What does it take to become a true Viking? According to one
Icelandic brewery, drinking their beer made with ground up whale bones will do
the trick just fine.
To the consternation of much of the non-whale-eating world,
the brewery, Steðji, announced Sunday that it was introducing a limited run of
beer brewed with whale bones, making those who drink it into "true
Vikings." The brew's month-long run during the Icelandic winter festival
of Þorrablót is the product of a partnership with Icelandic whaling company
Hvalur and has quickly incited a backlash
from environmentalists against the whalebone-quaffing people of Iceland.
But for all the ire it's raised, here at Foreign Policy we can't help but wonder:
What does it taste like?
It's dark, according to Dagbjartur Arilíusson, a spokesman
for the brewery, and has a "smoked caramel taste with barbecued whale meat
taste in undertone and aftertaste." The whale meat flavor, he says, might
be described as somewhere "in between beef and fish." The beer, which
will not be available for export, is meant to be sipped alongside such
traditional nosh as "soured whale fat, burned sheep heads, soured sheep testicles,
salted fish, shark, etc.," that weighs down the tables of Þorrablót
The brewery uses the ground up bones of fin whales, adding
the sterilized bone meal at the beginning of brewing and filtering it out at
the end. "I'd say that it brings this grill barbequed whale meat taste
into the beer," said Arilíusson. "But we don't use that much of it,
so it works a bit like a spice."
Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, is one of the few
countries that still hunts whales after an international whaling moratorium
went into effect in 1986 and is one of the last remaining commercial markets
for whale products. After a two
year hiatus, Icelandic whalers killed 134 fin whales during the 2013
whaling season -- less than the 180 it aimed for -- most of which were sold
to Japan. Recently, it's been running into trouble getting the meat out of the
country: it's illegal for whale meat to pass through European Union ports, and
a shipment bound for Japan was turned back while en route through Germany. This
past summer, the Icelandic shipping company Samskip announced
that it would no longer take whale meat on as cargo.
"Demand for this meat is in decline with fewer and
fewer people eating it," said the Whale and Dolphin Coalition's Vanessa
Williams-Grey. "Even so, reducing a beautiful, sentient whale to an
ingredient on the side of a beer bottle is about as immoral and outrageous as
it is possible to get. The brewery may claim that this is just a novelty
product with a short shelf life," she said. But what is the "price [of]
the life of an endangered whale which might have lived to be 90 years?"
But there is still a lingering domestic market. Icelandic
whalers killed 38 minke whales -- far short of their goal of 200 -- for
Iceland's restaurants. According to the WDC, tourists consume as much as 40
percent of Iceland's domestic whale meat. (Arilíusson's description aside, most
of the recipes for whale that I found involved cooking it like a steak --
a practice described with some relish by onetime-whaleman Herman Melville in Moby Dick, where he declaimed the meat's
"exceeding richness," noting,
"He is the great prized ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately
There doesn't seem to be a precedent for such a thing as
whale bone beer - or bone meal beer at all. "I think this the first beer of this
kind here in Iceland," says Arilíusson. "The
whale meal has got a lot of protein and very little fat, so with that and the
pure Icelandic water and no added sugar, we have this 'healthy'
The beer will be sold in Iceland from Jan. 24 through Feb.
22 and boasts a very sensible 5.2 percent alcohol by volume. After all, all
those would-be Vikings don't want to get too wild while sipping on endangered animals.