A Portlander’s Take on the 2015 KEX Icelandic Beer Festival

Reykjavik during Icelandic Beer Fest
Reykjavik during Icelandic Beer Fest

By Cat Stelzer

My quest to visit Iceland began about two years ago, after learning that 2014 and 2015 were predicted to be strong years for viewing the Northern Lights. I started following Icelandic Twitter accounts to get a sense of a good time to go, and other activities that might be of interest to me. This is how I initially found out about the annual KEX Icelandic Beer Festival, which occurs the weekend closest to Beer Day (March 1st), an Icelandic celebration marking the end of the prohibition of beer in 1989. March seemed like a good time of year to visit, since the days start getting longer, yet Northern Lights can still be seen. When I found a tour that started the day after the beer fest, I thought it made sense to book my travel plans.

KEX-Icelandic-Beer-Festival-1024x769
KEX Icelandic Beer Festival

This was the fest’s fourth year, which ran Thursday through Sunday nights (Feb 26 March 1), for two hours each night. Day passes cost 2,950 ISK (about $21.26 USD) and festival passes cost 6,950 ISK ($50.08 USD). In previous years, the festival was free and created long lines of drinkers who wanted to drink for free before heading out on a weekend runtur (Icelandic bar crawl). Alcohol is quite expensive in Iceland, so the modest price of the fest this year, brought out more of the beer geek crowd. Both types of passes sold out for the fest, so if you want to go, considering purchasing them online before you go.


The Annual Icelandic Beer Festival 2015 – Day One


The Annual Icelandic Beer Festival 2015 – Day Two


The Annual Icelandic Beer Festival 2015 – Day Three


The Annual Icelandic Beer Festival 2015 – Day Four

This year’s festival featured two Oregon breweries, Breakside Brewery and Hopworks Urban Brewery. Additionally, international breweries included: Mikkeller, To Øl, Two Roads Brewing, Founders Brewing Company, and Evil Twin Brewing. Icelandic breweries included: Vifilfell, Einstök, Borg, Ölvisholt, Kaldi, and Steoji.

Christian Ettinger pouring Hopworks at Icelandic Beer Fest
Christian Ettinger pouring Hopworks at Icelandic Beer Fest
Ben Edmunds enjoying a beer at the Icelandic Beer Fest
Ben Edmunds enjoying a beer at the Icelandic Beer Fest

Once you gain entrance, there are no tickets, beer list, or a festival glass that you reuse for your beer tastes. Each night featured three to four breweries with pouring stations around the KEX restaurant/bar. You stand in line for your brewery of choice, where a glass is filled with the beer of your selection (each brewery had two or three options). I made the mistake of trying to reuse my glass, and was abruptly told to leave my old glass on the counter, while they gave me a new one for each pour. You are allowed to drink as much as you want within the two-hour session. The brewers poured their beers and talked to the festivalgoers, which created a very interactive atmosphere. Icelanders tend to dress up when going out in the evening, so it felt a bit more upscale than the beer fests that I’m used to attending. Another notable difference to me was the lack of women in attendance. I was told that there is a large and active Facebook group of women who enjoy beer and do events in Iceland, but it appeared to be mostly men at this particular festival.

Asta (top right), board member of home brewers association and friends at Icelandic Beer Fest
Asta (top right), board member of home brewers association and friends at Icelandic Beer Fest

The Beer
Brewing has only been legal in Iceland for 26 years now, so they are still young in terms of their offerings and quality. Icelandic beer drinkers are excited about the future of beer in their country, which is evident by the quality of the breweries invited to attend this festival from outside Iceland. Icelandic glacier water seems to be the most marketed key ingredient, which makes their beers unique. Seasonal beers in Iceland tend to revolve around religious like Christmas or Easter and unique Icelandic festivals.

Founders Brewing pouring All Day IPA at Icelandic Beer Fest
Founders Brewing pouring All Day IPA at Icelandic Beer Fest

Borg Brewing is creating some of the highest quality beers in Iceland. Brio, their German Pilsner available in cans, is one of the more commonly found beers throughout the country, and is a solid Pilsner. Borg produces a wide variety of styles, even an IPA, which is uncommon in Iceland. Úlfur India Pale Ale Nr. 3, by Borg, was an impressive beer. Not as hoppy as us north-westerners are used to, but a very good IPA. Hopworks is attempting to have their kegs from the festival, sent back full of Borg beer, so if we are lucky, there might be a tasting in our future.

