Why you should care
Because the drink of the Vikings is coming back to Iceland.
Fifteen minutes east of Reykjavík, lush, mossy pastures fade into a layered horizon of rolling hills and mountains that envelop a small, simple steeple. The town of Mosfellsbaer was built into the dramatic and wild landscapes that once welcomed Iceland’s settlers in the ninth century. It’s the kind of place that, come winter, shivers with gusty winds and temperatures that dip below 20 degrees F.
For this reason, the Vikings turned to mead. Now Icelanders can do the same.
Öldur, based in Mosfellsbaer, is the country’s first meadery, which is surprising given Iceland’s Viking roots. In their heyday, the Vikings chugged mead from cattle horns and wooden cups. This sweet, fermented drink made from honey, water and spices was likely imported because beekeepers didn’t start popping up in Iceland until the 20th century, according to Öldur co-founder Helgi Þórir Sveinsson.
Nearly 1,300 years later, Öldur is bringing mead back to the land of fire and ice. The idea was forged after Sveinsson and Sigurjón Friðrik Garðarsson met and bonded over beers through an Icelandic home brewers club. At first, they planned to co-launch a brewpub. Things changed when Garðarsson casually shared a tiny-batch experimental mead at a club event for members and the public. “We had one owner of a fine dining restaurant taste the mead and ask if he could buy it legally; I told him no, well … not yet,” Garðarsson says. The two decided to drop the brewpub idea and make mead instead.
In 2017, Öldur officially launched as Iceland’s first meadery, with two melomels (mead made with fermented fruit): cherry (Rjóð) and blueberry (Blámi), which is made with locally foraged Icelandic blueberries. But instead of following the Viking’s boozy recipe –– sweet, heavy, not carbonated, high in alcohol –– they went a lighter route for their carbonated 6.5 percent alcohol melomels. They now produce around 1,270 gallons per year.
“We first brew a basic lighter mead, then we add the berries and a second fermentation starts,” Garðarsson says. “Once that has run its course, we siphon off the berry sludge, then filter it, carbonate it and package it.”
Mead took a nearly 1,300-year hiatus from Iceland’s drink scene.
This break from tradition was a good move, according to Hjörvar Óli Sigurðsson, Iceland’s first certified cicerone (the equivalent of a wine sommelier, but for beer). It’s one of the reasons that Öldur was added to the regular taps list of BrewDog, the popular Reykjavík bar where Sigurðsson works. He likes that both versions offer “impressive depth of character.” In particular, the Blámi, where “notes of more sweetish jammy flavors are countered by a vinous tannin dryness reminiscent of the herbs and flowers that grow around Icelandic blueberries.”
Given mead took a nearly 1,300-year hiatus from Iceland’s drink scene, it took some grassroots and comprehensive publicity to help it catch on –– such as pop-up events, beer festivals and building relationships with bars and retail shops. “Somehow over the years, the Icelandic word for mead has been mistaken as just another word for beer,” says Garðarsson. “So we kind of have to educate everyone.”
As in most of the world, craft beer’s popularity is on the rise in Iceland. The country of 330,000 now has more than 20 small breweries, according to Garðarsson. But mead is a relative newcomer to the scene, so there’s room to grow. And perhaps the United States might be a strong indicator. At the end of the 20th century, there were 64 meaderies in the U.S., but within the past 20 years, that number has nearly doubled to 118.
There’s definitely interest in Iceland: In 2018, a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $15,000 for Öldur’s new meadery. And Rjóð and Blámi –– both of which received honors at the 2018 Icelandic Craft Beer Festival –– are now available at the duty-free shop in Keflavik Airport and at dozens of Icelandic bars and bottle shops (about $14 a bottle).
But, despite budding momentum, Iceland’s mead interest is far from where Öldur’s brewers want it to be. That’s why they’re planning to open the Mosfellsbaer doors for informal tours and tastings later in 2020. They’re also continuing to experiment. “We’re working on a 14 percent mead made from caramelized honey that’s been aging in whiskey barrels,” Sveinsson says. “That one is for the beer geeks.”
We’ll clink our cattle horns to that.