Driving through West Iceland is akin to driving through Middle Earth. The stark contrast between the white-capped glaciers and green rolling farmland make it a unique place for a brewhouse, but so very Iceland.
Reminiscent of the Dark Ages, it seems only fitting that the region’s local brewery is making a genuinely medieval beer. Stedji Brewery is producing a seasonal beer called Hvalur, made with whale testicle that’s been smoked in sheep’s dung.
I tried it on a private group tour, available upon request, at this family-owned brewery that has been creating all-natural, sugar-free beer since 2012 in the tiny town of Borgarfjordur. When I walked into the wooden tasting room, I was hit with a whiff of hops and smoked meat. I was nervous and hesitant to try it, but it was exactly how they said it would taste: like a porter with hints of caramel and a smoky, almost meaty aftertaste. I washed it down with a homemade hotdog, made sans whale testicle.
One of the most controversial beers in the world, it’s a brew steeped in Icelandic tradition — and a giant whale testicle, 15 to 18 pounds to be exact. They use one testicle in each batch and joke that it is “the size of a basketball for a troll.”
Stedji Brewery gets the whale testicles from a company called Hvalur hf. It is the only Icelandic company allowed to hunt 150 pieces of fin whale every year. However, many animal rights activists have protested this beer for its use of endangered fin whale. “We got a lot of e-mail threats about it from activists abroad when we first started brewing it,” said Dagbjartur Ariliusson, owner of Stedji Brewery.
Hvalur is brewed for the annual Thorri festival, in January and February, when locals celebrate ancient gods like Thor and Odinn from Valhalla and eat the food their ancestors did. “We eat rotten (fermented) shark, sour (cured) whale fat, ram´s testicles and so on because that’s what our ancestors ate,” said Ariliusson. The Hvalur beer is designed to pair perfectly with the Thorri feast and is popular among Icelanders during that time of year.
Eaten with traditional beer snacks, Stedji also make the brew using traditional Icelandic methods. There are no trees on this giant volcanic island, so they use dry sheep’s dung to smoke the whale testicle for an extended period, giving the beer a unique, smoky taste. Then they mix it with a special kind of hops, malted barley and some of the world’s purest water. “We get our spring water from the nearest glacier that has been running for over 600 years, so it's very pure and gives the beer a certain taste,” said Ariliusson.
The brewing process takes a long time because they have to follow the quality assurance handbook they created in order for the health department to approve the beer. With craft beer becoming a new trend in Iceland, Stedji's continues to perfect the recipe after three seasons.
Although the location is remote, it's well worth a visit from Reykjavik. You can stay overnight at nearby Hotel Húsafell and drive to the tasting room when they open every day from 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. Their Icelandic sheepdog will greet you and lead you around back to their tasting room where and can sample a flight of five beers for USD $14.