The Rise of South Korea's Craft Brewing Scene
South Korea used to be swimming in appallingly bad beer, so it's astounding that the country would become the center of Asia’s craft beer scene, or that the movement would be led by a handful of expats.
Photo via Flickr user traveloriented
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.
South Korea used to be swimming in appallingly bad beer, so it would've been hard to believe the country could become the center of Asia's craft beer scene, or that the movement would be led by a handful of immigrants—or, least of all, that it would all begin in North Korea.
"The catalyst for the movement was an article by The Economist," says Hassan Haider, one of the owners of Magpie Brewing Co. in Seoul. "It said something crazy. It said North Korean beer is better than South Korean beer. People didn't like that."
After the Agreed Framework of 1994, which made it harder for North Korea to produce weapons-grade plutonium, the country's economic ties with the United States improved. Four years later, the Sunshine Policy began and Pyongyang started getting economic aid from the South. Things were humming by 2000, and Kim Jong Il decided it was time for his people to enjoy a cold one.
That summer, the North Korean government sent a small band of brewers and bureaucrats to the English town of Wiltshire to buy the brewery Ushers of Trowbridge, which was known for its quality ales. They dropped about $2 million on the place and shipped every board and nail back home with them.
"Some of these guys had never seen plastic cups," local brewer Gary Todd later said. "They were hoarding them. And toilet seats. Boy oh boy, toilet seats were like gold. They took everything."
They reassembled the brewery in eastern Pyongyang, named it Taedonggang after the local river, and just like that, North Korea had good beer.
Pyongyang also soon built the Rakwon Paradise Microbrewery and the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery. So while their communist brothers and sisters were quenching their thirst with Taedonggang lagers, Rakwon wheat ales, and pints of Yanggakdo American blonde ale, South Koreans were stuck drinking beer so bad it earned their country the nickname "Land of the Bland" and "Home to the Piss of the Devil."
In fact, Beer Advocate's user reviews for Cass Fresh, one of Korea's most popular beers, include descriptions such as "sweet corn" and "distinctive plastic flavor."
But if that explains how South Korea's repressed, destitute sibling got its hands on quality pints, what accounts for the lack of good beer in the other half of the peninsula?
For one thing, Pyongyang had a head start since microbrewing was illegal in the South. Of course, once news of the North's success hit Seoul, that law was quashed and by 2002 the first microbreweries appeared. But when Taegonggang made its way south of the border in 2005, competition was scarce, and even after bars stopped selling it when Pyongyang jacked up the price in 2007, the South had nothing better.
"They used the best-quality material without thinking of the production cost," said Park Myung-jin, a South Korean distributor, talking about Taedonggang in a New York Times piece that described it as "one of the highest quality beers on the peninsula."
Then came Craftworks Taphouse and Brewery, which opened in 2010 near the US military base in Itaewon, Seoul. Craftworks was unique because it was entirely foreign-owned, and unlike its predecessors—O'Kim's Brauhaus, Oktoberfest, Castle Praha, 7Braü—who all seemed to think a European pedigree (genuine or not) conferred legitimacy, Craftworks went with a Korean theme by naming its beers after local mountains such as the Bukhansan Pale Ale, Jirisan IPA and Namsan Pilsner.
"I first started Craftworks exactly because there was no craft beer scene in Korea," says Dan Vroon, the founder, who claims that many of his Korean colleagues thought IPAs were too bitter to be successful. But that's not how things went.
Kent Davy, Craftworks' managing director, says the alcohol and bitterness levels of the IPA made it an "edgy" drink. Koreans tend to prefer lighter beers, he says, noting that the Baekdusan Hefeweizen is hugely popular with Korean women. But, he adds, "the edgier IPA actually is the best selling beer."
Craftworks was the exception rather than the rule, however, and it wasn't until 2012 that the craft beer trend really caught on. That was the year of the infamous Economist piece, which said, "brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South."
According to the article, there were three reasons for the poor quality of South Korean beer. First, the market was plagued by heavy taxes that allowed bigger companies to profit from economies of scale, creating an oppressive duopoly between HiteJinro and Oriental Brewery (the makers of Cass). Second, these two companies removed flavorful bacteria from their beers so they could ship them warm and chill them on arrival. Third, anything other than malt, hops, and yeast was considered a threat to local farmers and heavily taxed. Oats, for example, could be taxed as much as 500 percent.
It's also worth considering another reason: maybe Koreans simply like bad beer. They wouldn't be alone. (After all, the three best-selling US beers are Bud Light, Budweiser, and Coors Light.) They wouldn't be without reason, either. Beers that are light on flavor and big on carbonation are more refreshing and pair better with spicy Korean cuisine.
