Iceland's Long Road to Beerdom

Updated: Apr 1

Two podcasts offering important lessons on Iceland’s Beer Day, its drinking culture and how it overcame an underage drinking problem.

1989 was a historical year for many reasons. For Icelanders, it was the first time in almost a century that they were legally allowed to order a pint of beer in a pub.

History of the temperance movement

It seems that alcohol had always been part of our history and culture. But in the 19th and the 20th century, there was a time when groups of people were strongly against the sale of alcohol, called the temperance movement.

There were multiple reasons behind this. One of the first pieces of research highlighting the negative health impact of alcohol was released in 1790. Churches and women were worried about the negative social impact resulting from alcohol consumption. Industrialists, ever more influential after the industrial revolution, were concerned that workers were operating machines while intoxicated. As such, different fractions of society came together behind the temperance movement.

In 1908, Iceland's small island neighbour and fellow Danish colony, the Faroe Islands, became one of the first places in Europe to ban alcohol sales, following a referendum the year prior.

Prohibition in Iceland

In Iceland, a referendum was held in 1908 on whether alcohol should be banned. Almost 60% of the population voted yes. But the parliament then allowed for a 7-year grace period for liquor stores to clear out their stocks, and it was on January 1, 1915 that Iceland went dry. Champagne was not on the menu even as Iceland became an independent nation in 1918.

From the first day, creative folks got around the ban with a series of medical prescriptions. Some whiskey for the cough. More for the lung problems. But the dry policy itself also did not last long. Spain was unhappy that its wine sales were getting affected, so they threatened to slap heavy duties on Icelandic fish. As fish represented 80% of Iceland's export back then, Iceland's parliament, the Althing, made an exception for wine in 1922.

In the 1930s, public opinion slowly turned against the ban on alcohol. Perhaps alcohol was sorely missed in the decade of the Great Depression, but illegal brewing and sales of alcohol were also rife. In another referendum in 1933, the public was asked if they agree to lift the ban on alcohol import. This time, 58% of people agreed to lift the ban.

But then someone at the Althing proclaimed, "why don't we lift the ban for everything except beer?"

The beer ban

And this is how a full alcohol ban became a beer ban instead.

As some academics have argued, the ban of beer represented an urban versus rural divide. The temperance movement remained strong in the relatively conservative rural areas. For members of parliaments who represented the rural areas, a ban on beer was seen as a compromise to satisfy their voters.

There were also claims that as Iceland was fighting for its independence in the 1930s, banning the import of beer was seen as a patriotic thing to do. After all, a lot of the beer sold in Iceland was Carlsberg and Tuborg, two of Denmark's finest exports.

Yet, a historian at Iceland's Beer School also argued that Iceland didn't have as much of a beer-drinking history and culture, unlike the Danes or other Europeans. Instead, the Icelandic culture was more focused on drinking to get drunk, especially on weekends. So, having spirits was more essential than enjoying a beer or two, and few cared about the ban on beer in the early 20th century.

And so the beer ban stuck around. Throughout the years, multiple bills and referendum proposals were raised in a bid to overturn the beer ban. None succeeded, as the opposition argued that beer is more damaging to society than other forms of alcohol, as this cheap form of alcohol will get teenagers and blue-collar workers onto a slippery slope towards the hard spirit. The head doctor in Iceland was particularly against lifting the ban on beer.

Attitudes, though, began to change in the 1970s with the increase in overseas travel. Icelanders slowly adopted a more European lifestyle with their visits to Europe. In 1980, the government slightly relaxed the rule to allow Icelanders to import up to 6L of beer when they arrived back in Iceland from overseas. But it took another 8 years and hours of debate before the beer ban was overturned in the Althing in 1988.

So, this is how Beer Day came about. On March 1, 1989, the first day that the ban was lifted, Icelanders all gathered to do nothing but drink beer. As BBC's Witness History podcast looks back on Beer Day,

"It was like a children's birthday party. We were dancing all over. It was like a big wedding the whole weekend. It made me really happy, it was like my wife was pregnant."

Listen to this BBC podcast to go back to the first Beer Day on March 1, 1989

Over 320,000 cans were sold that weekend, even though the tiny country was only 260,000 people strong back then. Beer Day still represents a unique culture of Iceland today.

What happened to alcohol consumption in Iceland

What about the concerns that the conservative Icelanders had?

In fact, alcohol consumption in Iceland increased by 73% between the years 1980 (4.3L per capita) and 2016 (7.5L per capita). This was, as expected, largely driven by the increase in beer consumption, which now represents over 50% of alcohol sales.

On the flip side, spirit consumption has dropped almost three quarters during this period. Icelanders may be drinking more, but they have moved away from the hard spirit. Comparing to other Nordic countries, a typical Dane, Swede, and Finn all consume more alcohol than an average Icelander.

The nationalists can also rest easy. In 2019, over 50% of Iceland's alcohol sales in the state-run alcohol store were domestic products. Denmark was only able to come in second place, representing under 15% of Iceland's alcohol sales.

But this is not saying that there weren't dark days during this time. In 1998, Iceland was ranked amongst the worst in Europe when it came to underage drinking, with over 40% of Iceland’s 15 and 16 year-olds reporting that they had got drunk in the past 30 days. It was common to find teenagers drinking and smoking in Reykjavik.

However, the solution was not to ban beer again. Realizing this problem, Icelandic university researchers and parents developed mechanisms to prevent teenagers from falling into the underage drinking trap. This ranges from family time to sports to pledges signed by the parents. The government played its part in investing in recreational facilities. With these mechanisms in place, underage drinking has fallen to 5% by 2016, ranking amongst the best in Europe.

BBC's People Fixing the World podcast reports on how Icelandic parents have achieved this feat in this episode.

Listen to BBC's podcast on How Iceland Saved Its Teenagers

Thankfully for all, Beer Day has not turned out to be a catastrophic disaster for Iceland. In fact, it has proved to be a useful history lesson for us all. So enjoy a pint of beer next time you are in Iceland and savour Icelanders' long road to beerdom.

This article is part of the Tracing the Vikings' Footsteps series.