Why Iceland Banned Beer Until 1989

Twenty-five years ago, Iceland’s parliament voted to legalize beer—which had been prohibited since 1915. It was strange enough that a European country still imposed prohibition so late in the century, but what made it even stranger was that wine and liquor had been legal for decades.

An article posted last Saturday in the BBC News Magazine explained what happened:

When full prohibition became law 100 years ago, alcohol in general was frowned upon, and beer was especially out of favour–for political reasons. Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles.

Simply put, beer was unpatriotic—just as drinking tea was in America in the years leading up to the Revolution.

At first, Icelandic prohibition applied to all alcoholic beverages. In 1921, however, parliament bowed Spain’s demand that it allow wine imports or else face a boycott of its number-one export, salted cod. In 1933, the same year the U.S. repealed Prohibition, Iceland re-legalized alcoholic beverages—with one exception: beer stronger than 2.25 percent alcohol. Since beer was cheaper than stronger beverages, lawmakers were afraid that legalizing it would result in a substantial increase in alcohol abuse.

Support for the beer ban started to wane in the 1970s, when Icelanders spent “city breaks” in other European cities and discovered pub culture. In 1979, parliament allowed Icelanders who’d visited foreign countries to bring beer home. Public opinion swung in favor of legalizing beer, and lawmakers saw legal beer as a source of tax revenue.

Beer prohibition ended on March 1, 1989. Every March 1, Icelanders celebrate Bjordagur, or Beer Day.

The Friday Mash (Man on the Moon Edition)

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17, crewed by Eugene Cernan, Ron Evans, and Harrison Schmitt, returned to Earth. The craft’s re-entry marked the end of America’s manned lunar program. Cernan currently holds the distinction of being the last man to walk on the Moon.

And now….The Mash!

We begin in England, where the publishers of Original Gravity, a beer-centric magazine, have put Issue #1 online, free of charge. Enjoy!

The founders of Surly Brewing Company—Omar Ansari, a first-generation American; and Todd Haug, a death-metal guitarist—have done well, both for themselves and Minnesota’s beer drinkers.

Belgian scientists have found a way to keep beer from over-foaming. They applied a magnetic field to a malt infused with hops extract to disperse its anti-foaming agent into tinier particles.

Archaeologists have concluded that Iceland’s Vikings were more interested in drinking and feasting than in pillaging. Unfortunately for them, the Little Ice Age became the ultimate party-pooper.

A pair of brothers have invented something that makes it easier to enjoy a beer while taking a shower. Their Sip Caddy is a portable cup holder that can be attached to the wall.

Lance Curran, the co-founder of Chicago’s Arcade Brewery, loves comic books so much that he had comic strips drawn on the labels of its Festus Rotgut black wheat ale.

Finally, a woman attending a Philadelphia 76ers game wound up with a lapful of beer after an errant pass knocked the cup out of her hand. The way the Sixers are playing this season, she–and every other fan–needs some beer to deaden the pain.

Beer…By the Numbers

  • Years since Iceland lifted beer prohibition: 22.
  • Where the U.S. stands world-wide in per capita beer consumption: 57th.
  • Beer’s share of the U.S. alcoholic beverage market: 49.8 percent.
  • The beer industry’s annual contribution to the U.S. economy: $223.8 billion
  • Number of certified Cicerones: about 200.
  • Federal excise tax on a barrel of beer: $7.
  • The British government’s proposed increase in the beer tax: 5 pence a pint.
  • Beer Weeks across North America: at least 30.
  • Breweries in the U.S. in 1900: 1,751.
  • Breweries in the U.K. in 1900: 1,324.
  • Craft breweries in Italy today: about 200.
  • Percent of Ontario residents who support beer sales at convenience stores: 63.
  • Pubs in the Greater Toronto Area: about 2,500.
  • Asking price on eBay for a growler of Pliny the Elder: $150.
  • Cost of a 6-pack of Vostok beer, which can be consumed safely in space: $20.
  • Annual dividend on a share of Anheuser-Busch stock (ticker symbol: BUD): 80 cents.
  • The Friday Mash (Halley’s Comet Edition)

    On this day in 1656, English astronomer Edmond Halley was born. He’s best known for computing the orbit of the comet that bears his name and–okay, this is a stretch–inspiring the 1955 song “Rock Around the Clock,” which brought rock and roll into the cultural mainstream. Reason enough to have a beer, no?

    And now…The Mash!

    We begin with the Brewers Association, which rolled out its beer styles for 2011. Two styles have been given new names–say hello to American-Style Brett Ale and American-Style India Black Ale–and several others have new guidelines.

    Brooklyn, New York-based Six Point Craft Ales will brew a beer with local wild yeasts wafting around New York Harbor. Some of that beer, which is part of “Mad Scientist” series, will be aged in oak-charred barrels.

    Meet Payton Kelly. He’s a “founding father” of Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company and, for more 20 years, he’s designed the brewery’s beer labels.

    Van Havig, the brewer at Rock Bottom’s Portland (Oregon) location, has been let go after a 16-year stint at that location. Havig suspects that he was shown the door after criticizing Rock Bottom’s new management for moving to standardize the chain’s beer selections.

    Even though it was settled by the Vikings, Iceland is not a world leader in beer culture. That, however, might be changing: craft beer is making an appearance in that country.

    Sunday’s New York Times magazine had a long–and very interesting–profile of brewer-turned-governor John Hickenlooper.

    Finally, craft beer is about to come to Antarctica. New Zealand’s Moa Brewery is sending three varieties of its beer to New Zealand’s Scott Base.

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