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March 1 is Beer day – Bjórdagur

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

March 1 is Beer Day (Bjórdagur) in Iceland. I know — our cousins in Iceland have so many fun and interesting holidays.

Beer Day was first celebrated 24 years ago in 1989, when prohibition of beer was finally lifted after 75 long years. Iceland enforced total prohibition on all alcohol from 1915 to 1922, but beer was not on the approved list until 1989. National laws only allowed 2.2% beer during the 75-year Prohibition. Here in the USA, we had total Prohibition for 13 years from 1920-1933.

During prohibition in Iceland, the Spanish traders refused to import Iceland’s fish unless Iceland would buy their wine. There is an interesting article from 1923 that reports on worldwide prohibition topics of the time. The part of the story about Iceland follows.

“At a conference of the wine-and-liquor men at Lausanne that the abduction of Iceland from the prohibition ranks was conceived and the Spanish Government selected as the moral kidnapper of that island. Iceland voted for complete prohibition in 1908. It was an immediate success, for most of the islanders were total abstainers long before the sentiment became crystallized in law. The law stood enforced and unquestioned either by Iceland or by outsiders until last summer, when the Spanish Government sent notice to Iceland that unless the island abolished its prohibition law and imported Spanish wines, Spanish people would be prohibited from buying Iceland’s fish. This was a threat of absolute ruin for the island. Its only product is fish, about five million dollars’ worth a year, and for generations three-quarters of that product has been sold in Spain. The Icelandic fishermen have not the facilities for curing or packing their fish in a way that would make them marketable in any country other than Spain. There is, for example, not sufficient timber on the island to make it possible to pack the fish in wooden boxes, but all the countries except Spain demand that the fish come in boxes. So the decree of Madrid was fatal either to Iceland’s prohibition law or to her only source of income. It is important to know that before she became a prohibition country in 1908, Iceland had never bought Spanish wines, so Spain has not even the lame economic excuse of trying by coercion to get back a trade which she had lost. She is simply guilty of coercion, at the behest of the liquor crowd, to destroy prohibition in a country which had unanimously adopted it. England, Denmark, Norway and Finland all protested to Spain in behalf of Iceland, but to no avail. Iceland was forced to suspend her prohibition law for one year. She is now buying Spanish wine which her people do not want and will not use. The island government is paying for the stuff and putting it into pharmacies for prescription purposes. It is not commerce. It is blackmail.”

In other stories, I learned that Vodka was perfectly acceptable after the partial lifting and so the practice of bjórlíki began. The translation basically means ‘like beer’ and is the result of adding a shot of vodka or a home-brewed liquor to the available low alcohol content beer.

The alcohol content of Icelandic beer is now 5-8% and is available at bars and government liquor stores. You can find “light beer” (less than 2.25%) in grocery stores and gas stations but most Icelanders will buy the “real beer” instead because they do not like the taste of the light beer.

Here in the USA, we drink more beer than Iceland per capita. The annual beer consumption in Iceland is 63 liters (16 gallons) per capita compared to 85 liters (22 gallons) in the USA and 70 liters (18 gallons) in Canada. Ireland tops the list with a whopping 155 liters per capita (40 gallons) each year and Germany is next on the list with 119 liters (31 gallons). The ten USA states consuming the most beer according to a 2012 survey are:

  • New Hampshire is #1 per capita consuming 43 gallons per year

  • North Dakota dropped from #1 in 2003 by downing 44 gallons per capita to a mere 42.2 gallons in 2012

  • Next in line were Montana, South Dakota, Nevada, Wisconsin, Vermont, Texas, and Nebraska

  • #10 on the 2012 list is Delaware consuming 34.3 gallons per capita.

  • Utah residents drink the least amount of beer in the USA at just over 12 gallons per year

Alcohol is taxed heavily in Iceland and it is expensive. The local brews are easier on your pocketbook because they do not have associated import costs. Whatever you do, never drink and drive in Iceland as this is a very serious offense.

Beer Day is very popular in Iceland and ever since 1989, Icelanders have celebrated this day on March 1 each year. Here in America, we will have a few beers to celebrate with our Icelandic cousins. Some people may overindulge and think there should be another holiday on March 2 – National Aspirin Day.

So give toast of friendship and goodwill and say “cheers” or as the Icelanders say, “Skál!”

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