A Brewing Revolution?
by Peter M. Beck
Weekly Chosun and Korea Herald
Published 20 October 2007

I had originally planned to write about the presidential elections in South Korea and America, but I find the frontrunners in both countries, Lee Myung-bak and Hillary Clinton, to be so utterly uninspiring that I have decided to focus on a less weighty (but weight-inducing) issue: Great beer and the paucity thereof in Korea. Korea experienced a coffee revolution more than a decade ago when folks realized that you could do better than instant coffee. Yet, when it comes to beer, only a handful are fighting the good fight. Koreans can be forgiven for not knowing what good beer is because the mega breweries make loads of money selling their most bland and bitter beers to the world. The path to beer enlightenment starts with a simple rule that I have: If it is the color of urine, don't drink it! Beers that are white, amber, brown or black tend to be vastly more flavorful. If you look hard, you can find such beers in Korea.

The problem with yellow beers is that they tend to be bland or bitter. This might fit the bill on an especially hot day, but not the rest of the year. The difference between Coke and Pepsi is far greater than the difference between Budweiser, Hite, Asahi, Corona, Heineken, or even my family beer, Beck's. I challenge you to put on a blindfold and be able to tell the difference. Beck's happens to be the leading beer exported from Germany, the beer capital of the world. This stems from the fact that Germans overwhelmingly drink pilsner (yellow beer). For most Germans, northerners in particular, beer should be bitter. Mass-produced American beer tends to be bland, containing less appropriate grains like rice and going through a pasteurization process that kills much of a beer's flavor. One of the founders of the micrebrewing movement in the U.S. is Jim Koch, who in 1985 appropriately named his beer after an American revolutionary who happened to make beer, Samuel Adams.

Despite my name, I only speak a few words of German, but I have already discovered the most important word in the German language: Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity rule. For over 400 years, German beer could only contain barley (or wheat), hops and water. Germany was forced to abolish this law when it joined the EU, but most breweries still follow this custom and proudly proclaim it on every bottle. Even with so few ingredients, an amazing variety of beers can be made. Germany's more than 1300 breweries make at lest ten different styles of beer, with no two quite the same. For example, wheat usually turns a beer white and cloudy, giving the beer a tart, even fruity taste, while the longer the grains are baked, the darker a beer gets, giving it a rich flavor.

Most beers are brewed in either in German, Belgian or English/Irish style. In fact, more than half of the beers in my Beer Encyclopaedia are from these three areas. While there is considerable overlap, the Belgians make some really wild beers that flagrantly violate the German beer purity laws by including such things as strawberries. It is more than a bit ironic that Belgium's most famous beer, Stella Artois, is also its worst beer. My favorite is Leffe, which you can even find on tap at every turn at the Brussels Airport and at the Third Alley Pub in Itaewon. No visit to Ireland is complete without a tour (and tasting) at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, but Dublin's microbreweries are even better. Guinness Stout is a little too thick for my tastes and a pint at O'Kim's in the Chosun Hotel will set you back W15,000. An increasing number of drinking spots in Seoul offer a dark beer that is actually a mixture of Guinness or Beck's Dark with Korean beer. Even though my dad swears by this, I find the concoction merely drinkable. Beer lovers are still mourning the untimely death of the world's foremost expert, Michael Jackson. I have only tried about 60 of the beers listed in his guide to the 500 best beers in the world. He describes beers with some unusual flavors: banana, bubblegum, caramel, chocolate, coffee, mint, nuts, and smoke, to name a few. These flavors can all be achieved without violating Germany's beer purity rule

In an increasingly homogenized world where no city is complete without a TGI Friday's or Outback Steakhouse selling bad beer, beer remains one of the bastions of local color. Despite the consolidation of the beer industry into a handful of massive breweries, over the past 20 years there has also been a proliferation of microbreweries and microbrew pubs. I always try to visit a brewpub when I travel and I have never been disappointed, whether it is in the remotest parts of the United States, like Fargo, North Dakota or some of the remoter parts of the world, like Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Local beers usually reflect local culture and tastes. Some beers from the U.S. state of Maine contain blueberries, the fruit the state is famous for. Burma makes a beer with an algae enjoyed by health food lovers called spirulina. My two favorite names for beers are Leg Lifter Lager (Philadelphia), which has a label with a dog lifting its leg next to a fire hydrant, and Moose Drool Brown Ale (Montana), which has a picture of a moose drooling. A great web site for finding all of the breweries and brewpubs I have mentioned is www.beerme.com.

The great beer revolution is only in its incipient phase in Korea. If you visit your local Seven-Eleven, you can find a beer made by Hite called "Stout," but it really doesn't live up to the name. It is drinkable, but not particularly distinctive, and it is rare to find it on tap. You can also find one of the most famous Belgian white (wheat) beers, Hoegaarden, but you will pay about W6,000 for a small bottle. Otherwise, market shelves are a yellow beer wasteland. Most of Korea's microbreweries are clustered around Kangnam Station, but a few have ventured north of the Han River and a few more have moved beyond Seoul. Most brew a wonderful combination of German-style beers that give new meaning to the term saeng maekju (literally, "live beer"). Patinum near Kangnam Station has the greatest variety of beers and the best deal if you can eat and drink fast, while de Bassus in Myeong-dong and Kangnam is the only drinking place I have ever been where you can receive your beer in a three-liter tower, complete with a tap to pour for your friends. Believe it or not, one of my favorite Korean beers is made in Pyongyang, right inside the Koryo Hotel. The dark beer makes the pain of being locked down in the hotel at night a bit more bearable.

However, the microbrewery I most frequented due to its close proximity to my office also has the most interesting story behind it. Octoberfest is tucked in an alley behind the Kyobo Building and serves an absolutely lovely wheat beer, a delightful dark beer and even a yellow pilsner that is not to be missed (all rules are made to be broken!). The founder, Baek Kyung-hak, got the idea to open the brewery while he was studying in Germany, where he even learned Germans' fastidiousness for always serving a beer in its proper glass. However, what motivated him to give up his job as a journalist to open a brewpub was that while on vacation in the UK, his wife lost her legs in a car accident. When they discovered how poor the social services are for the handicapped, he and his wife decided to start a foundation using the profits from his microbrewery. Thus, one of Korea's first beer revolutionaries is also a humanitarian.

More beer revolutionaries are needed. Unlike Japan, where I found microbrewed beers at airports from Hokkaido to Kyushu, none of Korea's microbrewed beers is available in a bottle. A good first step would be to introduce "growlers," which are one or two-liter refillable bottles that customers can have filled and then take home. Also, I must confess that I am a bit curious what a wheat beer laced with ginsaeng would taste like.

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007

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