The coast off of Newfoundland, Canada, is dotted with floating, frozen giants during the spring and early summer months. In fact, there’s an entire website devoted to tracking the icebergs whereabouts, so people can either dodge or seek them out. Newfoundlanders use these icebergs, not just for sightseeing opportunities, but also to produce some distinctive products. The ‘bergs, which mostly break off from Greenland and drift toward the island each year, are transformed by Newfoundlanders into an array of beverages, from vodka to bottled water to beer.
Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, located in St. John’s, turns these 20,000-year-old icebergs into a crisp, clean pilsner called Iceberg Beer. With beer, water is key to flavor and quality. Iceberg water produces a distinctive clean and pure taste—thanks to its low mineral content. After Quidi Vidi is done with it, the resulting beer has “a faint hint of spicy, floral hops” and “a very smooth, clean moutfeel with lively carbonation and a dry finish,” according to Justin Fong, sales and marketing director for the brewery.
“Many of the most famous styles of beer originated from different types of water sources, whether you had soft water or certain other minerals or other things present in the water itself,” Fong says. “What’s nice about icebergs is it’s like working with a blank canvas. You have water that was basically frozen 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. This is the purest water on Earth, literally,” he says, noting that it was frozen before humans significantly impacted the planet.
The brewery began producing the Iceberg Beer a decade ago, and Fong says, “The process is surprisingly the same.” Contractors travel out into the ocean in spring and early summer to harvest icebergs, using a large barge to collect them, operating heavy machinery to break apart ice from the icebergs, scooping it up and storing it onboard the ship in special holding tanks. The process is notoriously dangerous. Just approaching the icebergs is a risky endeavor, since icebergs can flip over or break apart, causing waves and endangering nearby vessels. To avoid getting too close, people have been known to take .22-caliber rifles to the ‘bergs, shooting at them from a distance and then collecting the fragments that fall into the water. By the time Quidi Vidi receives the icebergs, they’re usually already in liquid form, though they also often source iceberg chunks to use in cocktails.
Iceberg Beer is Quidi Vidi’s top seller, making up 40 percent of total sales. In order to honor such a special beer, the brewery uses a distinctive cobalt blue bottle. Fong says when they first started using the bottle, they were one of the only breweries in the world using the color, which was a nod to the colors of icebergs and also to honor the people who harvest the icebergs.
“The process of harvesting water is dangerous,” Fong says. “It’s something that’s very grounded in Newfoundland roots and we didn’t think that it would be appropriate to put it in a regular brown bottle. We wanted something that was really nice and a contrast. When you see icebergs in the ocean, depending on the lighting, they have a very nice blue undertone to them. They can glow that way, so the combination of the blue bottle and really stark white label that contrasts kind of represents the iceberg to us. It’s special packaging for a special product.”
These bottles have proved so popular that people often bring them home and make art with them or display them, rather than returning them to a recycling depot or other location to receive their bottle deposits back. “People love to take them, so instead of returning them and them getting back to us and being cleaned to reuse again, a lot of them end up staying in people’s houses as decoration, or like little flower pots, or a lot of people take them off island, too, so if people are here visiting they usually take their iceberg bottles home as kind of a memory.”
When the brewery’s supply of blue bottles is running low, they put out a call for local aficionados, imploring them to return their empties so they can wash and reuse them in order to bottle more Iceberg beer. In order to entice people to do so, the brewery posts playful social media messages, asking people to return them for a bottle refund or to post a photo of themselves returning the bottles for a chance to win a brewery gift card. They even have contests with prizes for whoever brings the most blue bottles back in a given month. It’s then that people come in droves. “People just like keeping them, but as soon as they realize that if we don’t get any more bottles, we can’t brew any more beer, they tend to bring them back,” Fong says.
Iceberg Beer isn’t only being served in bottles. The brewery concocted a special drink in honor of the 200th anniversary of Regatta Day, the oldest sporting event in North America, according to Fong. Combining the Iceberg Beer with lemonade, Quidi Vidi created a shandy cocktail served with a hulking chunk of iceberg in each glass. Since icebergs are made from compacted snow, rather than frozen water, it stays frozen far longer than a conventional ice cube. “It’s nice to use in cocktails and whiskeys because it doesn’t melt as quickly and doesn’t dilute the drink itself very fast,” Fong says. This particular cocktail, however, sold out in just a few hours.
While icebergs are a large part of the Quidi Vidi brand, the brewery also captures other unique elements of Newfoundland life in their brews and events. The Day Boil Session IPA is named in honor of the Newfoundland term for “day drinking,” and the brewery hosts weekly “kitchen parties,” where people come to enjoy live music, storytelling, beer, food and good company. These Newfoundland traditions welcome beer drinkers with a touch of local life and lore, whether or not it’s the time of year when enormous icebergs are floating by.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo