Chairman of the fjord
Richard Croasdale meets Geoffrey Jansen Van Vuuren, CEO of Norwegian powerhouse Amundsen
Saturday 13 January 2024
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We’ve been pretty comprehensively in love with Amundsen since we managed to score a couple of cases of its exceptional Ink & Dagger IPA, in the very early days of this magazine. This was back at a time when fresh, hoppy, US-style IPA was still relatively hard to come by, and the sheer juicy mango and grapefruit zest character of Amundsen’s brew blew us away; it was also that year’s highest-rated beer by customers of Beer52, so we weren’t alone.
Now Norway’s second largest craft brewery, Amundsen is the brainchild of CEO Geoffrey Jansen Van Vuuren. When he moved to the country from South Africa, Geoffrey was very much a mainstream lager guy, perhaps with a Guinness thrown in if he was feeling adventurous; that all changed when he took a job at Norway’s first brewpub back in 2011, with 300 beers and 35 taps at his disposal. Relative indifference almost instantly gave way to insatiable curiosity, as he devoured not only the beers, but knowledge about where they came from, how they were made and (crucially) what pushed the buttons of the bar’s demanding clientele. In short, his inner beer nerd was unleashed.
While the on-site brewhouse met the needs of the pub, Geoffrey had a much grander vision for the potential of craft beer in Norway. When he broke the news to his bosses that he would be leaving the brewpub to start a brewery of his own, their response was excitement rather than sadness, and an offer to invest in the new venture. He accepted gratefully, though everyone agreed it would be firmly his show.
Their involvement allowed Geoffrey to specify a much larger, more sophisticated brewery than he’d anticipated, as well as providing guaranteed access to the restaurant chain’s ten venues.
In a craft beer tale as old as time, Amundsen still managed to outgrow its substantial original home within 12 months of opening, and operated at full capacity for another year. Eventually though, Geoffrey had a decision to make: stay put and supply kegs to the local market, or take things to the next level, with a dramatic expansion of small pack, export and everything that brings. Fortunately for the rest of us, he chose option two.
Thanks in part to Norway’s insanely proscriptive licensing laws, and to the obvious quality of its beer, export today makes up the vast majority of Amundsen’s volume. Like many breweries, it has had to constantly re-adjust its focus over the past five years; while lockdown saw Amundsen move toward specials and seasonals to retain drinkers’ attention, today the pendulum has swung back the other way.
Geoffrey explains: “There has been such an abundance in seasonals in the market following Covid, that we had to shift our focus back to our core range and fixed shelf space. We did not give up on seasonals completely, but just reduced the amount from around 50 new beers per year to around 25 (which is still a lot). In general though, I think seeing the trends these days is very hard. In my opinion, breweries now more than ever fight to keep their own identity alive and make beer they believe in and can stand by.”
While this is certainly a challenge for all craft breweries, there is a sense that this pressure to simultaneously innovate and be consistently perfect is higher in this part for the world. “I think in general, Scandinavians hold a high standard of life,” he continues. “They are fussy and very open. You will hear immediately if they did not like something. All this means that you need to strive to produce quality and innovate to keep the consumers attention. I also think the OG Scandi breweries paved a way for us, and it’s our duty to not embarrass what they have created, but to add value to it and try to surpass.”
For all that Amundsen is, out of necessity and choice, an international brand, it’s also distinctively Norwegian in some of the most positive ways. The small team is well paid and well looked after, and although this somewhat limits the number of people the brewery can afford to employ, it also means everyone there is happy and committed.
“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,” observes Geoffrey. “My oldest employee, my first employee, John, has been with me now for eleven years. And since then we’ve just been adding on as we have been growing. Our newest hire is Cameron Bigelow (ex Lervig) who joined us as he and his wife relocated from Stavanger to Oslo. We are happy to have him onboard with us.”
With such a small, dedicated team, Geoffrey is always looking for ways to help people work smarter. “For example, a couple of years ago we installed a robot on the back side of the packing line, so it no longer needs to be such a physical job for the guy working that part of the business,” he says. “We’re always trying to update and upgrade, not to get rid of staff, but to make life easier, less straining on the body.”
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