Before We Had Beer

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“I’m not old enough to remember, as I was only thirteen years old when the law changed…” the barman told me when I asked what happened before the mid-1980s removal of the beer ban in Iceland. “But I do know”, he added, “we used to have light beer that people used to add vodka to, and that’s wrong in oh so many ways”.

He was the barman and co-owner of “Litla Gula Hænan” (The Little Yellow Hen). Located at Laugavegur 22, (the spot of a number of “legendary” bars of the yeas) this particular incarnation was only a few months old, he told me. He applied for the licence in November, went through all of the necessary legal checks, and was open for New Years Eve. In designing the bar, he included some items from previous incarnations of the bar including a wonderful sign which said, “Wine. How Classy People Get Drunk”. I can’t recall his name, now, but I can tell you he was a lovely, friendly bloke with a dry sense of humour. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, so no big dramatic goodbyes tonight”, he said to a couple of guys leaving the bar. That left just a handful of us. It was, after all, a Wednesday night.

There was me, an American, a couple of Icelandic blokes and later, a group of young people came in asking for a drink. Goodness knows what was going through their minds, as they sent the youngest looking forward fist. “Eighteen in a few months time” the young bloke said when asked how old he was. “That’s got to be the worst answer to that question you’ve ever heard?”, I asked, and was then told the legal drinking age in Iceland is actually twenty.

Like the nearby Scandinavian countries, Iceland has had a difficult relationship with alcohol over the years. There was the beer ban until the mid-80s. Even now, the alcohol stores, like Sweden remain state-owned with limited training hours. On the weekends, however, Reykjavik comes to life with a vivid late night scene. “All the tourists come out, and go home by about 12.30, and then the Icelanders come out and wonder where all the tourists have gone”, the barman told me. “I’ll be back later in the week”, I told him, noting the 1.00am closure tonight.

Still, it was a big night for a couple of guys I met. Brothers. One gay, one straight. Both having consumed a fair amount to drink. They were fun to chat to. For a while, we were joined by a mate of theirs who told me he was travelling to Australia in a few weeks to, as he said, “bring my boyfriend back home from Brisbane”. In the meantime I was having a lovely time chatting to the barman. I hope this new venture goes well for him.

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