Taste the Saga

After our Golden Circle excursion, it was time to check out Iceland’s oldest brewery. Our friends Patrick and Heather stumbled on this little gem and it was one of the best deals in Iceland. We went to Ölgerðin Brewery for their Taste the Saga tour. It is safe to say that this booze tour was the best one I have ever experienced! First of all, you really get your money’s worth (and then some!) of beer. Secondly, Iceland actually has an incredibly interesting history when it comes to alcohol.

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We gathered in the Ölgerðin tasting room and our tour guide, Olof, started the crowd off with a pint of Gull, Iceland’s most popular beer. As part of this tour, the Gull on tap was “all you can drink” and as it turns out…we can drink a lot! While the crowd was quenching their thirst, Olof told us all about Iceland’s interesting history as it relates to booze. In 1908, the people of Iceland actually voted to ban all alcohol. The ban went into effect in 1915 and to some extent, lasted until 1989! Spain threatened a trade embargo after Iceland stopped importing their Spanish wine. The threat of Spain no longer importing Icelandic fish was enough for the government to legalize Spanish wine in 1921 (wine from all other countries remained illegal). Then in 1935, Iceland legalized all spirits, but beer remained illegal. This probably sounds a bit backwards, but the thought was that since beer is cheaper than hard liquor, people would be more likely to abuse the cheaper substance. In truth, the Icelandic people just found an alternative way to abuse beer (and I don’t use the term “abuse” lightly!). In Iceland, the term “pilsner” refers to their potent imitation beer. Olof prepared a sample of “pilsner” for us to try. She combined non-alcoholic beer with vodka and schnapps (specifically a kind of schnapps the Icelanders refer to as Black Death). I can assure you that it did not taste anything like the pilsner you may be accustomed to.

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During the prohibition, Iceland still made beer, but it had to be “exported.” Polar Beer was the export product, but Olof led us to believe that it technically never left the country. Instead, it was consumed by Brits on their military installation whilst they were occupying the country.

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In 1985, prohibition lost more support after the government made it illegal for pubs to add alcohol to non-alcoholic beer to make “pilsner.” Finally, on March 1, 1989, Iceland’s prohibition ended completely. Beer is now the most popular alcoholic beverage in Iceland and many natives celebrate Beer Day on March 1st every year.

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After our very interesting history lesson, we set off to tour the brewery. We had to put on hair nets before entering and because we were already quite tipsy, Heather and I acted like we were Laverne and Shirley. Meanwhile, Rob and Patrick didn’t really appreciate being called Lenny and Squiggy. They clearly weren’t having as much fun as Heather and I (or the Icelandic guy photo-bombing our picture!)

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After our tour, we tried several other Icelandic beers. Iceland has to import most of their barley in order to make beer, but we tried a beer called Snorri that was made from 100% Icelandic barley. It was quite tasty and it is the only beer in Iceland that is made only from Icelandic barley. We also tried a Christmas malt that was quite good. Finally, we got a sample of Brennivin (a.k.a. Black Death) which is a caraway flavored schnapps and considered Iceland’s signature drink.

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Sadly, our tour ended shortly thereafter. However, Olof let me go behind the bar to pour to-go cups! BEST BREWERY TOUR EVER!!

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To say we got our money’s worth is an understatement. I may or may not have started dancing behind the bar, spun some weird Icelandic wheel of fortune, and possibly a few other things that Rob pleaded with me not to add to the blog!

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Welcome to Reykjavik

Rob and I had an overnight flight to Iceland and we were luckily able to check-in at our hotel first thing in the morning. We arrived at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura at about 8 a.m. and I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to check-in that early. As much as I wanted to get out there and start exploring Reykjavik, Rob and I both agreed that we needed to nap before we tackled touring the city.

After sleeping a bit longer than anticipated, we ventured into the city. It was a very windy day and therefore, it was quite cold. I was desperately wishing that I would have worn my thermal leggings under my jeans, but I was certain that I wouldn’t make that mistake again during the rest of our trip!

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My favorite spot in Reykjavik was Tjornin, which is a small lake in the city center. The lake was completely frozen except for one small area where they pump geothermal water into the lake to make a spot for the local water birds year-round. Rob walked straight out onto the ice, but I was a bit more hesitant to do so. After a few minutes of contemplation, I was convinced that the ice was thick enough, so I joined Rob in the middle of the lake for a photo op.

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The Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and it is named after an Icelandic poet and clergyman. In all of my travels, I have never seen a church that looks quite like this one. The design is said to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. The statue in front of the church is of Leif Eriksson and it was actually a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament.

All of this exploring made us thirsty, so it was time to taste the local beer. We stopped at a bar and I enjoyed a delicious seasonal Viking Christmas brew, while Rob drank an Icelandic stout. Both were quite good!

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After trying the local drinks, we were ready to try the local food as well (at least I thought we were ready). Rob asked our waitress about Icelandic specialties and she recommended he try the appetizer sampler (pictured below).

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From left to right: Dried Fish, Minke Whale, Puffin, & last, but certainly not least….Rotten Shark!

Rotten shark, called kæstur hákarl, is a traditional Icelandic dish that dates back to the Vikings. The Greenland shark, when fresh, is quite poisonous due to a high concentration of urea. In order to safely eat the meat, it is buried for a couple of months to allow the chemicals to drain from the meat as it ferments. Then the meat is hung to dry for several more months. The finished product = quite disgusting! But seriously…what else would you expect when eating something rotten? Please note how the shark was served in a sealed mason jar, so as not to taint the rest of the food or allow the foul odor of ammonia to burn your nasal passages! Our waiter joked with us and said you don’t have to be afraid of sharks because we can eat them instead of them eating us. Ummm…no thanks. I’ll keep my shark phobia if it means never having to eat rotten shark again. Check out these videos about rotten shark:

Thankfully our entrees were both quite delicious. I had the Icelandic Cod and it was the best I had ever had. Rob tried a freshwater fish called Arctic Char and he said it was the best fish he had ever eaten.

With specialties like Dried Fish and Rotten Shark, it’s no wonder Reykjavik’s most popular restaurant is this hot dog stand!

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After an exciting and freezing evening in Reykjavik, the perfect way to end the night was to relax at our hotel spa. This was definitely the best way to warm up my chilled bones.