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Iceland has an unofficial holiday on March first called Beer day. If you’re wondering why we celebrate beer once a year, it’s because, for a long time, we couldn’t drink it. For the better part of the 20th century, beer was illegal in Iceland. Wine was fine, Gin was in and vodka was … goodka? (Somebody stop me, please). But beer was off the table. Why? I’m glad you asked.

A quick historical recap – Icelanders voted for (yes, really) a complete prohibition, starting in 1915. As in other parts of the world, this caused an upshot in smuggling, homebrewing, and business for doctors, who could prescribe “Dog doses”, medical grade alcohol, ostensibly for curing dogs and other animals of worms. But another downside of the prohibition was that we made Spain angry.

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How and why, you ask? Well, we were selling a lot of Bacalao (salt fish, but it sounds better in Spanish) to Spain and they didn’t like it when we stopped buying wine from them instead. So, after a few years of angry Spaniards, wine was back in. Also, homebrewing was rampant anyway so a couple of years later, hard liquor was back in. At that time, however, there was no pressure to allow beer so it just sort of stayed prohibited.

Flash forward to the eighties, beer was considered a fancy luxury item. People going abroad tended to drink nothing but beer for the duration of their vacation (Usually starting as soon as they entered the plane) and an actual popular drink was “Imitation beer”, an alcohol-free beer mixed with vodka or even Brennivín.

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Towards the end of the eighties, things were changing. The Cold War was coming to an end, walls were coming down and in the spirit of radical changes, the Icelandic parliament was discussing if they should allow the sale of beer to a thirsty Icelandic nation. A few decades later, the discussion in parliament seems pretty ludicrous. Some MPs thought that allowing beer would cause young people to start drinking earlier and people would be drinking beer at all hours of the day, resulting in them getting drunk at work. One MP even raised her concerns that beer would replace coffee as the nation’s drink of choice.

Despite their concerns, on March 1st, 1989, the prohibition on beer was lifted. Needless to say, most Icelanders still drink more coffee than beer and the age when people start drinking has actually gone up since the eighties, not down. Iceland has built up an impressive tradition of beer brewing in the years since 1989 and craft breweries all over the country are making quality brews of all types. March 1st has become an unofficial holiday known as beer day which, it should come as no surprise, is celebrated by drinking lots of beer.

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Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

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