We complain a lot about beer in Ontario. We complain that the LCBO’s monopoly means that we can’t get anything interesting. We complain that The Beer Store is run by huge multinational companies primarily interested in maintaining their control. I am now literally complaining about the fact that we complain, which is probably the kind of thing that can get you pulled over by the irony police (who have recently been saddled with a shipment of ten thousand plastic spoons despite the fact that their requisition form clearly stated that they needed exactly one knife.)
The truth is that it’s simply not that bad. At least we’ve got beer. Iceland didn’t until 1989.
In 1915, Iceland enforced a total prohibition of alcoholic beverages. This is not, in and of itself, all that surprising. We had prohibition in North America. The difference was that Iceland is so geographically remote that there was no easy way around it. If you look at the history of bootlegging in Ontario, it’s clear to see that we were not really all that impressed with prohibition. The town of Picton, Ontario, owes a huge amount to Rum Running. Apparently, they would smuggle whiskey that was intended for the US market back into the province and it was such common practice that people would do it on an amateur basis.
Iceland didn’t have that luxury. They were eventually forced to allow the import of Spanish wine as part of a trade agreement in 1935. At that point, a total prohibition remained on “Strong Beer.” In Iceland, “Strong Beer” is anything over 2.25% alcohol. I can’t picture a two percent beer and neither could Icelanders, who would attempt to get around the prohibition by adding spirits to their beer in order to create something that resembled a proper drink.
Then, on March 1st, 1989, beer was legalized, ending a 74 year prohibition.
As you can imagine, people were pleased with this decision; So much so that from that day forward March 1st was known as Beer Day (Originally titled “Let’s get Wreckedjavik”). It’s celebrated with pub crawls during which the bars stay open until 4am. That seems like overkill to me, but they enjoy it.
The thing that baffles me is that in Canadian provinces a much shorter period of prohibition had pretty serious long term effects on brewing culture. Breweries outright failed. It can be argued that prohibition led to the situation in which E.P. Taylor was able to consolidate brands, leading to the huge corporate breweries of today, leaving us with relatively standard pale lagers. In Iceland, which had an extraordinarily limited brewing culture for 74 years, they ended up with Olvisholt Brugghus.
The brewery is only four years old, but their beers are already available for purchase in Ontario. The amazing thing is how good they are. As part of the LCBO’s spring release, you can purchase Skjalfti. It’s described on the Olvisholt website as a premium lager, although beeradvocate has it listed as a steam beer. It’s a good deal maltier than the majority of lagers and it’s actually a treat to drink. It’s a great deal more complex than you would expect from the style. While I typically don’t drink a whole lot of lager these days, I was really pleased to see it returning this year. (The LCBO website suggests that you pair it with “Saucy pulled-pork sammies.” Someone over there has been watching a little too much Rachael Ray.)
They also had a Smoked Imperial Stout in the fall lineup that people went pretty crazy over. That’s not a style which is all that prevalent, but they made it work.
Here’s a thing that I didn’t know until I started reading their website: Olvisholt Brugghus is located on a farm. The farm is located over the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Their Smoked Imperial Stout is named Lava, because periodically the volcano that’s visible from the brewery’s door erupts. Their lager is named “earthquake” because the brewery is subjected to them with some regularity. There’s the daily possibility that the brewery will be completely totaled by nature, or possibly Grendel. Their insurance premiums must be devastating.
They’ve still managed to get into the LCBO within four years of their founding.
Even in a country where beer was banned for 74 years because people were worried that beer would lead to depravity (and potentially longboats and pillaging), there’s now a national beer day.
Someone should talk to Stephen Harper about making that happen here. In the meantime, feel free to see if you can get your hands on a bottle of Skjalfti for tomorrow and toast your Nordic brethren.