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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Encountering Iceland

I accepted a junket to visit Iceland's Ölvisholt brewery from Belgian beer importer Vanberg and DeWulf, partly because I've known them for so long -- Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield have been great influences on my beer thinking, and on life in general -- and partly because I've never been to Iceland, and have always wanted to see it. Saturday afternoon, May 5th, Cathy dropped me off at Hamilton station in New Jersey, and after a pretty painless set of rides on NJ Transit, Long Island RR, and the JFK AirTrain, I was at JFK, waiting my 8:40 flight on IcelandAir among an amusingly high percentage of tall, slender blonde folks of varying ages; homeward bound, I assumed.

That all went off without a hitch, on-time takeoff, and 6 hours later -- no sleep, my curse -- the sun was rising as we approached Iceland. I was looking out the rightside window as the plane was descending, eager for my first look at the island, seeing only waves and a couple of fishing boats. Then I looked to the left, and through the window across the aisle, I saw the snowy cone of Snaefellsjökull; my first sight of Iceland, appropriately, a volcano. Excited, I continued to look at details: the flat seaside plains that now appeared to my right, the sparse buildings, the snowy line of hills and more volcanoes to our left far across Faxa Bay. We landed at 6:05 AM local, blew through customs and baggage claim in ten minutes (really, it was wonderful), and after getting some krona out of the ATM and buying a bottle of water, I was on the FlyBus to the hotel. 

The trip from the airport wasn't as bleak as people had told me. The volcanic rock along the road is actually well-covered with lichens, moss, and some grasses, and a few hardy types have built homes closer to town; isolated, and of the spare style I'm growing to appreciate as I acclimate. They use simple, cheap materials -- corrugated metal, cinderblock and stucco -- but they achieve a balanced simplicity that is appealing in its honesty. They could easily build blockhouses...but they don't. They build solidly constructed, simple homes.

Changed the white balance on my camera accidentally...
Anyway...the bus arrived at the Natura Hotel, and Wendy was right there, coming out the door to go on a morning walk (it was about 7:15 by now). That was lucky, because I needed to get to sleep! She welcomed me, got me checked in, and I was shortly snoozing. About three hours later, I was much refreshed -- I thought, I'd need another nap later before I was set -- and we walked into town, Don, Wendy, and I. 

Don and Wendy are very much about the place of the beer, and not just the terroir, but the cultural origins, the place the beer has made for itself. So this was about meeting Iceland, which means meeting Reykjavik; over half the population of the entire country lives here. We walked up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja (above), the huge church on the hill overlooking the main "downtown" and the harbor. Services were just letting out as we got there -- children running around eating ice cream! -- and we bought tickets for the elevator to the sightseeing platform on the 8th floor of the steeple. You look out past the faces of the clock to views like that below.

Looking down into Reykjavik, concert hall in mid-distance center.

Views taken in, we walked downhill into town, past The Hand-Knitting Association of Iceland (really, and they actually figure in the story later...), and we stopped in a place called Vegamot (which turned out not to be a vegetarian place: vegamot means something like 'crossroads,' or 'where paths cross') for a beer.

This was a chance to try the big beer in the country, from the big Egils brewery, Gull, or "Gold" (pronounced something like "gool (th)", with just a bit of 'l' and a quick flutter on the end; interesting language with an obsession with "th" sounds). "Gold" is a good name for it; it's a decent international pils-type; nothing exciting, but not bad either. Happy to finish it. They also have a "craft" line, called Borg, and we sampled the Blonde (No.4) here -- again, good, not crazy -- and had the IPA at another point -- kinda blunted, but to be honest: there was a lot of old bottled beer in Iceland.

We walked on, and wound up at a nice little place for lunch: Lækjarbrekka, where I had what they called a traditional Icelandic fish stew. (I'd been told about all the Icelandic goodies I should try: whale, puffin, and the fermented shark meat...nowhere we went offered any of them.) It was fairly bland, but good, and did the trick. From here we walked to the Harpa, the large, modern concert hall right on the harborside. It was gorgeous, it was impressive, it was was naptime again. After a nice chat in the comfy chairs at Harpa, I was starting to drift off. We went back to the hotel, I had another snooze, we had dinner at the hotel (an interesting buffet with two different kinds of herring, cod, and chicken, and more vegetables than I've ever seen at a German hotel spread, I'll tell you that)...and after I'd marveled at how bright the light still was at 10:30 PM local...I called it a day.

The next day we would visit Ölvisholt and meet brewer/owner Jon Gunnlauggson...and see volcanoes, ponies, glaciers, fish jerky, moss, steam, and angelica. Back soon.


Anonymous said...

I was stationed in Iceland while in the USAF. Great people and a nice country. I enjoyed my time there. Never had fermented shark either!

johnnybgoode said...

really enjoying your trip report - what is the weather like? cloudy and in the 40's?

Gary Gillman said...

Interesting report Lew. Can you elaborate on the term "old bottled beer", what did you mean exactly by that?


Lew Bryson said...

Weather was alternately cloudy - had snow one afternoon - and bright sun; temps didn't get much over 45.

Gary, we were trying beers in a variety of places, and while the Gull was always fresh, most of the others were either out of code or close to it. I suspect beer freshness is well down the list of priorities; add into that the high cost of the beers, which I think would make bars reluctant to dump old beer. More thoughts on this, but that's for the next entry.

Gary Gillman said...

Interesting. I found in England some years ago something similar for bottled and canned beers, if you weren't careful, you could buy a "classic" that didn't really taste great. Of course, draft is the staple there, but still. Same thing in France and CZ. Only in Germany did the bottled beer seem reliably good in this sense.


David said...

Was the sky just that odd blue color or is your white balance on your camera set to tungsten perhaps?

Lew Bryson said...

Close; somehow got set to fluorescent. Don't know how, I didn't even know my phonecam HAD a white balance setting.