March 1st is a significant day in Iceland. It’s a day Icelanders celebrate the end of a 74-year long beer ban. March 1st, 2019 marks 30 years since the streets of Reykjavík seemed to overflow with barley and hops as locals rejoiced that the sale of beer had become legal.
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Before the celebrations begin, let’s take a look at how this ban came into being and why it took so long for Icelanders to be allowed to enjoy beer.
The Beer Ban
During the beginning of the 20th century, prohibition was sweeping the world, and Iceland wasn’t exempt from this despite being an isolated volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1908 the Icelandic government held a referendum to see if the general public were in favour of banning all alcoholic beverages. If you have experienced modern-day Iceland, you may be surprised to discover the people voted in support of this law. Full prohibition went into effect on January 1, 1915.
Wine Snuck In
The complete ban on all alcohol was partially lifted in 1921 when Spain presented an ultimatum to the Icelandic government. They were going to refuse to buy Icelandic fish (one of the nations main exports) unless Iceland bought Spanish wines.
Fourteen years later in 1935, further loosening of the ban occurred when another referendum revealed the Icelandic public was in favour of legalising spirits. One might think this would have a domino effect leading to all alcohol becoming legal, however, the movement against the consumption of alcohol—known as the temperance movement—convinced the public that strong beer (alcohol content of 2.25% or more) was arguably cheaper than spirits, which would lead to more public depravity.
It’s Like Beer
As Icelanders began to travel internationally, they started to get in touch with beer culture and came up with inventive ways to inject it into Iceland. This lead to the creation of a beer substitute called Bjórliki in the 1980s. The name literally translates to ‘like beer’ and is a play on words because it rhymes with the Icelandic word for margarine which is smjórliki (and means ‘like butter’). Bjórliki ingeniously combined alcoholic ingredients that were legally available in Iceland to create a beer ‘like’ drink.
The process mixed light wine, whiskey or vodka, and alcohol-free beer. The finished product was about 5% alcohol and was somewhat reminiscent of beer.
Above is a video from the annual comedy show Áramótaskaup from 1985. The song is about how Bjórliki is made.
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One of the first bars to start selling Bjórliki was Gaukur á Stöng, which is today called Gaukurinn. The bar modelled itself after European beer houses and aimed to fulfil the needs of Icelandic locals who wanted to wrap their lips around a cold one legally.
The sale of Bjórliki angered conservatives who attempted to push a bill through parliament to ban it. The bill was defeated with the final verdict being that Bjórliki was not, in fact, beer, it was a cocktail and therefore could continue to be sold legally. Many Icelanders born in the 80s joke that without Bjórliki, they wouldn’t exist today.
The Ban Was Lifted
Above is footage of a Reykjavík City official opening a bar on the first Beer Day in 1989 (taken from a program celebrating 20 years of beer)
In 1985, the Icelandic Minister for Justice—who was also a self-confessed ‘teetotaler’—again wanted to prohibit pubs from selling alcohol-free beer spiked with spirits. This sparked a new urge from the public to lift the beer ban entirely.
Eventually, a vote in Iceland’s upper house of parliament turned a 13 to 8 vote in favour of allowing the sale of beer. The beer ban was officially lifted on March 1st, 1989.
Many remember that day as one of pleasantly drunken celebration. Local anecdotes tell of how pubs and bars didn’t have enough bathrooms to deal with the frequency at which patrons needed to pee. Several locals have affectionately called March 1st ‘piss Wednesday’ as a result.
On that first day 340,000 cans of beer were sold. This number greatly outweighed the population of Iceland at the time. The day also attracted the attention of American news outlets NBC and ABC.
The Icelandic government liquor store ÁTVR offered companies the right to advertise on the plastic bags that customers would carry their beer in. The Icelandic milk day committee jumped at the chance and advertised on 600,000 bags for a cost of 300,000 ISK. The slogan they chose was ‘Ekkert kemur í staðinn fyrir mjólkina’ (nothing will ever replace milk).
30 Years of Beer
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The anniversary of beer becoming legal in Iceland has been celebrated every year since and is called Bjórdagurinn or Bjórdagur (beer day). In the time since March 1989, beer has become the most popular alcoholic drink sold in Iceland. Beer day marks a chapter in Iceland’s history when the people took a step towards joining the rest of the world.
Beer Day celebrations usually involve a Rúntur (pub crawl) around the many bars and pubs in the city of Reykjavík. This year, many venues are putting on extra special celebrations to mark the occasion.
What to do on Beer Day?
There are limitless options when it comes to celebrating Beer Day, so to get you started, here are some of our top picks for venues getting into the festive spirit this year. Click the listings below to see the events.
How will you celebrate Beer Day? Tell us in the Facebook comments below.