On the up · 10 November 2016

Founding a craft beer business to showcase the wonders of a city

Oslo Brewing Co. craft beer
Fancy a Norwegian blond? Oslo Brewing Co. has just the beer for you

Norway is a country you’d traditionally associate with a few staples: winter sports, fjords and a lot of oil. While you wouldn’t necessarily think about alcohol, the Oslo Brewing Co., a craft beer business, is looking to change that perception as well as open drinkers up to the delights of its capital city.

The company is only a little over a year old, but already it has produced over 30,000 litres of beer since beginning brewing in June and introduced seven different types. Business Advice came across the enterprise and its founders on a trip to Oslo, and were invited to meet two of the entrepreneurs behind it at the bar a few of them own – one which claims to be the longest bar in Scandinavia.

Marius Steen has a background in PR and communications, just one of the skillets that are represented by the nine founders and 11 that currently make up the team. Joining him are the likes of a plumber, a sociologist, an engineer, a designer and, quite usefully, a beer brewer.

“Our team has people who have done startups and those who’ve worked in stock-listed companies. We’ve got people who have run highly-complex design processes, and those with PR campaign, sales and accounting experience,” he explained.

Quite unusually for a young craft beer business, the team have decided to opt for contract brewing straight away. For those not aware of what that means, a brewery can decide to either brew on its own premises, meaning costly investment in machinery, or contract it out to a larger brewery that handles orders for multiple parties.

“We wanted to be flexible and have a clear focus on building products and brand, rather than spending the first year building a brewery,” Steen explained.

“There are the costs and then time spent finding a location, buying bits and then maintaining output – so that’s why we were keen to have a model of business that made it easy to scale up and down, making it easy to move to other countries.”

However, Steen did point out a few problems with contract brewing. While it does have the obvious pros of less costs and no build times, the team cannot necessarily brew to their own schedule. They often have to adjust to someone else, and aren’t really able to brew exactly how they’d chose to if premises were owned.

“What we’ve learnt is that as long as we know these limitations and rules, we can plan according to those and with that plan a schedule and strategy that makes us end up where we want to be,” he added.

While Oslo Brewing Co. is still a relative new addition to the brewing scene, it has already spread its internationals wings and ventured over to Japan.

Funding for the young business has been mostly through the founding team’s own capital, but they have a very helpful bank on board. Steen told us that most banks are not necessarily keen, but they made sure to present themselves in a very particular way early on. “Our business plan was very specific, we had an idea of the whole package. With the founding team we have, there were some very concrete ideas and time plan, so it was a lot easier to have a bank understand what we were doing and for it to trust us and think ‘this is a solid project with a sincere group behind it’.”

An interesting component of the Oslo Brewing Co. growth story so far is its position within a heavily regulated Norwegian market. While many may view the Scandinavian nation as laid back and laissez-faire, its approach to alcohol means nothing with a strength of more than 4.7 per cent can be sold in supermarkets. Above that and it must be stocked in a specialised alcohol shop.

To put it simply, there is a complete ban on alcohol advertising. The brewery is allowed to show a beer and say, for example, this is a bottle of IPA. However, don’t even dare suggest how good it tastes or make it look appetising.

“If we had entered the market and there was no digital channel available, it would have been significantly harder to get an audience,” Steen commented.

“We have to be smart with the way we do things. As we have this clear idea that we love our city and are putting it on the map through craft beer, much of what we are doing is showcasing the city and so the possibilities are endless. Instagram is a big deal, and then Facebook for events.”

It’s clearly not been plain sailing for Oslo Brewing Co., but its dynamic team has got it to a position where national exposure is growing. Steen explained that while it is an “absolute cliche” for most startups to find that things take longer than expected, the new areas the founders have put themselves in mean this trend demonstrated itself to be true.

Being a contract brewer has taken less time to set up, but it has still been slow to produce beer at a large scale. “It’s not just like making tea in a bigger kettle,” he joked, “we have to know how it will work and get the same taste that we and customers are accustomed to.”

Getting traction in bars has also been a struggle, given the company’s distinctly Scandinavian branding cannot always travel with the beer. Instead, Oslo Brewing Co. often becomes dependent on the ability for a barman to talk up its beer and recommend varieties to customers.

Its brand will be a key driver of getting the brewery to where it wants to be. What has started on social media through some professional photography will be extended upon with new labelling, glassware and the merchandise.

Ultimately, our conversation with Steen repeatedly came back to the team’s desire to put Oslo on the map. The unique charm of the city is played out on the brand’s beer bottles and then through the stories it tells on social media.

“When we first tarted out we felt there were two things missing in the beer market. We wanted someone talking about the city of today and where it’s going moving forward. We also wanted a craft beer company that was clear and fresh and simple in the way it looked.

“We try to install a curious view about the city, and try to lift up the things that you both visit the city to do or have never been exposed to. In one place you might play ice hockey, have a snowball fight or go sledding in the winter, and then go back there in the summer for a BBQ and swim.”

The passion Steen and his fellow founders have for the capital of Norway is obvious, and if that is able to continue to trickle down into the beer it makes then they could soon have a craft beer business of sizeable proportions.

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Hunter Ruthven was previously editor of Business Advice. He was also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs.