People are Strange
Robyn Gilmour talks expansion, inflation and ultra-fresh beer with Strange Brewing’s Torstein Hoset
Saturday 16 December 2023
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Beers of the World
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Recent times have been strange for Strange Brewing. Co-founder Torstein Hoset wears a beard and a hat now, both indicators of the time and distance that separates this conversation from our last. In October 2022, Tor was on the cusp of his move from Buenos Aires back to Norway, where he’s from.
He tells me that he and his co-founders, Ramiro Galperin, Evert Lara, Tom Urban and Håvard Lenes, take a huge amount of satisfaction in how well the brewery continues to run, even when they're not around. Of course, Tor still puts a huge amount of time and effort into business; he just does so now from a remote position, instead of being physically present full time. He also points out that the majority of his co-founders are still local to the brewpub, and so have been on hand in supervisory positions up until a couple of months ago. Since the beginning of the summer it’s been all hands on deck to assist with the construction of Strange Brewing’s second site.
Business is booming for Strange domestically, which seems odd given Argentina’s current economy, which has seen inflation hit an annualised 150%. The country has dealt with runaway inflation before though, and the population is now far less skittish about such things than their counterparts in Europe and North America. Rather than building up their savings, Argentinians avoid the relentless devaluation by spending quickly on affordable luxury goods, meaning bars and restaurants are bursting at the seams.
“Everyone's been through these cycles before and they know it sucks, but in the end, unless you're the most vulnerable in society, you're going to be more-or-less fine if you keep working. You won't be able to go on vacation, you won't be able to buy a house, you won't be able to buy a car, and so what income you have, you should spend it as soon as possible because every month it's worth 10-12% less.”
This has pushed the current brewpub setup beyond capacity, as Tor explains: “We end up with people on the streets, so it’s a nuisance for the neighbours and very stressful for the staff. We know this because we're friends with a lot of our customers, and they’re choosing not to come any more because they have to wait an hour for a table. We're hoping to be able to decompress a little bit by opening this second location, and provide a more comfortable and relaxed experience. We're also taking the opportunity to add more barrels to our sour program, get a second foeder and build a bigger cold store.”
Replicating the ultra-fresh character of its brewpub beers in a can is a priority for Strange, and has been facilitated by the cold-chain infrastructure available in Argentina, but uncommon in other parts of the world. Considering how much of a beer’s cost, flavour and aroma are owed to the variety and quantity of hops used, you can’t argue with Tor’s frustration at the lack of care often taken to prevent deterioration when Strange’s beers are exported.
The frustration is exacerbated by the difficulty of importing hops to Argentina, and the lengths Argentinian hop farms must go to, to grow them domestically. “Since I arrived in Argentina [in 2016] the quality of the hops grown there has improved substantially. I would say that, in terms of the agronomics and processing, it’s almost on par with what I see in Yakima; that’s obviously not in scale, or sophistication of the equipment use, but in the result. When you're in an economy that pretty much doesn't allow you to import certain things, or where it's very hard to access credit and capital, it forces you to be very creative with how you solve certain problems.
“The farmer who we work the most with is third generation, and he just has so much passion and such great solutions. Every year, he's making improvements that we can see very tangibly in the final product. So, not only is the quality of the pelletisation and the drying and everything improving exponentially, but he’s also now – with zero budget – starting to introduce these experimental new varieties that are very exciting. The only reason I'm telling you this is because there's not nearly enough acreage for the fruit to be exportable,” Tor concludes with a rare, cheeky grin.
He says that historically, hop farmers in Argentina have been beholden to long, unfavourable contracts with the likes of AB InBev, where varieties and harvest windows have been enforced, and improvements in quality were a bonus, not a requirement; volume and alpha acid content were all that mattered. “Our hop grower always tells his story with pride,” Tor continues, “but when his contract with this big, macro brand expired, and representatives from the brewery came to his farm to renegotiate an even more unfavourable deal, he let them make their pitch before telling them to fuck off.
“He'd already realised that he needed to start selling exclusively to craft breweries, because we care about the quality, we're willing to pay more, and we're not really interested in lopsided deals.”
Tor’s care for this hop farmer and what he represents is tangible. Far from necessity being the mother of invention in Argentina today, progress continues in spite of – not because of – the inescapable economic crisis. I am left with the distinct impression that the wellspring of passion and energy that’s driving progress in Argentina today, originates in its people, more than the conditions created by powers that govern them.
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