Monday, December 12, 2011

Black Death: Craft Beer from Iceland?

As the end of the year is drawing nearer we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. In the beer world the onslaught of seasonal releases has fairly come and gone. The spicy pumpkin brews from autumn have been replaced with the maltier, darker, roastier, and stronger brews we have all come to love and expect as wintertime sweeps over the Pacific Northwest. The term: "Winter Warmer" holds much more weight as we plod through the month of December. For my first review (I know, I'm late. We're already midway through the month!) I'll review this lovely offering that comes to us from the island country of Iceland so named: Black Death, and for the season, properly so. I Hope you enjoy.

And so, Iceland. What comes to mind when you think of the country? A barren snowy landscape? Volcanic formations? Aurora Borealis? Land of the Midnight Sun? Perhaps mile after mile of glacial ice? Perhaps one or all of those things, but certainly not beer, let alone craft beer. But in fact it is indeed true. I have in my possession a bottle of craft beer from Iceland. I recently purchased a six-pack during a layover in Keflavik Airport. But why does craft beer in Iceland seem like such an anomaly? First allow me to throw a little background information at you...

For a good portion of the 20th century, Iceland was a country of complete prohibition. It was passed as a law in 1908 and went into full-effect in 1915. Along the course of the past century exceptions were made. For instance, in 1935 the government legalized the consumption of wine and spirits. But "strong" beers over 2.25% remained completely banned. The justification being that since beer was much more inexpensive than spirits, it would allow inebriation to become much more common. It was not until March 1, 1989 that the government completely lifted the prohibition and beer of all strengths became legalized. March 1st is celebrated by some as "Beer Day" in Iceland and beer is now the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the country.

This beer in particular derives its name from the national drink of Iceland, the extremely strong Iceland produced: Brennivín, nicknamed "Black Death" for its black label and punishing effects. The "Black Death" beer is brewed in the town of Akureyri, located in northern Iceland at Viking Brewery. Up until recently, the beer market in Iceland has been dominated by pale lagers like Gull and Viking Lager. The market for craft beer is growing, with most of the nations smaller breweries springing up within the last 7 or 8 years. I haven't found a comprehensive list of all Icelandic breweries but I estimate there are probably between 10 and 15 with more likely on the way. Where can you find Icelandic beer? I recently read that just last week, Einstök Brewing Company (also based in Akureyri) will be shipping their beer to California. Perhaps it will make its way up the coast at some point to Seattle. As for Black Death, I've no idea if it is distributed within the US. You might call up your local bottle shop and inquire about Icelandic beer. All signs point to distribution outside of Europe soon. With the history lesson out of the way, let's find out if the Icelanders still remember how to brew after 74 years of prohibition by sampling: Black Death...

Name: Black Death
Category/Style: Stout
ABV: 5.80%
IBU: Unknown
OG: Unknown
FG: Unknown
Malt Type(s): Unknown
Hop Type(s): Unknown
Yeast Type: Unknown
Special Additives: None
Bottled: 10/06/11
Bottle Size: 330 mL
Glassware: Pint glass or tumbler
Location Purchased: Keflavik Airport, Iceland

The Pour: Nice chestnut brown reddish hues, head is light brown/cream coloured, retention minimal, nice ring around the outside. A little lacing.

The Nose: Nose is surprisingly sweet and toasty. Some coffee, little dark chocolate, toasted grain, a little creamy caramel and roasty notes...

The Taste: Malty sweet, little roasty, chocolate and coffee, medium bodied, low carbonation. Mouthfeel is silky smooth, somewhat creamy, nice lingering roasted bitterness. Picking up some toasty caramel-like notes, also some roasted nuts? A touch of smoke and hops?

The Verdict: I really didn't know what to expect when I purchased this beer at the duty free shop within the airport. It was the only dark beer available. I figured it might be some sort of light bodied dark lager, but it was worth a shot. When I found out it was a stout I was intrigued. Cracking open a bottle I was further intrigued when the aroma travelled up my nostrils and the flavour met my taste buds. This beer is good. I wouldn't put it near the top of my list but after sampling other Icelandic beers, most namely Gull and Viking Lager, this one beats out the rest. As it would seem, the world of craft beer is just beginning to boom in the country and I can say without a doubt that the future looks bright. The craft beer revolution is taking the world by storm and Iceland is just its latest victim. If you can find a bottle of craft beer from Iceland I say go for it. Give it a try. It just might surprise you. For all you readers in Cali be on the lookout for Einstök and possibly other Icelandic brews...

Thanks for reading!


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