The untold story of South Korean beer
In the years since the taste of South Korean beer was compared to urine, local craft beers have caught on with consumers
By Yun Suh-young
There had been a huge debate about the taste of Korean beers a couple of years back, sparked by a British journalist residing in Korea who wrote a column about how bad South Korean beer tasted and that he’d rather drink a North Korean one over it. Many agreed saying South Korean beers didn’t really have any “taste” and some even denounced that they tasted like urine, while others were infuriated by the comment and offended by a foreigner taking a lash at local beers.
Interestingly, that journalist ended up opening his own craft beer pub (and is no longer a journalist) which has become quite popular. Whether inspired by the beer brouhaha or not, it was around this time in 2012, when the beer column was published, that the local craft beer scenery began to wriggle. Craft beer breweries began to multiply around 2010 but it wasn’t until a few years later that craft beers truly caught on with consumers.
It’s difficult to say which came first whether the craft beer movement was already in place and that journalist pinpointed it, or whether the column had actually stimulated beer experts to provide quality beers that were personally brewed. Whatever the answer is to this chicken-or-egg debate, the environment was ripe for craft beer to flourish here. Hence began the craft beer fever.
Craft beer 101
So what exactly is craft beer? We use the term so often but not many know how to distinguish craft beer from ordinary beer. Just because the beer comes out of the tap doesn’t make it craft beer. That is “draft” beer, and a draft beer could be craft beer or mass-produced swill.
Craft beer is beer “crafted” or produced independently by small breweries. According to the definition by the Brewers Association of the United States, a craft brewery has to satisfy the following three conditions to be considered a craft brewer: small, traditional and independent. It produces less than 6 million barrels (1 billion litres) of beer per year, follows the traditional recipe for fermenting beer but also experiments and adds new flavours using innovative brewing ingredients, and has over 75 per cent of its share owned by craft beer-related persons, meaning less than 25 per cent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by a company in the alcoholic beverage industry that is not itself a craft brewer.
“Craft beers began to emerge in the 1980s in the United States. There were only 80 breweries in 1975 but now there are over 5,000 breweries and of them, around 4,800 are craft breweries. Yet ironically, the craft beer market share in the U.S. only consists of 18 per cent while non-craft beer takes up 82 percent,” said Kim Man-jeh, director at the recently established brewpub Amazing Brewing Company in eastern Seoul.
The brewpub is exceptional in that it offers its brewery and pub in the same location. Its CEO Kim Tae-kyung (TK Kim) who is one of Korea’s seven certified cicerones, or beer sommeliers, decided to open his own brewery because of his passion for beer and from having tasted many “bad beers.”
“People think I opened a beer pub, but what I actually opened was a brewery which has a pub connected to it. Most breweries are located outside of Seoul in remote areas, but I wanted to build the beer brewery in Seoul because that way I could reach out to more people,” TK Kim said. The brewpub has 59 taps, the highest number in Korea, and two-thirds of the beers they serve are their own creations.
Beer taps are lined up at the brewpub Amazing Brewing Company in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul.
Since Koreans are used to the “lager” type of beers such as Hite, Cass and Kloud which are mass produced by large beer companies, they’re not as familiar with other styles of beer such as ale and lambic which constitute the remainder of the three main styles of beer.
Within the lager category are subcategories of pilsner, pale lager and dunkel among the 40 or so, and within the ale category are subcategories of pale ale, stout, saison and weizen among some 70.
“The reason why some people say Korean beers taste similar is because the big beer companies only produce the same type of beer — lager — because it’s the most popular. That’s why people who’ve tasted many beer brands still say they all taste alike,” Kim Man-jeh said. He runs a beer-tasting and lecture session every Tuesday night at the Amazing Brewing Company to educate the public on the different types of beer. He is also the author of the “Beer Style Dictionary.”
“But just because they’re drinking the kinds of beer that have the same colour, doesn’t mean they’re drinking the same type of beer.”
Kim’s beer session begins with the history of craft beer, its ingredients and the basic production process.
“Traditional beer is made with four ingredients — malt, hops, yeast and water. Depending on how much and what type of malt, hops, or yeast is used, the flavours are characterizsed as malty, hoppy or yeasty. You’ll figure out what this means,” Kim said, giving out seven different types of beer in each category.
He then went on to explain the different styles of beer in more detail.
Globally popular beers such as Carlsberg, Budweiser and Miller are all in the lager category, specifically pale lager. Lager refers to beer that is “bottom-fermented,” meaning it is conditioned at low temperatures (between 8 to 13 degrees Celsius) and matured in cold storage. Pale lagers are the most commonly produced lagers worldwide, as they are light in flavour, mild and golden in colour.
“It’s easy to put it this way. The most popular beer brands that you’ve heard of are mostly pale lagers. But pale lagers are just one type of beer in the subcategory of lager which has dozens of other types,” Kim said.
Ale refers to beer that is “top-fermented,” meaning it is fermented at warm temperatures (between 15 and 24 degrees Celsius). Ales are usually more fruity, full-bodied and sweet.
Lambic, the third of the three main categories of beer, refers to beer that is also top-fermented but with bacteria instead of yeast in the fermentation process. This makes the beer dry, vinous, and cidery, with a sour aftertaste.
“I really want people to know there are so many different styles of beer and help them realise the joy of discovering the diverse flavours. That’s why I’m holding these beer sessions every week,” Kim said.