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Icelanders down first legal brew in 74 years

By
BERNARD SCUDDER

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Icelanders turned out in force to celebrate the reappearance of beer in liquor stores and bars of the North Atlantic island, where sales had been banned for 74 years.

There was brisk trading all day Wednesday in Reykjavik shops, restaurants and bars as six- and twelve-packs of American Budweiser, Danish Tuborg and Austrian Kaiser rapidly crossed counters on what has affectionately become known as Iceland's B-Day.

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'This is a turning point in Icelandic cultural history,' said a beaming Hortur Gudnason, a printer and president of Iceland's Beerlovers Association. 'I had a symbolic celebration this morning, but will be getting down to the real thing tonight.'

Despite sub-zero temperatures, Gudnason and other hardy descendants of Nordic Vikings lined up outside state-run alcohol stores which since the end of prohibition in 1922 have sold spirits and wine, but not alcoholic beer.

A can of beer from state alcohol stores cost between $1.80 and $2.40, and at least twice that in bars.

Total prohibition went into effect in Iceland after a referendum in 1915 but was lifted in stages. Wine was legalized in 1922 and spirits in 1935. Beer was banned until Wednesday because of an administrative blunder at the end of prohibition and a strong subsequent anti-beer lobby.

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Although prevented from buying beer in their country, Icelanders have been permitted to bring back beer from travels abroad, and Reykjavik airport is one of the few in the world where duty-free goods - and beer -- may be bought on arrival.

For years, moves to legalize beer have been fiercely debated, but attempts have been thwarted by militant teetotalers.

In May 1988, the Althing, Iceland's parliament, decided in favor of legalizing beer in a heated debate broadcast live on national television and radio.

A 'breathing space' provision postponed the law until March 1 this year to allow state alcohol and tobacco stores to make arrangements for stocking the 1.1 million gallons expected to be consumed by the 240,000 residents of Iceland during the first year.

Major celebrations began after work hours Wednesday. Most of Reykjavik's bars, restaurants and pubs were booked since early January and hired extra staff.

Politicians said they hoped Icelanders would keep their celebrations calm and orderly.

'I trust the Icelanders not to prove themselves such a rabble that they go berserk at the sight of beer,' said Gudrun Helgadottir, parliamentarian for the leftist People's Alliance.

Icelanders on the west of the rugged, volcanic island complained bitterly that trucked supplies of beer to their remote region had been delayed due to heavy snowfall.

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'But at least when it gets here it'll be cold,' said one thirsty resident contacted by telephone.

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