Berentsens to bring world-class gin across the seas
Made in Norway with local ingredients for top-notch taste
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
For Fred Berentsen and his sister, Fredrikke, the fifth generation of Berentsens Brygghus (brewery), their involvement in the family enterprise began early.
“We were about 6 years old, and as soon as we could put the labels on the bottles straight, we were put to work,” said 35-year-old Fred, brewery and distillery manager. “We wanted to help. It wasn’t child labor. When you have a family company like this, it’s not just a job. It’s a hobby. It’s your life. It’s what you talk about when you come home from work. It’s what you talk about on the weekends.”
Hey, the company motto is, “Den må tidlig krøkes, som god krok skal bli,” in other words, if you are going to get good at something, you have to get started early.
Frederikke, 38, works in administration; father Harald, 66, is CEO—“If he’s anything like my grandfather, he’ll also stick around until he’s 94”—and mother, Lovise, 60, “works seamlessly in the background, making sure that projects are landed and that everyone has what they need to run smoothly every day.”
Wilhelm Berentsen was a ship’s captain, who retired at 50 (common in the 19th century) to start a business that would create exciting and refreshing soft drinks. In 1895, Egersund’s Mineralvandfabrik was born in Egersund, in southwest Norway, about an hour from Stavanger. They used a coffee roaster and a simple production machine with the goal of bottling 5,000 bottles a year. They soon reached that goal and needed a larger facility and new equipment. These days, Berentsens produces 5,000 bottles in 15 minutes.
The signature item was a raspberry soda. “It’s the oldest recipe we have,” said Fred. “We still make it the same way.”
The number of products has expanded to include various regular and non-alcoholic beers, gin, whiskey, aquavit, sugar- and caffeine-free energy drinks, fruit ciders, and fresh apple juice.
“Everybody does it their own way,” said Fred. “Our founder and the ones who followed weren’t really into spirits. My father started experimenting with beer, and his original plan was to start a distillery back in 1998. Because of the laws in Norway, we couldn’t, because only the government was allowed to produce stronger spirits that would be 44 proof.
“In 2016, we discussed it as a family whether we wanted to go into spirits. Now that my sister and I were heavily involved in the business, we wanted to undertake a new adventure. My father was interested. It works nicely. He came from a time and age where things were a bit different. Now, there’s a lot of an environmental focus. Things have really changed the last few years. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship where we all get to play on our strengths.”
Now, Fred, along with Sales & Marketing Manager Jo Inge Heskje, are steering the company into the U.S. market, starting in Minnesota. Gin is leading the way.
For all their drinks, Berentsens relies on local ingredients inherent to Norway so they can develop creative and good tasting drinks. That’s why they feel their flavorful gins can make an impact, starting with their pink gin, which already has won gold medals in the United States.
“Our main focus is to, at first, dip our toes into the water in Minnesota with the liquor,” said Fred. “We make gins, aquavit, and whiskey. We’ve mainly focused on the gin so far because when you make a gin, it’s a lot easier to use even more products from our local region. We have three types of gin that we’re hoping to introduce to the Minnesota market. The primary one is our pink gin. It is made with rose hips and forest berries from Norway—blueberries, wild strawberries, and raspberries. It doesn’t just taste of juniper, like traditional gin, but it’s got this very fruity and floral aspect to it as well. We’ve done a few tests in the United States, and the response has just been overwhelmingly positive. We’re very excited to get that started.
“Beer is a very tough market. For the gins, we should be able to compete because we make premium gins. The feedback we have from several states has been, ‘you guys need to get the pink gin over here. It’s going to explode if you do.’”
The people at BARN (Business Accelerator Resource Network) at Norway House in Minneapolis have been “invaluable,” said Fred. “It’s been mainly my good colleague, Jo, who’s been having that kind of specific contact. I get to taste and plan the products and help with those things.”
In July, Norway’s largest newspaper, VG, named one of Berentsens’ summer beers best in Norway. “VG is all over Norway. As soon as that news broke, we were sold out in a couple of days.”
