In conversation with Agnes Sigurðardóttir, one of Iceland’s only female microbrewers

In conversation with Agnes Sigurðardóttir, one of Iceland’s only female microbrewers

In conversation with Agnes Sigurðardóttir, one of Iceland’s only female microbrewers

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On our women-only tours with Insight Vacations, we champion women who have created opportunities in their local community and love to hear their inspiring stories. Today we meet Agnes Sigurðardóttir, creator of the female-led Iceland brewery that is one of the only microbreweries in the country.

Imagine this: living in a village of just 100 people where fishing is the main industry and beer drinking is not part of the culture as it’s been illegal for 80 years. Then consider starting a female-led microbrewery there. This is exactly what Agnes set out to do in 2006. Read on to find out more about Agnes and her Iceland brewery.

HOW TO BUILD AN ICELAND BREWERY FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS...

“I grew up in Árskógssandur, a beautiful place just 30 minutes’ drive from Akureyri,” says Agnes. “My father was a fisherman, and later my husband came here to fish too. The whole population was involved in fishing, whether on boats or in factories.” Agnes paints a picture of where she grew up and explains how she ran a convenience store with her mother.

Her husband Ólafur arrived in Árskógssandur when Agnes was 14. “We settled down together and began to raise a family. Between 1983 and 1994, I had four children, two boys and two girls. Ólafur became captain of a fishing boat and life was happy.” Then Ólafur suffered a knee injury in 2003, which meant he could no longer work as a fisherman.

“We considered moving to Reykjavik to get factory jobs, but it didn’t appeal to either of us. I knew I had to find a way for us to stay in Árskógssandur. It meant getting creative, thinking of crazy ideas – what could work? One day, watching RÚV (a national TV channel), I saw a news item on the growing popularity of microbreweries around Europe. I wondered could we create our own beer here?”

THE POWERS OF PERSUASION

There were challenges to consider. “At the time there were just two commercial Iceland breweries. Beer was mass-produced and Icelanders weren’t familiar with craft beer,” Agnes notes. “It was outlawed until 1989, and home-produced vodka was the staple alcohol. Starting a brewery was a huge risk, but I was determined. My father always claimed that the water in Árskógssandur was ‘the best in the world,’ so I had a place to start.”

Agnes needed everyone’s support to bring this project to life – getting her husband on board first, then her parents. “Then I had to present the idea to a tougher audience – I needed banks to believe I could start a microbrewery in Árskógssandur.”

With personality and passion, Agnes won them over. A new Iceland brewery, Bruggsmidjan, was born.

CALL THE EXPERT

A microbrewery depends on excellent raw materials, but Agnes and Ólafur weren’t sure how to brew. “We reached out to David Masa, who is a fourth generation brewmaster from Czech Republic, who specializes in setting up microbreweries.” David taught Agnes and Ólafur how to brew and advised on what equipment they needed.

Things moved fast. They began installing the brewery in March 2006, started brewing in August and on 28 September of that year, they bottled their first beer. Agnes shakes her head, “Just two days later we held our opening ceremony.

That first year, we produced 150,000 liters of Kaldi. The following May, we had to expand [our property]. Every year we added more capacity.”

The first Icelandic craft beer, brewed according to well-practiced Czech principles and using Saas and Sladek hops, was a huge hit.

A RUNAWAY SUCCESS

These days, Kaldi produces 700,000 liters of beer every year. The Iceland brewery offers 10 beers, including five seasonal offerings. You can taste them in 20 bars around the country, and can also pick up a few bottles in Kevflavîk Airport when you’re flying out of Reykjavik. Bruggsmidjan employs 14 staff, which accounts for a sizeable number of Árskógssandur’s population. Fishing is no longer the sole industry of the village.

Agnes smiles, “That wasn’t enough, I wanted more crazy ideas.” After a beer-tasting trip to Prague, she describes how “my mind began brimming with other possibilities. My skin… my hair had never felt better. I knew beer could offer fantastic benefits, not just from drinking it.” This led to the first beer spa in Iceland opening in 2017, which Agnes’ daughter-in-law now manages.

THE WONDERS OF BEER

Beer devotees can tour Bruggsmidjan on the Inspiring Iceland women-only tour, where you’ll learn all about Agnes’ journey and drink the brand’s original crisp Kaldi blonde lager. Here you can dine outside, sipping on a cool beer with the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

After drinking your beer, you can pop over the road for a beer bath to experience its proven health benefits, including soothing muscles that are tired from trekking across glaciers.

Agnes mentions the latest exciting development for the family. “We’ve bought and renovated an old fish factory in Árskógssandur, which will open as a hotel this summer.” By 2023, they hope to offer 20 rooms to hotel guests.

Between the beer spa, which has up to 22 staff including seasonal workers, and this new hotel, Agnes and her family have created new opportunities in the village. She adds, “three new houses are being built, along with six to eight condos.” It seems beer has had a positive impact on Árskógssandur.

A SUCCESSFUL ICELAND BREWERY

“I didn’t have a lifelong dream of opening a brewery, but it’s been very fulfilling,” Agnes observes. She is the creative force behind the brewery, however explains that it will always be a family business.

“From the beginning the children helped bottling the beers, now all the family from the eldest, Steine, to the youngest, Ólafur, (who was born in 2009) has a hand in Brugssmidjan. Except one,” Agnes jokes, “my youngest daughter Svavar drew the short straw to study forensic psychology in Sweden.” Agnes’ second eldest son, Siggi, is the head brewer.Agnes is modest about her impact on brewing in Iceland, but she has inspired a movement. 25 craft breweries have opened across the country, and a female-led distillery is in the works. She states that “there is no competition between us, we all support one another.”

She credits the local community for their continuous support and explains how they drop by regularly for a cold brew. Sharing her story and welcoming new visitors to Árskógssandur is a new chapter for the family.

Join Insight Vacations women-only tour to Inspiring Iceland and meet Agnes at Bruggsmidjan.