An American in Iceland

I’m extending my ‘profiles’ section to include people as well as breweries and kicking off with Jack Sichterman, the man behind Icelandic craft brewery Einstök Olgerd (which roughly translated means ‘unique brewery’ and is pronounced ein-shtook ol-gerth).

Not Icelandic: Jack Sichterman founder of Einstok Olgerd.
Not Icelandic: Jack Sichterman founder of Einstok Olgerd.

I first heard the name Einstök a couple of years ago when I got a press release telling me it was exclusively available in Harvey Nichols. I harrumphed. Being mostly based in the wretched provinces I don’t shop at Harvey Nicks, but nevertheless I stored the details for future ref.

Not too long after though I was in Whistle Wines, Exeter and spotted some bottles. I picked up a Toasted Porter and a Pale Ale. You can read my reviews below – but you might be able to guess what I thought when I tell you how excited I was to meet the man behind them. I was little confused though, perhaps even disappointed, to discover      he wasn’t Icelandic, (he’s from Milwaukee) but in some ways it makes for a better story.

I pulled up a bar stool at the Euston Tap and over a drop of Einstök White Ale asked Jack Sichterman why a man from somewhere with a brewing heritage like Wisconsin decides to start a brewery in Iceland.

“About five or six years ago myself and a couple of colleagues were there consulting to some entrepreneurs who wanted to start a luxury water company. They’d looked all over the world to find the best water on earth and they found it in Iceland.

“The water there comes straight out of natural aquifers and it occurred to me that since beer is about 99% water this would be the perfect foundation for great beer,” says Jack – summing up not just the foundation, but also the essence, of the Einstök brand.

Icelandic water - the not so secret ingredient behind Einstok beer
Icelandic water – the not so secret ingredient behind Einstök

So, it’s all about the water… It’d be too easy to dismiss this as branding fluff dressed up with a science bit – ‘total dissolved solids’ and levels of calcium and magnesium – but there’s something about Jack Sichterman that keeps me listening and nodding as he explains how he thought he could do better than brewers who ‘claimed’ to be using pure water but had to chemically change it to keep their beer consistent and how he also thought he could be better at marketing beer than the big brewers are.

“Let’s start with the whole macho thing,” he says cheerfully, “It doesn’t get more macho than vikings so what a great place to launch a brand!”

He keeps using the word ‘brand’ so it’s no surprise to hear he’s not a brewer but a marketing and branding expert who’s worked for the likes of Miller and helped introduce Tsingtao Chinese beer to the US. For Einstök he and business partner David Altschuler have gone for simple, but classic-looking bottle labels featuring an image of a viking and in colours evoking the style of the beer within. It’s classy – almost understated – but still eye-catching, memorable and, importantly, recognisable. Still, I can’t resist asking him what he’d say to someone who accused him of being being more brand than beer.

I’d say taste the beer,” he responds instantly. “I understand that there’s nothing more important than what’s in the bottle – especially in a world where, in the US for instance, there’s now over 3,000 craft brewers. You can’t go into a distributor and say, ‘look at my great brand.’ You won’t get two seconds of their time. The only way you get attention in the beer world is with a great beer and that is always going to be our focus.” 

Move over Hoegaarden Einstok White Ale
Move over Hoegaarden Einstok White Ale

Maybe this is why I took to him. He could have walked out of the bar and refused to answer such a rude question but he took it on the chin and came out fighting for what he believes in – which is that he’s (or rather his Icelandic brewer, Baldur Karason) making some amazing beers deserved of our attention.

Despite the craft tag, one of the most surprising things about Jack, other than him not being Icelandic, is his confession that he can’t stand ‘the overly-hoppy beers that taste like grapefruit juice‘. So don’t expect huge IPAs or anything chock-full of typical American hop flavours. If you want an idea of what you’ll get from these beers bear in mind their creator wants them to be drinkable, flavourful and refreshing – and he’s definitely done a good job of that.

The beers…

Einstök Icelandic White Ale (5.2%) Designed to be good enough to knock Hoegaarden off its perch the White Ale is a classic wit with an aroma of coriander, a light citrus flavour and subtle background herbiness. Like all the Einstök brews it’s clean, refreshing and easy to drink and makes the concept of Icelandic water being the best in the world eminently believable.

Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale (5.6%)  Re-tasting this I remembered why it didn’t set my world on fire. It’s because I prefer my pale ales much more bitter – but as with Jack’s dislike of grapefruity hops that’s my personal preference and if you don’t share it there’s much to recommend this beer.

Einstok pale ale - For when you fancy something not too bitter
Einstök pale ale – For when you fancy something not too bitter

Orangey gold in colour it smells of caramelised sugars with a hint of citrus. It starts sweet with barley sugar flavours that echo its aroma. The hops (a blend of US Cascade and Bavarian varieties) take a back seat but still provide a definite, dry and gently bitter finish with subtle hints of orange marmalade. A decent, but restrained carbonation level makes it a great thirst quencher and much more sessionable than its ABV suggests. If you don’t like bitterness or fancy something more gentle than usual this is the beer for you. Try it if you’re converting to beer from white wine, or if you think you don’t like beer!

Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter (6%) The tasting notes for this do not prepare you for the beer’s incredible depth of flavour. I can’t find my own notes for the first time I tried it but recall only having one bottle which I shared with Beer Husband and even though I love him and could see how much he liked the beer too I really begrudged not being able to drink it all!

It has the rich chocolatey notes with hints of coffee you’d expect from a porter but it also has elements of dark fruitiness too – like a black forest gateau. It’s rich and full-bodied and deliciously moreish. A perfect winter beer for raising your spirits during the dark half of the year.

EinstöIcelandic Doppelbock (6.7%) This is their seasonal beer – only available from around October to December. It’s worth trying but for me is over shadowed by the Toasted Porter which, seasonal or not I would choose over the Doppelbock every time. But again this is a well-made and balanced beer which pours orangey-copper with a small foamy white head. Its aroma is a mixture of dried fruits, bubblegum and hints of pear which somewhat disappointingly didn’t carry through into the taste. Instead there was malty, clean tasting caramelised barley sugars and (in common with the pale ale) a gentle marmaladey bitterness followed by a satisfying crisp, dry finish – in a beer that drinks much easier than its actual ABV.

Jack with his wife - and brand ambassador - Katie
Jack with his wife – and brand ambassador – Katie

The verdict

Einstök is way more than just a clever brand. The beers are consistently good, tasty and well-made which suggests the Icelandic water really does deliver. My only gripe is that I’d like to see more than four beers, or at least some limited edition brews, in the range – but then again this is a young brewery (started in late 2011) sensibly taking its time to grow.

Currently only in bottle here in the UK (and in the US), but on draught if you happen to be in Iceland, research is under way into kegs and cans so expect their beers to become even more widely available in the future.

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2 comments

  1. Good media-savvy marketeers don’t walk out when you ask provocative questions, they turn them around to their advantage, if necessary answering the question they want to answer rather than the one you asked. And if they apparently bristle at a rude or provocative question, it will be a very calculated bristling designed to win you over to their point of view. (-:

  2. I tried the toasted porter over Christmas and I can’t disagree with anything you’ve written. It was really good! I haven’t tracked down their other beers yet but Einstök have definitely made it onto the list of ones to watch out for.

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