But some, like Hassan Haider, believe it was the Economist article that gave Korea the kick in the pants it needed. Magpie opened in 2012, the year the article came out, and was followed by a slew of minimalist pubs, bottle shops and hipster holes.
The third wave of the Korean craft beer scene had begun.
"People said it wouldn't work," Haider tells me. "They said Koreans don't drink that kind of beer."
And at first, he says, they seemed right. Koreans would come in and complain. For the first 10 months Magpie only had pale ale and each new customer would order a glass and take a sip and say, "it's so bitter."
But by the bottom of the pour, they'd order another.
If the first wave comprised European-style pubs chasing Taedonggang's shadow, and the second wave began with Craftworks, what distinguishes the third is a focus on beer almost to the exclusion of anything else. Craftworks, for instance, operates as a brewery but also has a broad selection of cocktails and a full food menu, whereas Magpie serves pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches, but that's it. No cocktails. No brunch. Just good beer.
"For me personally," says Tiffany Needham, one of the founders of Magpie, "there is just something satisfying about drinking a beer you made and being able to share it with people."
The third wave is where the craft beer scene in Korea really took off, and by that I mean it caught on with locals, because at most of these places the customer base was initially made up of expats. It was around 2012 when that began to really flip.
Troy Zitzelsberger, self-described "beer geek" and founder of Reilly's Taphouse and Restaurant, says there's a decent mix on the weekends but the overall trend is clear.
"Most of our clients are Korean," he says.
Not far from Craftworks, Magpie, and Reilly's is a small slot of a bar called Hair of the Dog, run by a New Jersey native named Wiliam Pole and his Korean partner, Kim Mijeong. Like other third wave spots, Hair of the Dog does have a small selection of food—mostly sandwiches.
"New Jersey has a proud sandwich culture," Pole says as he pours a glass of the IPA, their best seller. "Folks know the classic Philly cheesesteak, but the unsung hero of Philadelphia is roast pork."
And the roast pork is killer at Hair of the Dog, but the main focus is beer. In addition to the IPA, they serve a Belgian wheat, a mocha stout and a chrysanthemum weizen. Their pours are always remarkably fresh, too.
"With beer," Pole says, "the most important thing is keeping your taps clean."
All these places—Craftworks, Magpie, Reilly's, Hair of the Dog—sit at the foot of Namsan in the neighborhoods of Haebangchon and Kyungridan, an area beside the U.S. military base and one that, after Japanese rule, was populated by North Koreans who had fled to the South.
Among them, Magpie holds a special place in the craft beer scene as it recently opened a new brewery on the semitropical island of Jeju, where they've made a beer called Birds of a Feather, a saison using Jeju apple mangoes and sancho (a type of Sichuan peppercorn), in collaboration with brewers from Goose Island Brewery.
This team-up, while exciting for Magpie, heralds the coming of Korean craft beer's fourth wave, one characterized by the entry of major American craft companies. When I met Jason Lindley, he said Brooklyn Brewery was soon coming to Jeju and while he said he was happy to hear the news, he also spoke of tensions in Korea.
"Japanese real estate is too pricey for craft brewers," he said, "and the Chinese market is too green. China could be next, but for now China is hella polluted. You need clean water."
Korea, he noted, is just right. From here, breweries can hit up Chinese and Japanese markets and the rest of Asia. This is crucial, Lindley explains, because it takes about six weeks to get beer from the United States to Asia, but the sell-by date is six months. Beers with more alcohol can last longer, but you want IPAs out in under that time, which means most arrive halfway into their sell-by date.
"I've seen beers in Korea that were a year old," he says.
And now that the Korean craft beer scene is finally thriving, Lindley worries it might be in danger. Because its location makes it a ready springboard for the rest of Asia, a lot of major companies are eyeing the Korean market, and smaller local brewers aren't ready to compete on that level.
"The culture is being taken over by big hitters before they can decide for themselves who they want to be," he says, emphasizing that he's excited about the presence of more experienced brewers, but also concerned what impact this will have on smaller members of the community.
Koreans often talk about how they've been victimized and invaded many times over the span of history. So now, after emerging from the shadow of North Korean craft beer, it would be a shame for South Korea, just as the movement is gaining momentum, to fall under the influence of American companies.
"When America was building up its craft scene," Lindley says, "Fuller's London didn't swoop in and say, 'We're takin this shit over!' This has never happened anywhere in the history of beer."