Quiet Industry

Monica Berg, one-third of the (p)our team, may be the quiet one, but her ethos underpins their work. by Hamish Smith


ALONGSIDE HER FAMOUS COLLEAGUES, Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale, Monica Berg is a lesser-known entity. Most know her name – but not necessarily how she made it.

Berg is Norwegian but was born in Seoul and adopted by Norwegian parents at the tender age of four months. “In my generation it was common for Norwegians to adopt outside of Europe in places such as Korea, which was poor back then, a developing country. In Norway there are a lot of Koreans but no Korean immigrants or culture. Before I moved to London I had never eaten Korean food,” says Berg.

Hospitality made an early calling, as Berg took her first job in an ice cream parlour. From there it was food service in an events company and eventually on to drinks. Her first G&T had her hooked but at 19 she was too young to work with spirits behind the bar – if she were to bartend, it would need to be abroad. Crete was where she’d end up on her gap year and when she returned, she returned a bartender. Studying continued but it was her night classes – pubs, clubs, volume bars – that paved the way for a career. Serving crap drinks to baying crowds was speed and confidence building. “I walked away with £600 in tips one night, half of which was people throwing coins at me. It was so intense I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was fun though.”

Berg was more bar-world experienced than your average 21-year-old student, though she was still young to be a teacher. The local bartender school, Butlers Bartenderskole where she had trained, took her on as a teacher in 2003 and by 2005 Berg had bought the business. “At one time we had schools in Norway, Greece and Madeira and I had a contract with the Norwegian army – bartending was a course they could take to re-enter society. I taught the Norwegian special forces, which was interesting.”

Berg took to teaching. “I really enjoyed it. Many people who came had never succeeded in school – some had reading and writing difficulties – but they enjoyed the practical side and grew in confidence. I’m in touch with some of them and seeing them behind the bar now reaffirms my belief in education.” At the heart of everything was a steadfast integrity. “Brands offered me a lot of money to speak about their products but I always said no.”

In 2009 she took a job as bar manager at Ice Bar in Oslo. She developed quickly and by 2011 was competing in international cocktail competitions. “The global bar community was becoming very connected. Norway is a dark market so going to these places wowed me. When I came to London, I had no idea. A friend told me to go to Artesian.” That advice would be telling.

On returning to Oslo, Berg brought with her knowledge of a new way. “In 2011 I opened a small cocktail bar called Aqua Vitae. Cocktails were niche still but every night I’d try to convince people to try my drinks. They would say: “This is the worst bar I’ve ever been to” and “you are the worst bartender”. But after a while we had a small but fiercely loyal clientele.”

Berg knew exactly who Alex Kratena was when she met him in late 2012 at Tales of The Cocktail. “Our first date was at the Spirited Awards,” she says. “And the rest is history.” Berg then straddled London and Oslo, commuting between the two so she could compete for Norway in World Class.

In winter 2013 she made the move permanent. “I was nervous. I thought I’d have to work in Tesco because no one is going to give me a job.” But Gareth Evans toured her round Poland Street Social and gave her a job on the spot.

Her next big gig was to consult on and establish the drinks programme at Himkok, so Olso came calling once more.

Though Berg’s work with Kratena and Caporale was gaining steam – not least the education programme of P(our) – there is also the small matter of opening a bar. When it happens – hopefully later this year – it will be the biggest launch of the decade. Against her better-known partners, Berg’s work is sometimes under-appreciated. What you see is the tip of the berg – her planning, thoughtfulness and social conscience form the base for everything the trio does.