For some reason tourism in Iceland has been blowing up in recent years. Maybe it's the unique, other-worldly, volcanic landscapes, or the winter Northern Lights, or the summer midnight sun, or the Game of Thrones filming locations - or maybe it's the emerging craft beer scene....
The Land of Fire and Ice was slow to legalise beer brewing, but is fast catching up with 16 breweries at press time. The capital of Reykjavik boasts numerous local craft beer watering holes and there is a fierce loyalty to all things Icelandic. Here are a few spots in Reykjavik that are not-to-be missed:
Several sources had recommended the Micro Bar for the best craft beer selection in Reykjavik. Confirmed! This place had a dozen or so taps that were all from local breweries. This is also a place where you can order half (5) and full (10) tasting flights. The only catch is that the bartender chooses them for you. In this case we didn't mind since we hadn't tried any of them before. We went for 10 tasters which set the record for the most expensive beer tasting we've ever sampled - 5000 Icelandic Krona which is around 500 HKD! Luckily we stopped here on our last night in the city after being accustomed to outrageous prices for beer.......and everything else for a full week. Nice, cellar-esque atmosphere and clearly the place where all the beer geeks converge. The flight was quite nice, with only 2/10 being terrible and at least 2/10 being terrific.
Take out a loan before you go, but you've got to go if you want to have the most variety of Icelandic craft beer.
If you're looking for a quirky place to stay, or just good food and great drinks then pop into Kex Hostel. Located in a former biscuit (cookie - "kex") factory, their casual service, hipster/retro atmosphere and regular live music make this a favourite in Reykjavik. They have a nice selection of local beers on tap and a couple that are made only for the gastropub. We had burgers and some sour beers that did not disappoint. There's also secluded outdoor seating if the weather is nice.
Live music and craft beer in an old cookie factory with great food can be a dangerous combo - luckily you can also stay the night if it gets out of control!
This was the only actual brewery that we visited in Reykjavik. There may be others, but we landed on this one just on the waterfront outside of the main city centre. A 6-beer tasting flight set us back 3000 Icelandic Krona or 300 HKD - steep, but par for the course. Unfortunately they only brew three beers - pale ale, pilsner and ipa. All of these were quite nice examples of the style and they have plenty of guest taps to complete the flight - mostly from Borg Brugghus, one of the larger craft breweries in Iceland.
They do offer brewery tours, but they charge another 200-300 HKD. That seemed to be the standard around Iceland which just went against all of my morals so I settled for just looking at their gear through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. It looked like a 500 liter kit that was super shiny and fancy looking, possibly of German design. Everything was very new and modern, claiming to be established in 2015, so probably not a very long or interesting history to cover either. Nobody was brewing that day but I did notice another "tour" where a group of six people took a few steps inside while the bartender told them about the process. Couldn't have been more than 20 minutes.........10 HKD/minute!
Pop in to try their three flagship beers but don't get suckered into a "tour".
One place that is certainly not local, but is definitely craft is the Mikkeller & Friends bar. This was our last stop one night so we only went to try half-pours of a couple of their house taps. There are four beers exclusive to this bar, including a Pils, Wit, Brown, and Sour. The rest of the taps are guest taps from other Scandinavian breweries. This is a great place to try pints from To Ol, Omnipollo, and other Icelandic breweries. Same story - beers cost 1500 Icelandic Krona or 150 HKD. Deal with it.
Neat place in the attic of a building offering some interesting beers to try.
Around the Ring Road
We took 10 days to make the drive around the perimeter of the island, making plenty of stops for glaciers, trails, volcanic formations and lava fields, and enough waterfalls to meet your quota for a decade. While there aren't loads of breweries and craft beer bars along the way, there are a few hidden gems. Our insider tip would be to load up on a selection of beer at the Duty Free store in the airport. You will save at least 20% off of the government-run liquor stores elsewhere. I'm embarrassed to say how much beer we walked out of the airport with, but let's just say that we planned to have enough to relax after driving several hours each day - and just in case we couldn't find any other options!
Vatnajokull - Glacier Beer
As you round the Southeastern corner of Iceland you will be in a region near the Vatnajokull glacier which cannot be missed - literally, it's always in your line of sight! A local brewery, Olvisholt Brugghus, is making some craft beers on a small scale and one of those is the "Frozen in Time" Belgian ale supposedly brewed using water from icebergs that is 1,000 years old and seasoned with locally sourced arctic thyme. It was a nice amber ale that I'd recommend. However it seems like a marketing miss that they didn't brew this as an Old Ale. Probably THE oldest Old Ale in the world. Think about it.
When in Vatnajokull..........do as the locals do.
While out for a whale watching tour on the northeastern side of Iceland we made it a point to trek out to visit the Kaldi Brewery and Beer Spa. The brewery has existed for some time, but the spa was recently opened in June 2017. We had lunch there, sampled some beers (6) and enjoyed pints of a Pilsner and a nondescript dark ale that had some great flavor. They also had a wonderful Belgian Tripel but at 9% I thought better of going for the pint, with a drive back to town still looming. Of course we could've indulged in the beer spa treatment which involves something like 20-minutes in a beer bath followed by a massage, etc. They discourage you from drinking the newly fermenting beer-bath water and instead provide you with your own tap and cup for all-you-can-drink soaking. The beer spa experience will set you back 6900 Krona (690 HKD) for single and 13,000 (1300 HKD) for the couples version, so bring a friend and save! Alternatively you can enjoy the outdoor spa with incredible views for 2000 Krona (200 HKD). If you can't make this stop then there is also a Kaldi bar in Reykjavik.
Beer jacuzzi? You kind of want to do it just to tell other people that you did! Imagine the Facebook profile pic!
Borg Brugghus - Craft in Cans
As mentioned before, the best tip that we had before traveling to Iceland was to load up on beer before you leave the airport. The Duty Free store there has a great selection and it will literally save you enough Krona to pay for that beer spa you've been dreaming about. If you stay in Air-B-N-Bs then most likely you'll have a refrigerator and to be honest, even in the summer the beer won't get too hot in the car. Grab a few 6-packs for your travels so that you can try some of their beers at a fraction of the cost. You may miss out on some of the atmosphere of the beer bars, but instead you can enjoy a beer out in the middle of some unbelievable waterfalls and views over volcanic landscapes. Particularly you can find a lot of different beers from Borg Brugghus which seems to be one of two "big dogs" in Icelandic craft beer - the other being Einstock, if you don't count "Viking" as craft (even though it's quite nice).
Icelandic Craft Beer is On the Map
Everybody else is doing it so go ahead and put Iceland on your bucket list. It is hands-down the most expensive place to drink beer in the world (1500 Krona/pint in bars - 150 HKD), but they are brewing some nice beers. Don't expect the "free brewery tour" deals that are commonplace in North America and with such a short history for most of the breweries I don't suppose that you are missing much. Icelandic brewers are making some nice examples of modern craft styles such as Pale Ales, IPAs, and various lager styles as well as utilising local ingredients such as Arctic thyme, arctic berries, and glacial water. It will be exciting to see where the road leads this up-and-coming craft beer country.