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All for Norway

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How a Portland guitar shop employee went from reality TV star to Norway’s next brewer.

By Tyler Moss

The small town of Rena lies in eastern Norway, a little more than 100 miles north of Oslo. Scenically situated at the intersection of the Glomma and Rena rivers, the valley is home to Hedmark University College, the Birkebeiner mountain bike/ski races and 28-year-old Tom Torresdal—Portland, Oregon, native, former Norwegian reality TV star and an apprentice at Det Lille Bryggeri (“The Little Brewery”).

How Torresdal found himself 10 time zones from home, mixing malt and hops in Scandinavia, is a story of human transformation from a mash tun of raw potential to finely fermented maturity. It all started with a phone call from his mother in the spring of 2011. You need a real job, a job that gives you insurance,” she said, exasperated. “Get your life together! At the time, Torresdal was working in a guitar shop, brewing with homegrown hops and playing in a “noisy alternative rock band” called Danger Thieves. He was a living testament to Portland’s reputation as the city where young people go to retire.

Craigslist led Torresdal to the post that would change his life: “Reality show looking for Norwegian Americans interested in going to Norway. Chance to meet family and win money.”

It was the perfect escape route. Torresdal, who looks as traditionally Norwegian as Thor, but wears plaid shirts and military boots instead of intergalactic armor, had always been interested in his roots. In his audition video he played the guitar to a parody of “Johnny B. Goode,” with lyrics altered to describe why he wanted to go to Norway. The producers loved it, and cast him.

Titled “Alt for Norge” (“Everything for Norway”), the premise of the show is this: 12 Americans with Norwegian ancestry fly to Europe to test their wherewithal at traditional Norwegian tasks; competitions range from sleeping in ice caves to memorizing and reciting Norwegian profanity. Each week, one contestant is eliminated, and the last challenger standing wins $50,000 and a reunion with their long-lost Norwegian relatives.

That summer, Torresdal joined his fellow contestants in Norway, where they all cohabited in a rustic lake house. Personalities differed greatly, but the participants got along well, brought together by their collective fish-out-of-water experience. For Torresdal, it felt like a “super-cool Boy Scout camp.”

He immediately hit it off with Matti Rowe, a 24-year-old contestant from Wisconsin who admired Torresdal’s carpe diem attitude.

“The third episode was on a farm, and Tom was on the losing team,” Rowe remembers. “As punishment, his team had to shovel manure. So Tom gets dressed in this one-piece pro- tective suit, and he’s shoveling, and all the sudden he decides to dive into the manure. So there are shots of Tom just laughing as he rolls around in cow dung.”

The two enjoyed a competitive brotherly dynamic, going all out for every challenge. In northern Norway, they were asked to lasso reindeer with the help of indigenous natives. While cod fishing in the North Sea, they dove into the icy water while their castmates, struggling with seasickness, stood shivering back on deck.

All-night parties for the cast and crew followed every episode wrap, and Torresdal and Rowe bonded over European-style pilsners such as Aass, Hansa and Ringnes. While he was happy to have beer on hand, Torresdal missed the bite of American IPAs and the chocolate notes of dark, hearty stouts.

Only Torresdal, Rowe and a third contestant remained when they were brought to a theater in Oslo packed with locals. They were given an hour to memorize the Norwegian national anthem, after which they would have to perform it for the crowd with a 30-piece band.

Humble enough to recognize that he couldn’t compete with Rowe’s operatic voice, Torresdal decided to channel his punk-rock roots for the patriotic salute. Storming onto the stage in a suit jacket sans shirt, he went on stage—and bombed. The votes came in: Rowe won, and Torresdal was promptly shipped back to the United States.

Brita Karlsen, a casting producer for “Alt for Norge,” says Torresdal was a fan favorite.

“It was impossible not to love his laughter,” she says. “He learned to let out his inner Viking. It felt like he became more and more Norwegian after each episode.”

Back in Portland, Torresdal took a job tinkering with guitar effects pedals, but all he could think about was returning to Norway. Undeterred by a pilsner monopoly, he wanted the chance to apply American-style craft beer creativity to Scandinavian suds.

***

Beer has a rich history in Norway. In the 10th century, the Viking king Haakon the Good decreed that every peasant under his rule brew beer for the Christmas holiday. Medieval Gulating laws took the mandate a step further, outlining penalties that ranged from fines to the confiscation of property for those who dared not to brew. Torresdal’s own great-grandfather, a Norse cauliflower farmer, likely had a bryggehus (brewhouse) on his property before emigrating.

After months of scavenging the Norse peninsula for brewery internship opportunities, Torresdal finally received an email from a brewer named Per Walmsnæss. He had seen Torresdal on “Alt for Norge” and had liked his friendly but competitive spirit. Walmsnæss found Torresdal a position at a brewery he’d founded in Rena called Det Lille Bryggeri, whose Birkebeiner Pils has been called the best pilsner in Norway.

As the foamy head to this hearty ale of an offer, Walmsnæss proposed an even more attractive opportunity: to together co-found a brand-new brewhouse where Torresdal could act as bryggerimester (brewmaster). Torresdal vaulted across the Atlantic.

Walmsnæss’ bucolic farmhouse, Bjørnstadgård, sits a short distance outside Rena. The structure itself was built in the 1700s, and has actual grenade damage from when it was shelled by the Germans in World War II.

Torresdal plans to convert the old dairy equipment into fermenters where he can brew intensely hopped IPAs, which Per will pair with moose steaks sourced from the animals he hunts on the farm’s vast property. They’ve begun the renovations and plan to open the brewery/kitchen/food hall within six months.

Aside from occasional recognition, Torresdal’s reality TV show fame doesn’t seem to get in the way of his work.

“Every now and then, people come up and ask, ‘Are you that guy?’ or start talking to me in Norwegian: ‘Where do I know you from?’” he says. “It’s not quite like being a rock star or anything like that.”

When asked if his parents are satisfied with how far he’s come, he laughs and says they’re just happy he’s no longer living a beggar’s lifestyle. Plus, Norway has universal health care, so he finally has the insurance his mom was nagging him about. Three years ago, his life lacked effervescence, but thanks to “Alt for Norge,” he now has life on tap.

“I believe Tom found himself in Norway,” Karlsen says. “He finally understands where he came from. In some ways, he’s the most Norwegian person I know.” •

 

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