A Brooklynite Abroad: Tasting Christmas beers on a tiny island in Iceland
I recently found myself on the tiny Icelandic island of Hrísey, 20 miles north of Akureyri as the raven flies. Soon after my arrival, I learned that a tasting of so-called “Christmas beers” would be taking place at Verbúðin 66, the only restaurant that’s open on the island this time of year.
Excited, I got there early, enjoyed a plate of extremely fresh Icelandic cod and chips, then headed into the temporarily empty bar area and ensconced myself at the only table touching the long white radiator.
Gradually the small room filled with people, until finally 18 percent of the island’s current population had shown up. In Brooklyn, that would mean a crowd of around 468,000. On Hrísey, winter population 100, it meant 18 souls — including me and the evening’s cohosts, Gunna and Hanna.
As my fellow tasters chattered amongst themselves, Gunna sidled over to me and spoke quietly into my right ear. “Is it all right if my husband, Pétur, shares your table?” she asked.
“Of course!” I exclaimed, smiling as he took the chair across from me.
I quickly learned that Pétur hadn’t been seated across from me to warm up. Rather, the room (and Gunna) had deputized him to act as my translator for the night. This confirmed something I already knew: Ever considerate, Icelanders are remarkably gifted at anticipating visitors’ needs.
Pétur is an engineer on the small ferry that chugs the four miles back and forth between Hrísey and Árskógssandur (population 119) several times each day. As Gunna and Hanna walked around the room setting beer glasses, pitchers of water and silver bowls on each of the tables, I introduced myself to Pétur and told him I’m from New York. “Oh, New York,” he said, rolling his eyes comically. “In that case, I’ll speak American English.”
At that point, Gunna walked to the center of the room holding a sheaf of papers. She put on her reading glasses and all talking ceased. Gunna cleared her throat and began speaking.
“Welcome to our Christmas beer tasting,” Pétur translated for me in a low voice. “Tonight we will be tasting six beers. Four are lagers and two are stouts. All of the beers are from Iceland except for the first we will be tasting, which is from the Faroe Islands.”
As Gunna read aloud from her sheaf of tasting notes, Hanna walked to each table and did the pouring, filling each glass a quarter of the way full.
I picked up my glass and held it toward Péter. “Scowl,” I said.
“Skál,” he responded. Our glasses clinked musically, and we each took a sip. The beer is what my New York-based Master of Wine friend Jean Reilly would call “extremely short”; as soon as you swallowed it, the flavor was gone. I recorded my review in my journal.
“Yum,” I wrote.
Gunna came to our table and poured some candy into the little silver bowl; these turned out to be milk chocolate-covered corn puffs, reminiscent of crisp, light malted milk balls. (She and Hanna continued to distribute candy throughout the evening, providing sweets specifically chosen to enhance the flavor of each beer. Ultimately this transformed the beer tasting into an ersatz dessert course — a great value for the 1,000 ISK/$6.88 tasting fee.)
Following Pétur’s lead, I grabbed a few pieces of candy and chewed them between sips. Once my beer glass was empty, I poured a bit of water into it, swirled it around and swallowed the contents to “clean” my glass in preparation for the next beer.
Pétur, meanwhile, was taking his translator role very seriously. He held his hand out to his wife and, with an impatient “Bop bop bop bop!” and a wave of his hand, demanded that she bring him her notes about beer number one. As he perused the page, I kept eating corn puffs. Suddenly he stopped reading and looked across at me. “Okkara Jól Bjór,” he intoned solemnly. “‘Our Christmas Beer.’ Electric brown. Sweet. Medium full. Medium bitter. Dried fruit. Brown sugar. Cola. Five point eight [percent alcohol].” His gravitas gave the words an official air I appreciated.
Gunna resumed her position in the center of the room and the entire process was repeated for beer number two, Víking Brugghús’ Tveir Vinir & Annar Í Jólum, a deliciously citrusy lager brewed in nearby Akureyri. As Hanna posed for me holding the can, Pétur translated the tasting notes. “Golden,” he said. “Not sweet. Medium full. Medium bitter. Corn. Orange. Pine. Five percent.”
“But what does the name mean?” I asked, taking a sip.
“‘Two Friends and Another at Christmas’,” he said. He searched for words, then shrugged apologetically. “Icelandic humor. It doesn’t translate.”
The candy accompaniment this time was chunks of an orange-flavored milk chocolate bar — perfect for the bright-tasting brew. I scribbled down my review of the latter.
“Yum times two,” I wrote.
Beer number three was Jóla Kaldi, a holiday Dunkel from Iceland’s popular Kaldi brand. Brewed in the ferry town four miles across the fjord, Litli-Árskógssandur, “this one’s as local as you can get,” observed Pétur. He was familiar with its provenance: “It’s really a Czech beer — a Czech brewer got Kaldi started.”
