Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Good Korean Beer is Just Around the Bend

The Korean just returned from another trip to Korea, and he is ready to make a bold prediction:  good beer from Korea is just around the bend.

If the Korean were asked to pick the most significant change in Korea in the past five years, he has an easy winner:  coffee. In the last five years, Korea's coffee went from the range of terrible-to-average, to the range of average-to-pretty-darn-good. To be sure, coffee in Korea is still on the expensive side, easily topping KRW 5,000 for a cup of good drip coffee. But five years ago, good coffee was simply unavailable in Korea, regardless of the price. Starbucks was the only option for a decent cup of coffee, and for many, Starbucks stretches the definition of "a decent cup of coffee."

Not so today. Coffee in Korea, and especially in Seoul, compares favorably to any large American city associated with good coffee. The Korean would dare say that coffee in Seoul is head and shoulders better than coffee in Washington D.C., where he lives. The coffee quality improved outside of Seoul as well. The Korean was able to get a solid cup of espresso near his grandmother's small town, where, just 20 years ago, the Korean Grandmother lived in a house without indoor plumbing. This progress was so remarkable that the Korean came up with a hypothesis connecting liberal education and the progress of coffee.

Korea's beer is ready to make a similar leap. If Korea's coffee was terrible-to-average five years ago, Korea's beer was abominable-to-tolerable just a year ago. The state of beer in Korea was so awful that the Economist took note:  "brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South."

But that is about to change. As the Economist noted, a large part of the problem was the governmental regulations that enabled the duopoly of Hite-Jinro and OB in Korean beer market. Together, the two companies hold more than 96% of Korea's market share for beer. However, responding to the Economist article, Korea's National Assembly will soon pass a series of legislation that will slash down those regulations so that microbrewers in Korea will face lower taxes to import the ingredients for beer and distribute the final product. Currently, a brewer must have a minimal capacity to produce 120,000 litres of beer in order to apply for a wholesale license. The new law will halve the minimum required capacity. Also, brewers currently face 72% tax; for microbrewers only, the tax will be lowered to 30%.

Korean people's taste for beer is ready for the change as well. Five years ago, even the imported bottled beer selection was limited to Budweiser, Miller and Heineken, save a few hip bars. Now, regular grocery stores in Korea carry Warsteiner and Hoegaarden. In trendy parts of Seoul, it is not difficult to find a selection of craft beer that would make the hipster bars of Lower East Side green with envy. The logical next step is good local brews, and there are several Korean microbrewers ready for the challenge, such as 7brau and Kapa Brewery. The infrastructure of establishing more microbreweries and distributing different kinds of beer--such as wholesale of brewing equipments--is also taking root as we speak.

So, the prediction: in five years, the beer scene in Korea will be nothing like the one we see today. It will have a diverse selection of interesting beers, brewed in Korea. The revolution is well on its way; when it is completed, you will hardly remember that Korea once was a beer wasteland.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

17 comments:

  1. I agree with this post 100%. While five years ago, you COULD find a good coffee -- there were only about three places altogether. Now, there's a good to very good chain near every subway station, and one or several decent-to-excellent roaster/hand-drip-ish place somewhere in every popular hangout/date area.

    Beer has come as far between 2010 and now as Coffee came between 2007 and 2010. It's gonna be a good next five years for me. :)

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  2. became a big coffer drinker when i came to korea.
    with so many places roasting and brewing HQ own coffees, no real need to waste money on the chains imo.

    too bad most of the best mat-jibs in korea still only serve cass or OB

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  3. Beer the way it is made is really bad for you. The only acceptable beer in terms of health is rice beer. Soju is even better - health wise that is. Beware of gluten.

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  4. As for cafés outside Seoul, Coffee Story in Gangneung was pretty nice too. The taste was nice, the quantity was just a little bit smaller, but not really a big deal, and the price was quite fair comparing to what you find in Seoul. Also a nice view to the beach from the window, cute design of the place itself (I mean, the building and the garden both look cute and pleasant) and there is a pine tree forest right next to it.

