sunnudagur, mars 01, 2009

first beer

Today is the 20th anniversary of a special day in Icelandic history. Twenty years ago today, on the first of March, 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iceland legalized the sale of beer. Before that, in keeping with its schizophrenic policies on alcohol, the country did not allow any regular beer to be sold. The reasoning seems to have been that, if beer was legal, people would just sit around drunk 100% of the days and no fishing or aluminum smelting would ever get done.*

Hard alcohol was allowed, because apparently people couldn't drink so much of this as to get drunk. Because it was just too strong, I guess. Of course they did. They also took shots of this hard booze and mixed it with the Utah-style low-alcohol beer that was legal for sale here (locally referred to as "pilsner", in an unintentional insult to the Czechs and their best-í-heimi beer making mastery) to make a sort of beer-like concoction. This, also, was legal. In fact, one downtown bar (don't look for it, it's not there anymore) called Gaukur á stöng made its name selling this reconstituted near-beer-vodka-combo. It tasted about as good as it sounds, apparently.

Of course, twenty years on the populace doesn't sit around drunk 100% of the days. In fact, with the legalization of beer, the consumption of hard liquor dropped appreciably. (Around 30%, according to tonight's "remember when" TV special.) And of course, the consumption of beer did go up: it really couldn't do any less. And now, after another 20 years, microbreweries have started to spring up and Icelanders are at long last beginning to make the next transition: the one from "any beer" to "tasty beer".

*But before you laugh at the naive Icelanders and their irrational fears, think for a minute. Isn't this the same reasoning for pot and cocaine still being illegal in many places?


Blogger Helgi Briem said...

Hi Jared.

Beer was never really "banned" in any meaningful. It was more like "forgotten".

Iceland had prohibition in the 20s like US and many other countries. We sold a lot of salted cod to Spain, but when they had a cash flow problem they decided not to buy any more from us unless we bought some wine in return. So a deal was made, wine for cod, and prohibition was partially removed.

After a while people thought it illogical to allow Spanish wines only and not other wines or strong drink, so a change was made. On the other hand, there was no tradition of beer drinking here and in their joy of having strong drink again, Icelandic drinkers completely forgot about beer for about 50 years, a drink they had never really had much of a use for.

Strong drink was also very seldom drunk neat. We're not Russians. Icelanders mostly drank vodka in coke or ginger ale, mixed to approximately 5%.

You were right about the reasons why allowing beer took so long though. There was strong opposition from certain conservative elements who thought we would all turn into beer-swilling barbecuers. Northern Australians so to speak.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

As ever, a fine and well-thought-out post.

Just an off-the-cuff thought from me. Recently a couple of friends visited from the UK and were shocked at how little I drank. When I moved here in 2003 I lost ten kilos just by stopping my consumption of wine on weekday evenings.

On a simplistic level, the eye-watering prices and inconvenience of alcohol purchase does cut down my consumption. Which may or may not be good, because it leaves me with a fairly constant longing to 'detta í það'.

Prorogating the alcohol tax seems obvious to me, but my knowledge of functional economics is out of date, so there may be some valid arguments why it's not a good idea...


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