Gunna passed him her notes. “Dark lager,” he read. “Peaches. Caramel. Dried fruit. Pine. Peat — earth. Fresh. Not sweet. Medium full. Five point four. Comfortable bitterness.”
“Comfortable bitterness”? I took a sip and jotted down my review.
Jóla Kaldi’s candy accompaniment was chunks of a spongy, milk chocolate-covered caramel. I grabbed a few pieces and chewed as I finished the Dunkel. Then I swirled water in my glass and prepared for beer number four, the most interesting selection yet.
As Gunna read from her notes and Hanna came around to do the pouring, the noise level in the room rose considerably. The anticipation for this one was palpable. But when Hanna came to our table and posed with the can, I was mystified to see that it had a picture of what appeared to be vegetables on it — peas and red cabbage. What the hell?
Pétur chuckled. “That’s what Icelanders eat for Christmas dinner!” he exclaimed. “In the beer!”
The beer was called Ora Jólabjór, and its makers, RVK Brewing, had indeed put cans of Ora peas and red cabbage right into the tank when they brewed it. Ora is basically the Green Giant of Iceland; the manufacturer’s canned veggies can be found in every grocery store in the country — even the tiny one on Hrísey.
As Hanna did the honors, I saw that the red cabbage had given the beer a faint but gorgeous pink cast. Hanna posed with the hilarious can. Gunna brought over the tasting notes and our flavor enhancers: chunks of nut-studded dark chocolate and (surprise!) a small foil-wrapped wedge of soft white cheese.
“Electric gold,” read Pétur. “Toasted malt. Beans. Spices. Five point two.”
Hmm — no mention of the cabbage. I took a whiff. The brew smelled sour and funky, like dirty socks. Pétur took a sip, then looked disappointed. “Last year was the first year for this beer,” he said. “It sold out right away. But this batch just doesn’t taste the same.”
There was a murmur around the room, and I saw a few small grimaces. “They don’t like it, either,” Pétur translated, somewhat superfluously. “Well — they think it’s okay. But it’s not as good as the others.”
As for me, I found the slightly vegetal sour with its clove-and-legume undertaste to be weird and wonderful. “I love it!” I said. “It’s my favorite so far!” Pétur translated my outburst to the room, and suddenly all eyes were upon me. I raised an empty can of Ora high in the air. “Brooklyn!” I shouted, to general laughter.
More murmuring. “They say that since you are the only one who likes it, you can have it,” Pétur translated. “They say you should take all of the Ora Jólabjór back to Brooklyn with you.”
Hanna immediately came over and poured me the leftovers, which I enjoyed with the cheese. Then it was time for beer number five, Leppur Stout from The Brothers Brewery on the Westman Islands. There were evergreens on the can.
I found this dark stout to be a lot: really rich and really sugary, like a dessert wine. The quarter-glass serving, in fact, was almost too much for me. I quickly finished it while chewing its candy accompaniment — salty black licorice, which helped cut the beer’s sweetness.
“Six point two,” intoned Pétur. “Toasted barley. Coffee. Vanilla. Cocoa.”
“And what does ‘Leppur’ mean?” I asked.
He struggled to explain. “In Iceland’s folklore, there is an ogress named Grýla, and Leppur is one of her sons.”
“Oh!” I said. “He’s one of the Yule Lads!”
“No,” Pétur corrected me. “Leppur is older than the Yule Lads. The thirteen Yule Lads were created later, to keep kids in line. Lepper is…” He hesitated.
A woman wearing a vibrant coral scarf over her shoulders suddenly stood up and approached our table. Shouting with laughter, she released a barrage of Icelandic at Pétur while gesturing at me. His face reddened. As she went back to her seat, he pretended to scratch his forehead with his two middle fingers.
“What did she say?” I asked incredulously.
“‘You can tell her anything,’” he translated sheepishly. “‘She won’t know the difference.’”
Clearly the good woman knew nothing of my Googling skills. Grýla, the interweb says, had upwards of 72 children. Leppur is one of the older ones, and his name means “rags.” His father was Grýla’s second husband, Boli, whom she eventually tired of and reputedly ate, just as she’d eaten her first husband, Gustur. Ho ho ho, everybody.
Now it was time for Gunna and Hanna to distribute coffee beans and chocolate-covered coffee caramels to go with beer number six, their final offering of the night. This beer was also from Kaldi: Jóla Kaldi Súkkulaði Porter.
“Súkkulaði,” pronounced “SOUK-ooh-lah-thee,” means “chocolate,” and this toothsome and sweet 6.5 percent porter is flavored with toasted malt, coffee, cocoa and chocolate from the famed Reykjavik-based confectioner Nói Síríus. Needless to say, it’s delicious.
The tasting ended with a hearty round of applause for our two beaming hosts. “In small communities like ours, you have to think of ideas like this,” observed Pétur as he clapped.
Skál to that.
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