Things could be much worse. Consider the nation of Iceland. Although roughly the size of Kentucky, Iceland has only 40% of the population of Indianapolis - tough ground for any brewery to operate in. And consider this - up until March 1st, 1989, Iceland had prohibition in place on beer over 2.25% ABV. Although the repeal of Iceland's prohibition is now celebrated with Beer Day (an unofficial holiday), things are still a bit grim for those Icelanders in search of bigger and better beer.
Baring all this in mind, those Icelander's who have made advanances into the world of craft beer should be considered heros. One such hero is Valgeir Valgeirsson.
1) Who are you and where do you work?
My name is Valgeir Valgeirsson, 28 years old and I live in Reykjavík Iceland. I am the brewer at Ölvisholt Brugghús, located on a small farm in a renovated barn.
2) Hopefully you're old enough to remember - what was it like before prohibition? Was there a pent-up demand for beer in Iceland?
I was eight when beer was allowed again so I personally did not notice any big change. But the demand was very high for beer, the last years before the ban was lifted it was common to mix together a low alcohol beer (below 2.25%) with a shot of vodka (or something worse) and this was served to people in bars as beer. The day beer was allowed, there were long queues in front of the alcohol stores and people were very excited to try the four brands of beer available.
3) Before I headed over to Iceland, I did a few searches on the internet looking for Icelandic craft beer, and seemed to find that Iceland has very little variety in its beer (I read somewhere online that Iceland was a "beer wasteland") . In my short time in Reykjavik and Akureyri I noticed that the most beer in Iceland seems to come from Egils, which seems to be part of a larger company called Olgerdin - a company that sells everything from Gatorade to Pepsi to Doritos. The beers that Olgerdin sells - either under the Egils or Tuborg brands - tend to be pale and light flavored lagers. Iceland's other large brewery seemed to be the Viking Brewery, who seem to be making the same sort of light lagers as Egils and Tuborg.
In the United States, craft breweries often like to make an "us versus them" argument when talking about large breweries (like Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors) and themselves - basically saying that the large breweries are making bad beer, and that the smaller breweries are the "little guy" fighting a major battle (there was even a Beer Wars movie released recently). Do you see your brewery in the same sort of position? Are you fighting a "battle for better beer" against Iceland's larger breweries?
My main battle is for awareness, getting people to understand that if they are interested there exists a wide variety of quality beers. Essentially that is of course a battle against the beers that dominate the market. But in no way am I in any kind of a struggle with the big players, actually I am in very good contact with Egils for example. As a former employee, I know people there and they have helped me out a few times.
4) A multi-part question: What is your background in beer? Where did you learn to brew? How long have you been brewing? Why did you start your own brewery?
I got interested in beer well before I was allowed to buy it, and on my 20th birthday (legal buying age in Iceland) I went to the government controlled liquor store and bought two bottles of every beer that was available in Iceland. It didn't turn out to be that many bottles and mainly of the same tasteless light lager. It was then that I decided that I wanted to do something to improve the beer culture in Iceland if only for myself to have the choice between two or three decent beers if the mood struck me.
I got my first working experience in the beer world at Egils, in quality control. After that I went to Scotland where I got a Master degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. After my studies I was hired by the Williams brothers at Heather Ale Brewery in Alloa, Scotland as a brewer assistant, although my main job was to run the bottling line. It was there where I got my first taste of specialty brewing. It was then in Denmark where I spent some time at Gourmet Bryggeri, which also brewed the Ölfabrikkens beers, where I truly realized that brewing has no limits except your own imagination. The Danish beer culture was going through a similar revolution as in the USA and it seemed like all the new small breweries were in a competition to brew the biggest and boldest beer possible. It was truly amazing and has influenced me a great deal. This is why in my short career of only 18 months as head brewer for Ölvisholt Brewery I have put out on the market seven types of beer, all distinctively unique to the Icelandic market.
The brewery is on a small farm where there had not been practiced any traditional agriculture for some time. There were two small barns on the farm that were not in use, so it was one evening when the farm owner and his neighbor were having a drink and discussing what these empty barns could be used for. After many drinks, one of them carelessly came up with the idea to use them as a brewery. Neither of them took the proposal seriously since neither of them had any knowledge in brewing or running a brewery whatsoever. But luckily the idea stuck back in their minds and on the 20th December 2007 the first batch of beer was brewed in the old barn at Ölvisholt farm.
5) What is your goal for your brewery? I think I read that you're already doing a little exporting - do you hope to someday distribute your beer worldwide?
At the moment we are exporting to Denmark and Sweden and very soon to Canada as well. It would be fantastic to be able to distribute to the whole world but frankly I cannot see that I will ever have the capacity to do that without having to build a whole new brewery. Our vision is mainly to be able to run a small brewery that is focused on quality and diversity in the one dimensional market in Iceland and with time be able to push up our beer culture.
6) Do you have any breweries you look up to? Are there other breweries in Iceland that we should know about? And how has your beer been received?
I admire every brewery that has the guts to take some risks in their brewing, even if the results are sometimes questionable like my Danish friend's asparagus beer.
The first Icelandic microbrewery Bruggsmiðjan Árskógsströnd, started brewing in 2006. They are not taking any big risks with their brands but they do produce quality beers which is more than most breweries in Iceland.
We started off slowly, we had no idea what to expect in the beginning, but now things are rolling rather fast and we have problems keeping up with demand. One of the biggest compliments we have received is that the companies importing our beer abroad originally came to us looking to do business after trying our beer. This means that the biggest beer exporter in Iceland is a brewery with a maximum production capacity of 300.000 liters a year, in a country where beer consumption is around 16 million liters a year.