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  5. this makes me pleased all out of proportion. the quality of the coffee, tea, beer, wine, and whiskey scene are my personal benchmarks for how dense and developed a particular city is. seems like Korea is advancing on all fronts :)

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  6. Those ARE bold words. When I lived in Korea in 2006, the coffee was absolutely terrible -- watered down, oversweetened, overpriced. If it has improved as you say....then I have faith in beer. Although Korea's watery beer has its own cache and fans, haha, especially if you're young and broke.

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  7. That addresses the supply question. But, is there demand? Beyond foreigners and The Economist, that is which seemingly needs beer not to write good stories or take bribes to write fiction. It sounds like the old habit of following foreign trends, sometimes non-American, just to appear cosmopolitan and independent, and not the client state whorehouse and money laundering operation it really is. As someone mentioned in the last discussion on beer here or somewhere else, beer doesn't fit Korean food. Perhaps, with these incentives, microbrewers can create niches. South Koreans don't have the leisure time just to drink beer, if one accepts that alcohol is a compliment to food. After all, the wine habit didn't catch on and red wine is undoubtedly healthier for you. The chain stores are just full of fancy wines with bullshit names no one has the education to drink.

    Screw beer - cheap stuff is fine - I want bourbon.

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  8. I disagree strongly with that "beer doesn't go with Korean food" part. Beer is great with all those grilled-meat dishes and heavily seasoned banchan. You haven't tried spicy jeyuk kimchi bokkeum with ice-cold beer? Come on! -- it's as perfect a combo as strong chili with beer, only more.

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  9. I should have specified - any beer but a lager ruins Korean food.

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    1. I would disagree with that. Pilsner goes very well with Korean food as well. IPA kind of works too, depending on the food.

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  10. I see signs of this everywhere. A bar in crappy little Cheonan has the Craftwork beers on tap! I was just on the KTX and their big glossy tourist magazine had a big article on the wave of new craft breweries. These changes in the law demolish the last obstacles. Great great news.

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  11. Anything has to be better than OB.

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  12. Man, I don't want to have to wait 5 years for a cheap and decent beer...
    Honestly, it still blows my mind that in this society with such a focus on drinking that there rn't fine beers to be had. It's not like you couldn't just bring in a German or two and have them help set up a brewery...

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  13. When my Korean friends ask what I think of Korean beer, I usually tell them its good for mixing with soju...or eating with a good Korean meal. The only Korean beer I'll usually buy and drink outside of a restaurant setting is Black Beer Stout. For the price, it ain't bad, but it ain't great.

    I live in Seoul, and often go to the Shinsegae at the Express Bus Terminal to get the imported beers they have in stock in the underground supermarket section. They usually have regular and seasonal Samuel Adams brews, a few Trappist beers, and a good variety of Japanese imports (I'm fond of Hitachino Nest's offerings), as well as several other global options.

    I've shared some of these beers with my Korean friends, and afterward, they usually lament the state of Korean beer (especially after drinking Japanese beer). One friend in particular is not the least bit hopeful Korean beer will improve, but perhaps he is wrong.

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  14. Ahem. Hey all. My name is Jason and I'm one of the co-owners of the Magpie Brewing Company. We've been around for about 1.3 years now and...I'd like to contribute to this thread if I can.

    1. Saying that "Beer doesn't go well with Korean food"/"Any beer but a lager ruins Korean food" is pretty ridiculous as A: no one has really paired beer with Korean food professionally and B: what Korean food are you talking about? Spicy? Sour? Sweet? Korean food has a large range of flavor even though "spicy" can dominate. That said, I've had stouts, porters, and IPAs that go quite well with Korean food. Who knows what pairings haven't even been tried yet. Sorry but that statement is a huge pet-peeve for me, just like "Koreans don't like..."/"Koreans like..."

    2. I don't know about the Korean's "timeline" for beer exploding in about 5 years but...it is indeed growing. There's us, Craftworks, 7 Brau...then all of the imports that are just going nuts. I mean...Green Flash in Korea??? Chimay? Rogue? Who'd have thunk it?

    3. On that note, I invite you all to swing by Magpie some time and talk brews with us!

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  15. just picked up a 6pack at Assi Market in Irvine, CA for $2.99. I'm not expecting a Chimay or Golden Drak, I know better. You get what you pay for. I'm not a total beer snob, just no Coors for me.

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