February 3, 2013 by ka101010
I’ve been talking a lot about bread, but that is not the only yeast product we produce at home. My house also (proudly) produces its own beer. We slowly accumulate a well-curated selection of craft brews due to serendipitous discoveries at Shinsegae, Itaewon, and business trips. We have a couple finished beers in reserve: 1 high-gravity barleywine (Brewed in early 2013 to commemorate the birth of our first child) and 1 weizenbock (a darker German wheat beer).
Seoul beer enthusiasts may have read The Economist article about the great Hite/OB duopoly in South Korea. To summarize, OB (Oriental Brewery) and Hite hold an overwhelming share of the domestic market with their mild (let’s be frank, devoid of taste) lagers. They have made no indication that they will cater to the craft brew market anytime soon. One reason for the paucity of beer variety in Korea is the heavy import tariffs (and on the consumer end, high retail markups) on beers from the US, Japan and Europe. When calculated, the price of importing beer often overwhelms demand elasticity (sorry, I can’t pay +60,000KRW for a 6 pack of Rogue, no matter how much I love Dead Guy).
Many imported ingredients for beer are also taxed heavily because they are deemed threats to domestic agriculture. One example is oats. Korea is incapable of growing a ton of cereals because of the scarcity of arable land, and oats are not a popular cereal in Korea. But due to the waygook premium, a typical oatmeal stout can be prohibitively expensive (10,000+ KRW)!
It’s times like this when I wish the WTO actually had the power and support to dismantle self-serving trade barriers that penalize consumers. Tariffs like these prevent the unbridled beer experimentation we see in the US. And even small-scale Korean brewers complain about these tariffs because wholesale licenses are only distributed to producers who can prove at least 150,000 liters of capacity, a significant barrier to entry and “tax” on all the small breweries. I’m not kidding. I’ve heard that some breweries buy the oldest, used brewing tanks just to meet the legal threshhold. And this does not include all the increased FDI, health code requirements (which, of course, SHOULD be required), and other government exigencies that must be met prior to launching a new brewery.
Hite and OB have since responded, defensively, declaring that their target market finds their beer adequate (as if “adequate” was any measure of satisfaction – imagine a consumer lauding a nice French wine as being utterly adequate for hydration). They also reject the claim that they use no malt, instead they use “some malt” and make up the difference with fillers like rice to and corn to achieve a “light taste.” In addition, they also point to the fact that domestic brewing of Hoegaarden is complicated and requires sophistication from Korean brewers. To which I say, if they are so sophisticated and have the technology, why not use it to produce premium beer to compete with high-priced imported beers? Laughably, the brewers they say there is no purpose in producing domestic beer of Hoegaarden’s quality, as statistically over 90% of Korean beers are consumed after the drinker is too drunk to taste anything. This last point deserves its own separate discussion for obvious reasons…
I see a huge opportunity here for the Korean breweries: even if OB covertly re-branded a small production, full-bodied, higher-gravity beer, they could probably charge the same premium price as imports since that is what the market will currently bear. Who needs to mix a 소맥 when you can skip those steps and have a tasty, unadulterated beer?
Hite and OB also argue that they produce beer to meet what they deem as the “local preference.” True story: some Koreans swear that pouring Soju (Korean vodka distilled from sweet potatoes) into Korean beer actually improves the flavor. Product localization makes total marketing sense, but obviously their marketing research is lost on product development, and instead focused on creating advertising with surgery-accented aspirational imagery. Oh yeah, and South Korean breweries should be thoroughly ashamed that North Korean beer is superior to their own (having sampled Taedonggang 대동강 맥주, we can confirm this rumor)!
Enough whining about the current state of the Korean beer culture. It’s up to the beer enthusiasts to frequent decent places to satisfy their vice, or simply brew their own way out of complaining. Drag your Korean friends to local brewpubs and introduce them to different beer styles. If you are looking for some good craft brews and the sight of Cass nauseates you, here is a list of places you can go around Seoul. I’ve also included a nifty (but perhaps out of date) Google map put together by Homebrew Korea showing the locations of homebrew and craftbrew outlets around Seoul.
Shinsegae and HomePlus store groceries: carries a revolving variety of craft brews from the US, Europe and Japan. These include: Delerium Tremens (and other smaller Belgian breweries), Weihenstephaner, Sam Adams (Boston Ale & seasonals), Rogue, Hitachino, Andersen Valley, and others. Make sure to check both the refrigerated section and non-refrigerated shelves (if any). Prices usually range from +4500KRW per bottle.
The bottle shop: a beer-only retail shop in Itaewon’s “Craft Brew Alley” with an extremely well-curated beer selection (ie: no cheap no-name German imports that you see in EMart). Think Trappistes Rochefort, Russian River, etc. Nicky, the proprietor, is passionate about bringing craft beer to Seoul. He is also extremely charming, but that has nothing to do with the awesome beer selection. He regularly posts newly-stocked beers on the store’s Facebook page.
High Street Market: carries 6 packs and large format bottles of Rogue in various styles (Dead Guy, Hazelnut, etc) albeit at steep prices. Call ahead to verify selection. Nice delivery service, too!
Craftworks Taphouse: featured in the Economist article and has 4 locations in Seoul. Nice lineup of locally-made craftbrews, hop lovers will be in heaven (Hubby and I prefer maltier styles). The menu has been revamped to include an extensive brunch selection, and the food has improved immensely under the leadership of the new (very engaged and observant) executive chef. Several locations, including Kyungridan and Bundang. The Gangnam branch closed, but was quickly replaced by Republic, a high-end gastropub with a decent selection and Rogue on tap.
Oasis: if you have access to Yongsan USAG, this Tex-Mex restaurant produces its own microbrews. Located inside the Dragon Hill Lodge. The enormous copper tanks are visible from the dining area. Latest on tap in March 2014 was an IPA. IPA is a good match for the spicy southwestern food due to its hoppiness.
Magpie Brewing Company: serves up their own locally produced microbrews, and you can occasionally find their beer on tap at other bars around Seoul and Itaewon. Main storefront has limited seating but customers often spill out into the space right outside the bar, transforming into a truly convivial environment complete with friendly people of many nationalities and cute dogs.
Reilly’s Taphouse: recent addition to the Seoul beer-loving community, opened late 2012. Nice selection of Craftworks, Magpie, and house-made brews on tap. Impressive selection of bottles (US, German, and Japanese). Selection seems to favor hoppier beers. Basic pub fare.
Big Rock: This has existed in Gangnam for several years now. 6-7 delicious microbrews (the Grasshopper IPA is refreshingly hoppy, nice selection of brown ales and strong ales). Plus at ~$20 a pitcher (4-5 pints), they are quite affordable.
Seoul Homebrew: great little place in Itaewon where you can pick up all your homebrew supplies like carboys, yeasts, brown glass bottles, certain types of malt, hops, etc. They offer occasional classes and the staff is quite friendly. Located in the basement.
**Per Google, this map was last updated in 2011. Please verify the location and operating hours of an establishment before visiting.**