Among their eclectic beers is Cloudberry Imperial Goose, and it came about serendipitously. In 2017, Fred was to attend a beer festival in Spain, which accepted nominations for creative beers.
“I’m quite creative when I need to be,” he said. “I started writing, ‘a sour beer made with 6,000-year-old glacier water from the mountains of Norway.’ They don’t have that in Spain. Check. ‘Brewed with a pinch of hand-harvested sea salt from the mighty North Sea.’ They don’t have that either. I needed something else. ‘With an addition of hand-harvested cloudberries grown under the northern lights in the tundra of Arctic Norway,’ I added.
“I sent the description and received a reply the same day, saying, ‘this sounds amazing. Please send the beer down and be ready in eight weeks.’ Oh gosh, how do I actually even attack this? Somehow, we managed to get a hold of all the ingredients we had promised and made the beer. We sold out in 20 minutes in Barcelona. Since then, we’ve made it several times here in Norway. We’ve won gold medals in Europe, won Norway’s best beer. It’s a very unique, interesting beer, very Norwegian.”
Adding fruity flavors to beer has become a trend.
“The brewery industry has changed quite dramatically, especially in Norway,” said Fred. “We’ve had, to some degree, the same development that there was in the United States, where they started a few microbreweries. They started making more interesting, exciting beers. In the United States, this started over 30 years ago. In Norway, it’s only been since 2004, so we’ve barely had it for 20 years.
“The big beer rush was closer to 2010, 2012. It had only been pilsners, the very traditional, old-school Norwegian farmhouse ales. It’s really changed a lot and fast. Flavors have gone crazy to some extent: you can have raspberry cheesecake, pecan. Fantasy knows no limits. You don’t have time to rest on your laurels. You need to get up and get moving and follow the trends. Our main intention is always to make products that are great to drink.”
Pilsners are very popular in Norway, and Berentsens has three different types. The 1895 is a tribute to their founding year and is made with German and Czech hops.
They have Glacier beer, Mocha Stout, Mango IPA, Mandarin Pale Ale, and more. They have seasonal beers for summer, which are even lighter in flavor than the regular pilsner, Easter, and a variety of Christmas beer.
“Christmas beers are a very big tradition in Norway with an interesting history,” said Fred. “You were basically required by law to brew Christmas beer. If you didn’t, you’d risk paying fines. If you didn’t pay the fines, you would risk losing all of your property, half to the king, half to the bishop. If you still didn’t want to apologize for your sins, you would have to leave the country. This is all written down, dating back to about 1000 A.D. by the Viking King Olav, who made this law.”
Non-alcoholic beers include Driveable Pale Ale and Driveable Mango IPA. “It’s a growing market, but it’s growing slowly,” said Fred.
The signature raspberry soda’s “red color…is completely natural and comes from carrots,” it says on the website. They have a new Utopia soda line with rose hips, rhubarb, blueberry, and mango flavors. They also have a line of Christmas sodas. Traditional soda favorites are passion fruit Love Passion, fruity Flux, Asina Orange, and Champion (formerly Champagne until wine farmers protested the use of the name Champagne earlier this century).
For the sugar-free energy drinks, the sugar is replaced with vitamins B, B6 and B12, pantothenic acid, L-carnitine and dietary fiber.
“I don’t think anyone hopes that it will give them an energy boost, but it’s got the same energy drink flavor. It’s more for the conscious youth or parents when they are buying stuff for their kids,” said Fred.
Their apple drinks begin by combining sweet and sour apples. Choices are apple and ginger, sparkling apple, and unfiltered, which is like an apple juice.
They also have a line of hard ciders, seltzers, and “coolers” that come in a variety of flavors.
Fred is optimistic they can start exporting the gin by the end of the year.
“What will separate it from the others in the market are the local ingredients from Norway,” he said. “We’re hoping people will smell and taste the gins and get a sense of the homeland.”
All images courtesy of Berentsens Brygghus
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.