Remembering Beer Day by Quentin Bates

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He sat back, folded his arms and frowned.

‘It should be banned. Simple as that,’ he said, mind firmly made up on the issue.

My friend, a alcoholic who followed ten mad, self-destructive years with twenty (and counting) dry ones, has strong views. We were talking about booze. This is something the Nordic countries do well. Drinking is an extraordinarily popular pastime and these people have some odd (to some eyes) ideas about alcohol.

Back in the old days there were only half a dozen shops in the whole of Iceland that sold alcohol, plus one or two hotels that had licences to sell shots of the hard stuff at wallet-crippling prices. These shops were the state-owned tobacco and alcohol monopoly, and although there are now more than half a dozen of them and they’ve been smartened up to resemble supermarkets rather than the Soviet-style shops they were thirty years ago, they are still, supposedly, the only outlets for anyone who wants to stock up for a party.

If you wanted a bottle for the weekend, it meant getting to one of these shops before six on a Friday, or if you somewhere with no booze shop, ordering a bottle that you could collect and pay for at the post office. In winter it could be touch-and-go. If the roads were snowed over and the post delayed, the dreaded spectre of a dry weekend could loom over many an isolated village.

Iceland’s odd hang-ups about alcohol stem partly from US-style prohibition in the early part of the 20th century that presumably seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn’t last. This was partly because it didn’t stop people finding other ways to get a drink, and also because Spanish and Portuguese traders wanted to sell wine in exchange for buying Iceland’s salted cod.

So alcohol was allowed again, but gradually. First there was wine, then the hard stuff began to make an appearance. By the 1980s, the shelves of the booze shops had pretty much everything – with one glaring exception. This was a beer-free country, and a sore burden for an expatriate Brit with a liking for a pint.

But the reality of it is that despite my friend’s opinion that the evils of alcohol could be done away with by implementing a ban (see that last blog), prohibiting booze does nothing to stop Icelanders drinking. There are plenty of enterprising types who are happily brewing and distilling, and who aren’t put off by the mere technicality of something being illegal.

But back to the beer… by the end of the 80s, Icelanders had become fed up with their beerlessness. Bars began selling ‘mock beer’ in the form of legal but piss-weak ‘pilsner’ (A peculiar Nordic brew that bears no resemblance to the magnificent golden liquid that comes from Pilzen), blended with shots of the hard stuff. The ban had become eminently pointless and soon enough Parliament had to lumber into gear and after a long and tedious debate, beer became legal.

Beer Day was the 1st of March 1989 and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on a course in Reykjavík and the city went wild. There were cans of beer everywhere. The poor guy who was teaching the course on the Navigation College’s antique radar simulators repeatedly had to go and lie down.

Then it was all over. As if fingers had been snapped, the beer all disappeared, life went back to normal and Icelanders gradually acclimatised to having beer on the booze shop’s shelves and in bars.

It’s taken a while, but the pub culture that other Europeans had has also flourished in Iceland. Twenty years ago, the very idea of a quiet drink or two was enough to make people look at you as if you had two heads. Either you were drinking or you weren’t. There was no point keeping the cap for that bottle, as nobody was going to stop until it was empty.

That’s all changed. The traditional Icelandic binge boozer, touring the country for a week at a time with a pocket full of cash in a taxi with a crate of liquor in the boot and the meter running, is an endangered species.

These days Iceland is in the throes of being close to prohibition once again. The financial crash has resulted in increased taxes all round, which includes the duty on booze. A litre of legal, state-supplied vodka will set you back an eye-watering $55 or €40.

So private enterprise has taken over. A litre of decent-quality moonshine, brewed and distilled in someone’s garage or barn costs around a third of that, so it’s no surprise that production of illegal, home-made hooch has become a thriving cottage industry now that the state-run suppliers have effectively priced themselves out of the market. In fact, moonshine (along with its stablemate, growing dope in the attic) has become a highly profitable business run by sharp entrepreneurs who do their market research, take pride in their work, deliver on time and to order.

What’s blindingly clear is that where there’s a demand, someone will meet it and turn a buck in the process. It seems that a ban, whether on the statute books or a de facto version, is great for business.

It’s a shame that other aspects of Iceland’s business and political sectors can’t  attract these enterprising individuals and learn a few pithy lessons, but unfortunately moonshiners seem to operate on gut feeling and instinctive sense rather than according to the MBA textbooks that the real business gurus read at college.

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