beer on first glance. On further inspection, the creamy froth at the top of the glass betrays the beverage’s true beer background.
The name Skyrjarmur is inspired by the second Yule Lad, Skyrgámur ‘Skyr Gobbler’ and you can read more about this Christmas character here. Skyr is an Icelandic dish that resembles yoghurt in consistency but it is technically classified as cheese and has served as a protein-rich staple for Icelanders for centuries.
Although Icelanders do not rely on Skyr as they once did, it is still a popular dessert fixture and it is often eaten with blueberries which grow wild in abundance across Iceland. Skyrjarmur is a genius blend of these two ingredients; the Skyr gives a rich but sour flavour that dominates the taste buds until the sweetness of the blueberries kick-in, creating a tasty balance as well as Skyrjarmur’s vibrant colour.
Borg brewery are prolific in their creation of craft beers, a number of which have made it onto draft taps in many bars across Reykjavík, and not exclusively to craft beer havens. One of my favourites is Úlfur, a Borg IPA that can be found in many bars across town.
HóHóHó (6.8%) – Brown Ale – Ægir Brewery
Halfway through, and I am presented with HóHóHó, a festive brown ale with a dark richness in colour and a full roasted malt aroma as well as a distinct punch of hops. My first taste leaves me wanting; I’m confronted with an acrid coffee taste that leaves my tongue feeling quite dry.
I mention to Hjörvar that I’m not too sure about this brew to which he replies with more of his unbounded wisdom, “If tasting beers would be a contest then the winner would be the person who is last to make up their mind if they like the beer or not”. I immediately feel like I’m winning and go in for another swig.
To my delight, I find the flavour develops to be rich and chocolatey, and with an ABV of 6.8%, I quickly surrender to its warming charms.
HóHóHólísjitt (8.8%) – Barrel Aged – Ægir Brewery
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! This festive favourite is a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel aged HóHóHó which is why its name is the Icelandic phonetic spelling of ‘Ho Ho Holy Shit’.
On the nose, notes of dark berries, figs and herbs strike through the rich roasted malt backdrop. Upon tasting, it’s easy to detect the boozy effects of the bourbon barrels as well as a distinct vanilla aftertaste which I’m informed comes from the vanillin organic to oak barrels.
Ægir Microbrewery produces the last two Christmas beers as well as an array of brews all year long. They’re open to the public on weekdays 12-16:00 at Eyjarslóð 5 in Reykjavík, so why not pop by for a tasting?
Romm í jól (8.4%) – Stout – Ide Brewery & Austri Brewery
Romm í jól is a Christmas collaboration between two relative newcomers to the craft beer scene. This beer lives up to its name, ‘Rum in Christmas’ as it is an imperial stout with added liquorice root and most importantly, rum!
My final glass of beer is as dark as an Icelandic winter’s night and exudes a boozy resinous smell. A very strong burnt toast taste overloads my palette and I can detect the high ABV content yet cannot distinguish a rum flavour.
Overall, Romm í jól is my least favourite of all the beers but this does not hamper my overall beer-tasting experience which was highly informative and most importantly, fun! By this point, I’m certainly feeling a Christmassy glow as I stagger back to the office to round off my notes and take a nap.