Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Iceland is nice, Greenland has ice!"

Beer: Skjálfti
Brewery: Ölvisholt Brugghús
Type: Steam lager
ABV: 5%
On yet another random sojourn to the LCBO, I came across this:

Naturally, if I ever see a beer bottle as awesome as this, you can be damned sure I'll be picking one up. Hell, where should I start? First, it's got runes and umlauts, which is all kinds of awesome. Secondly, it's from Iceland, which I'm fairly certain is the most little-known-about country in the world, save for Super Ghana. I don't really know much about Iceland, other than it was a stomping ground for Eric the Red and the rest of the NFC North champion Vikings a few years back, they lovingly donated Bjork to the rest of the world, and they don't much cotton to reliable European air travel and stable banking. Actually, I've always hoped to one day visit this mysterious island in the far north. From what I've heard and seen, it's quite a beautiful, picturesque place. It's geological destiny shaped by volcanoes and seismic tremors, the landscape is ever-changing and volatile. Paying tribute to this unique heritage, the brewers named this beer Skjalfti, which means "earthquake."

Pictured: Iceland.

Iceland's brewing tradition has been considerably stunted due to one of the world's longest experiments in prohibition. Like most of the western world, the first years of the 20th century saw the rise of anti-alcoholic fervor in Iceland, which culminated in a 1908 referendum to ban the sale and production of alcoholic beverages. Eventually, like in other countries, people's heads began to clear somewhat, and Iceland welcomed both wine (1922) and liquors (1934) back to their tables. But not beer - or at least not beer over 2.2% (i.e., beer). So unfortunately, Icelanders had to wait a good while before their next (legal) sip of beer. How long do you ask?

Oh, not long, not long, just 1989.

Wow. Holy....wow....

That's right; Icelanders had to suffer through pretty much the entire Cold War before they could have a proper pint. Naturally, when the Icelandic parliament finally (reluctantly) permitted the sale and production of beer on March 1st, 1989, folks in Reykjavik calmly toasted the new arrangement in a civilized, respectful manner. And by that, I mean they got piss drunk for about a week. As one bar owner said: “I remember a lot of drinking and a lot of pissing all night long and the next days, and it [was] not stopping.” Welcome back to the fold, dear brothers, welcome back. March 1st is now pretty much a national holiday (Beer Day) in Iceland, and apparently a lot of Icelandic ex-pats and wishers-well celebrate the day in the United States as well.

In this new permissive culture, Icelanders have taken to brewing with truly spectacular zeal; homebrewing has skyrocketed, as has their level of alcohol consumption, up some 4L per person annually from pre-1989 level. On an island this small, and with such a small population, there are still only a few major breweries, but they seem to be getting along just fine. This is my first experience with Icelandic beer, and hopefully it won't be my last.

Skjalfti is what is known as a 'steam lager', a style made famous in southern California; it's also sometimes known as California Common beer. Basically, steam beer utilizes a lager yeast that ferments at a bit higher temperature than other strains (remember: lager yeasts ferment cooler than ale yeasts), which made for easier brewing in the hotter climes of SoCal. Refrigeration was at a premium during the Gold Rush years, in which steam beer quickly became the most popular brew in the state. Steam beers almost have a pale ale character to them - crisp and malty, with a juicy hop tang and fruity notes. "Anchor Steam Beer" from San Francisco is the original and benchmark for the style, having resurrecting it after nearly a century of non-use; clearly, Olvisholt was greatly inspired by this legendary American brew.

I poured this one into a lager glass. A copper-golden hue, with about a 1/2 inch of head. Decent retention: a substantial ring of foam survives, as does some patches of lacing.

The nose is terrific, similar to a mild IPA. Apple, hops, resin, lemon, caramel, biscuits. Very inviting.

The taste isn't too far off from this. A bready, malty character pairs well with juicy, herbal hops. Citrus, caramel and a good piny, earthy character make for a highly drinkable brew. All the flavors are balanced well; brews with all these notes have a tendency to get scattered and miss the mark, but Skjalfti certainly did not. It's slightly watery, but with a decent level of pucker from the juicy hops, it's really hitting the spot on a warm evening such as this. Medium, biting carbonation.

A great example of the style, very drinkable and refreshing. At about 3 bucks a bottle, it's pretty reasonable, and seriously, how often are you going to have an Icelandic beer? Try it if you can.

Sleeper hit for the summer, in my books (Grade: B+)

Cheers to Iceland!

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