We catch up with an all-time member favourite
Saturday 09 April 2022
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It’s been a stunning 65 issues since Ferment last spoke to Norway’s second largest craft brewery, so we’ll forgive you for needing to brush up on its background. To tell the story of Amundsen is to chronicle the runaway love affair of one man and a brewpub. When the restaurant chain Geoffrey Jansen Van Vuuren (Amundsen’s CEO) worked for brought him to Norway from South Africa, he was a mainstream lager drinker, occasionally stretching to an adventurous Guinness; that was until he came to work at one of the nation’s first brewpub back in 2011. With 300 beers and 35 taps to choose from, he quickly became infatuated, eagerly eating up any and all information he could find on how beer was made, what ingredients gave various styles their unique character, and of course, what was popular with the clientele.
The on-site brewery was only big enough to cater to the needs of the pub it was attached to, but Geoffrey saw the potential for craft beer to thrive in Norway, so after a spell managing the brewpub, he broke the news to his bosses that he wanted to go at it alone and set up his own brewery. Their response came in the form of a request to let them in on the action. His acceptance of their offer came with the singular and clear condition that they respected the project as singularly belonging to him, though they were welcome to sit on the brewery’s board while he headed up the position of CEO.
“We run restaurants” they said, as Geoffrey recounts, “we don’t know anything about brewing beer, you do your thing, we’ll do ours, and this should all work out perfectly”. And just like that, Geoffrey had financial backing that would allow him to start out with a bigger brewery than he’d anticipated, and an instant market of ten venues within the restaurant chain to supply with beer. In 2013, Amundsen’s prototype was built; a 500 square meter brewery that it filled and outgrew within a year. After an additional year of operation at maximum capacity, and supplying locally on keg only for the most part, Geoffrey knew he had to make a decision about Amundsen’s trajectory, and decide if the brewery would stay small and local, or if the project called for something bigger.
“Bigger” doesn’t really do justice to the scale and reach of Amundsen as it exists today, serving a staggering twenty international markets and filling the 3500m2 brewery it moved into in 2016. Having a foothold in international markets is somewhat essential for a brewery based in Norway, given the country’s strict licensing laws, and its outright prohibition of advertising alcoholic products.
To give you an idea of the severity of these restrictions (consider this a content warning so you don’t choke on your DIPA), you can only buy beers under 4.7% from supermarkets in Norway, and the purchase of alcohol generally has to be made before 8pm weekdays, and 6pm on Saturdays, with no alcoholic trade at all taking place on Sundays. If you want anything stronger, you have to purchase it from a state run off license called a Vinmonopolet, literally translating as a wine monopoly.
It’s hardly surprising then, that by 2020, export made up 84% of Amundsen’s business – a fact that has made the COVID years all the more challenging. “It’s been such a mixed bag”, says Geoffrey. “2020 was an awesome year for us, we hit all our targets, but not by selling the products we’d anticipated. We initially saw a decline in our core range and so from there I had the idea to just go really hard on seasonals and new releases. So we launched around 70 new products in 2020”. I laugh at this point in the interview, half sweating and half smiling at the thought of producing 70 beers to feed 20 radically different markets over the course of a single year, but Geoffrey seems unphased.
“We just had new products coming off the line the whole time, which kept people interested. That meant there was always something new for smaller indie bottle shops, and bars that were starting to do takeaway to stay in business; they found that being able to offer the consumer something new constantly, kept them engaged. And this worked for us until the last quarter of 2020, when a lot of other breweries had actually picked up on the same thing and the market just got flooded. All of a sudden, there were too many new products.”
From there things got a little more complicated, sales didn’t decrease so much as it became harder to stay abreast of consumer habits; in 2020, lockdowns came and went at roughly the same times across all European countries, but by the second and third waves of the pandemic, countries were responding to public safety requirements in different ways and at different times, pubs were opening and shutting, sometimes with a day’s notice, meaning Geoffrey and the team had their work cut out for them – sometimes making plans as soon as the night before production on a beer began.
“The guys like foreseeability, like, we generally know what we’re doing two months in advance,” he says. “Everybody who’s in-house knows what’s expected of them – not just tomorrow, not just this week or next week – everyone knows what’s going on. And we found ourselves many times not knowing what we’re doing tomorrow. So just come to work and tonight at some point, I’ll try to figure out what’s happening tomorrow”.
For all Amundsen was born and shaped by the laws and limitations of being a brewery based in Norway, I wondered if this largely international brand bore the cultural mark of where it’s from. But upon hearing Geoffrey talk about the team, how it works, how members are treated and what they expect of the workplace, the penny drops. “Obviously wages are massive in Norway, so we try to work with the smallest team possible” says Geoffrey, “but we are just the same small group of people and we can enjoy a really good working environment being so few. Everyone gets the attention and follow up that they need.
“We’ve just installed a robot on the back side of the packing line… the guy on the packing line can breathe now, he can make sure everything is working but it no longer needs to be such a physical job for him. So we’re always trying to update and upgrade, not to get rid of staff but to make life easier, less straining on the body”. Being a team of a whopping eight people in total, Geoffrey says he doesn’t have time to train new people all the time. “No one does, so when we find someone, they are good, they are passionate, they like what we do, they like the job, then I do everything in my power to keep them to make sure they’re happy here and stay, because that stability and consistency is key for us in production. I mean, change over the whole time? It’s horrible. It’s something we try to avoid at all costs. So my oldest employee, my first employee, John, has been with me now for nine years. And since then just been adding on as we have been growing, and like I said the last time we employed someone was October 2019”. Social Democratic utopia or what? We love the Nordic model.
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