Iceland and Norway's Beer Scene is Exactly What You Expected
The beers of Iceland and Norway leave a lot to be desired. Between their late starts to the brewing game, huge mass market lager control, and extremely high prices on alcohol, if you come to Norway and Iceland looking for beer, you will find yourself sorely disappointed. I don't want to discourage those that live there or are planning on visiting, but just know what you are getting into. I just got back from a three week long journey across Europe where I drank beer at every opportunity. Iceland and Norway were the first of four stops. I'm going to talk about those first two today and leave Ireland and my brief stop in New York for later, because the latter two were waay more fruitful and there's a lot more to talk about. Let's get to it.
These first two countries have a lot in common. Both Iceland and Norway have beer traditions reaching back to the Viking days, which apparently everyone forgot, leaving both with struggling beer scenes. The taproom is basically a non-existent construct and beer is expensive. $10 dollars is pretty standard in Norway and $13 is a little closer in Iceland after you do the currency conversion. You can find a Budlight style beer called Gull in Iceland or one called Hansa in Norway to save you a couple of dollars, but you still won't be happy about it. The Cycling Cicerone is a blogger on a budget, so imagine my dismay when securing a solid buzz at a bar costs about what I'm willing to pay on a steak dinner. The lesson here: pick up your booze when inbound to these countries at the duty free shop in the airport. I know this sounds super lame, but it's worth it. The duty free shop has a wide variety of the country's offerings including tons of craft beer and liquor that, unless you can scour the whole country, you'll probably miss while you're visiting.
Gull was my light beer of choice in Iceland. There were some other options that tried, but with beers costing so much like I said, I stayed away from wasting money on light beer. Iceland does have a pretty good selection of beer to choose from, but whatever you do, don't bother shopping at the grocery store. Laws in Iceland prohibit the sale of beer over 2.5% ABV anywhere but the state owned liquor stores. Icelander's preferred way of getting craft beer is from bottle shops that have a variety of beers on tap and in bottles. Skuli Craft Bar and Microbar are two such places that can be found in the capital city of Reykjavik. I found Microbar to be the more reasonably priced between the two, and it also just so happened to have won the prize for largest beer selection in Reykjavik some number of years in a row. It's hidden underneath another bar, and when we found it, it was completely empty except for one bored bar tender. It has board games for days and made for a great place to post up and do some flights. Skuli Craft bar had a much smaller selection, but had my favorite and only notable beer of the whole country, a beer called Snorri brewed by Borg that is flavored with thyme. It's freaking delicious and might be the only beer worth seeking out while you're here. That's not to say others are bad- just standard. At least it's easy to get around there.
Reykjavik is pretty small and very bike friendly. While the gang I was traveling with weren't much for biking, you would be able to own this town if you could get your hands on a rental bike. I did a little bit of research for you, and it looks like Iceland Bike is a good bet. Honestly though I only picked it because it is right around the corner from one of two brewpubs I found in the whole city: Bryggjan Brugghus. Grab an overpriced beer and meal there, snag a bike, then ride across town over to the other brewpub, Bjórgarðurinn. Despite this place's criminally loose translation and interpretation of the word "Beer Garden" and it's high priced beer (sorry, what else is new), it's actually a pretty neat place serving up a solid selection of food and beer. Along the way, stop at what might have been the greatest stop of the trip, the Drunken Rabbit. It's an Icelandic take on an Irish pub and I gotta say they more or less nailed it. They offer a full array of Viking brewery beers at very reasonable prices, and they have a big drink wheel behind the bar that you can spin for the chance to win eight beers, and the odds ain't even bad!
Throughout Iceland, I heard warnings that if I thought Iceland was expensive, then "just wait until you get to Norway." Well, everyone in Iceland can take it easy because you are still the king of high prices. Norway is pricey, but it's not quite as bad as Iceland (quit talking about price, already. We get it, you're miserly). This time we didn't make the same mistake and loaded up on beer in the duty free shop. Much like Iceland, there was plenty here that we couldn't actually find out in the wild. Our first day was spent feeling out the country's bud light: Hansa. They brew a terrible light lager, and much like our domestic big breweries at home trying to branch out, they also brew some terrible craft beer. We tried a brewery called Aass just for the silliness and it was also horrible. Norway was off to a bad start. Then we dipped into the real craft stuff. Oslo is home to a number of fine craft beer establishments. Our favorite tap room was Crowbar which served a great selection of their own beers and an equally wide selection of American beers that made us feel right at home, not that we ordered them, but it is good to know that Founders can apparently be found everywhere. Amundsen also gets a shout out for having great flights and food. Aegir brewery in Flam was touristy but still served great beer and served better people watching while we waited for our ferry to Balestrand. Once we got there, we enjoyed hopped and malted ciders with a side of history at Ciderhuset, a cider house that serves locally made cider and food pairings and basically functions as a museum of cider making.
There was no time for biking anywhere in Norway either. Oslo and Bergen lacked any brewery "districts" so to speak, so we were able to walk to the one or two places we were interested in trying. Another day in Oslo and I could have tried another place or two, but for the most part it's pretty scant. Balestrand has only one place, and it's the cider house. That town is so small you can walk from one end to the other in 30 minutes, making a bike a totally pointless tool if your goal is to hit as many breweries as possible.
So the beer scene in Iceland and Norway isn't great. You knew that in your heart, you just needed someone to tell you. Or maybe you are like me, and the warning signs won't stop you, and you have to go for yourself and see. Just know ahead of time - grab beer at the duty free shop to keep you going in between the rare taprooms. Most of your journey will consist of bars with limited beer menus, overpriced bottle houses, and fancy brewpubs. There just isn't quite enough density to bother with a bike. Unlike Ireland… my adventure to which is coming up next!
Thanks for reading "The Cycling Cicerone Experiments With Travel Blogging!" If you liked what you read, click like or comment and share with your friends. In case anyone was curious, I did manage to Ice my friend Tim in Iceland. I know it's an old trend made for college kids, but who can pass up forcing your friend to chug a Smirnoff Ice in Iceland? Not me.