Words and shots by Troy Zitzelsberger
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In the West there’s Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors; here we have their Korean doppelgangers Hite-Jinro, producers of Hite and Max, and Oriental Brewery, which makes Cass. These industrial giants all create the same kind of mass-distributed beer – the lager. These beers are cheap, readily available, and the popular choice throughout the peninsula. However, they also share the same taste profile, lacking both character and flavor and limiting customer options. It’s either pay nearly triple what you should for an import or drink a flavorless lager.
Given the limited options and the fact that the cheaper choice still leads to inebriation, the pale yellow lager has long reigned supreme. However, today there is growing demand for variety. More customers want a beer brewed with tender love and care as opposed to the mass-produced lagers made by formula in a city-sized factory. The age of the craft brew industry is beginning to dawn in Korea.
In 2002, South Korea hosted the Asian games and the FIFA World Cup, which prompted the government to relax regulations and allow individuals to start brewing and serving beer on premise. This brought about the birth of the Korean brewpub. Today there are around 77 nationwide. However, many of these establishments are finding it difficult to keep their doors open.
The beer market in South Korea is difficult for entrepreneurial brewers to enter and even more so to succeed in. First off, anyone looking to establish a brewery has to have the necessary capital, which may require a significant number of investors. Next, the establishment must be able to produce at a certain capacity, which is determined by whether they choose to sell their beer on premise, off premise, or both. In 2011, the government relaxed regulations further, dropping the amount of beer production required for a brewery to be able to distribute its product from 3.7 million 500ml bottles to 200,000 – which needless to say is still a significant
Further adding to the expenses, for each new beer a brewery offers, it must get approval from the Korean FDA. This costs anywhere from W800,000 to W2 million, according to owner of Craftworks Taphouse Dan Vroon. After receiving the stamp of approval, the brewer has to pay a 269% tariff on any imported ingredients – pretty much everything except the water. This raises the relatively inexpensive cost of hops from W1,800 per ounce to W4,680. Considering the amount and variety of ingredients that go into each different beer, this makes it exponentially more expensive to enter the market.
Thankfully, there are a few new breweries that are looking to meet the growing demand for better beer. All but one of these breweries are brew pubs and most offer three varieties of beer – a weizen, a dunkel, and a pilsner. That is exactly what you will find at Oktoberfest and Café O Pops. Castle Praha, by contrast, only produces a pilsner. The newest microbrewery on the scene is Magpie Brewing Company in Haebangchon. Their three main beers are an amber ale, porter, and pale ale. They’ll also be offering classes on brewing and tasting, as well as selling a variety of imported beers.
Setting the bar for future microbreweries is Craftworks Taphouse, which opened its doors in 2010. Two years might not seem like long, but in Seoul that’s ancient. What gives them their staying power? They offer variety and quality; their beers are all unpasteurized and unfiltered; and unlike their corporate competitors, they don’t use any cheap additives such as corn or rice in place of the malt. In terms of variety, Craftworks offers the most locally produced brews: a hefeweizen, dark lager, pilsner, golden ale, oatmeal stout, India pale ale, and pale ale. They also offer a sampler complete with all their beers in case you have trouble choosing. As Craftworks recently acquired its distributor’s license, their brews may well be on tap at your favorite watering holes in the coming months.
Another brewery whose beers are already on tap at numerous locations, beating Craftworks to the punch by a few months and becoming the first new Korean brewery in seventy years capable of meeting the distribution requirements, is 7 Brau. Although they don’t have a brewpub, they offer three styles of beer (pilsner, stout, and pale ale) which can currently be consumed at bars around Itaewon. Each week, several more establishments around Korea add 7 Brau to their lineup. But don’t get your hops up
just yet – though the regulations have dropped significantly, the options at your local Family Mart have yet to increase. But this will change, possibly sooner than later. “We’re hoping to be bottling our beer within a few months,” said 7 Brau part-owner Sean Carter.
7 Brau follows the same principles as Craftworks when it comes to their ingredients, and both of these breweries’ products speak for themselves. A taste test easily reveals the truth: better ingredients equal better beer. The craft brew industry here, although young, is headed in the right direction. The recently inked free trade agreements with Europe and the US will help reduce the cost of imported ingredients. Better beer is becoming more readily available to the general populace. And with that initial sip, taste buds will begin to change.
Brew Pubs to Frequent in Seoul
• Café O Pops Located on Rodeo, Shinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu.
• Castle Praha Numerous locations including 395-19, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu.
• Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro 140-861 Myeongsan Building, 651 Itaewon 2-dong, Yongsan-gu. craftworkstaphouse.com 02-794-2537
• Hollywood Bar & Grill 3F, 123-33 Itaewon 1-dong, Yongsan-gu. 02-749-6525
• Magpie Brewing Company 691 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu. 010-3769-0644
• Oktoberfest Numerous locations including 5-23 Changcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu. oktoberfest.co.kr 02-3481-8887