Icelandic brewery, Viking at Icelandic Beer Fest
Icelandic brewery, Viking at Icelandic Beer Fest

The most talked about Icelandic beer in the media has been the Hvalur 2, by Stedji Brewing. This Fin whale testicle beer, smoked in sheep dung, created an international firestorm and has been written about by BBC, Draft Magazine, and USA Today. This beer is no longer available on store shelves, but was available for tasting at the festival. Honestly, I couldn’t taste the whale testicles, but how would I know what whale testicles taste like? This beer was pretty overwhelmingly smokey, with diacetyl taste. Honestly, I just don’t want to think about testicles or dung, while drinking a beer, ever! It should also be noted, that eating whale is not uncommon in Iceland, as well as seeing puffin, horse, or fermented shark on a menu. Being a bit isolated, the people of Iceland need to be resourceful.

Cat tasting the whale testicle smoked in sheep dung beer at the Icelandic Beer Fest
Cat tasting the whale testicle smoked in sheep dung beer at the Icelandic Beer Fest

Another favorite of mine, was the Einstok Icelandic White Ale, a Belgian-style witbier with orange peel and coriander. It is a refreshing, easy drinking beer at 5.2%. As a side note, coriander is an influential spice in Brennivin, a popular schnapps called “the original Icelandic spirit” or “black death,” which I also took a liking to and can now be found here in the North America.

Einstok Brewery serving Icelandic White Ale at Icelandic Beer Fest
Einstok Brewery serving Icelandic White Ale at Icelandic Beer Fest

One of my favorite aspects of this festival was the international sampling of beers available. Mikkeller not only poured beers at the fest, they opened their Mikkeller and Friends bar in Reykjavik the same weekend as the festival. Students of Mikkeller, who opened To Øl, a gypsy brewing operation, served up a lovely sour IPA called Sur Amarillo IPA. You could really see the impression Mikkeller has left on the brewers at To Øl, as their beers have similar qualities. I learned about a brewery out of Connecticut, new to me, called Two Roads Brewing, who poured a really good Workers Comp saison. It appeared that Icelanders really enjoyed the Oregon beers being poured. I know Hopworks emptied their kegs just short of the two-hour event, and I heard from people in attendance that really enjoyed the Breakside beers as well.

ToØl at Icelandic Beer Fest
ToØl at Icelandic Beer Fest
Two Roads Brewing out of CT at Icelandic Beer Fest
Two Roads Brewing out of CT at Icelandic Beer Fest

Since the fest ends early in the evening, there is plenty of time to check out the great restaurants, go on a bar crawl, or book a Northern Lights tour. Topping off a late night, you must stand in line for the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (the famous Icelandic hot dog stand). The hot dogs made of lamb, pork, and beef have a layer of crispy fried onions and a delicious sauce!

 

Cat Stelzer at the Icelandic Beer Fest
Cat Stelzer at the Icelandic Beer Fest

I thoroughly enjoyed the Icelandic Beer Festival. The people in Reykjavik are so nice and welcoming, and the country is magically beautiful. Seeing the Northern Lights just topped off an already amazing experience!

Skál! (Icelandic for cheers)

KEX Hostel - Icelandic Beer Fest Host
KEX Hostel – Icelandic Beer Fest Host

Travel Information
IcelandAir will begin to offer direct flights from Portland (PDX) to Reykjavik (KEF), seasonally, May 19th through October 20th. If you want to go during the rest of the year, there are direct flights out of Seattle. IcelandAir also offers a free stopover program, which allows passengers to stop in Iceland, for up to seven nights with no additional charge, to many good beer cities in Europe. Check out IcelandAir.com for more information. (ed note: as of today, March 13, 2015, IcelandAir is offering some great introductory fares from Portland, OR to Reykavijk beginning at $999.00 per person.)

KEX Hostel offers traditional hostel type rooms, as well as individual rooms with private bathrooms. KEX is located in downtown Reykjavik in close walking distance to shopping, dining, and many other attractions. More information can be found at kexhostel.is

The Icelandic Beer Festival information did not become available on the KEX website until after the first of the year. When I was looking for airfare, I was glad I purchased in advance, as fares increased sharply in the months prior to the festival.

Hopworks Tom Bleigh and Breakside's Scott Lawrence at the Icelandic Beer Fest.
Hopworks Tom Bleigh and Breakside’s Scott Lawrence at the Icelandic Beer Fest.
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