– By Rob Shelley in Seoul
The end of 2013 witnessed an important moment for craft beer in Seoul Food Week at COEX just wrapped up early this November, featuring a huge space for the food and restaurant industry to display and market their products to commercial buyers and regular customers, alike. However, the show was stolen by a ragtag group of young people tucked away in the corner: the Craft Beer Fest. This featured a gathering of many of the players in Seoul’s growing craft beer scene. In contrast to the often ungenerous displays of the foodies, Craft Beer Fest featured a sweetheart of a deal: 15,000 won for twelve 3oz beer samples.
Each ticket holder got a stamp card with twelve spaces to fill. Many lucky patrons, myself included, managed to leech off of folks who felt that 12 small beers were simply too much for them. The choices included established names in the local scene such as Craftworks and Reilly’s. Curiously missing was Magpie Brewing and The Booth. The Booth actually had a physical booth waiting for them, but no one showed up to open shop; at least not during the 3+ hours I was there. Rounding out the roster was The Wolfhound pub (serving mulled wine), Platinum Brewing, and the Seoul Brew Club. I managed to snag quick, intoxicated, informal interviews with representatives from both Platinum and the Seoul Brew Club.
I had never heard of Platinum Brewing, though they apparently had a brewpub for several years in Seoul. They have since moved their brewery to China due to financial and regulatory reasons, but remain very optimistic about the growing market and changing culture of craft beer in Korea. The brewmaster, himself a Korean, told me about his studies in Kentucky, the influence of Japanese craft beer on his tastes, and his personal brewing philosophy. He was a very nice dude who has great enthusiasm for beer.
Platinum’s brewmaster told me that he likes to hit inside the middle of the taste spectrum with his beer—he doesn’t like beer that veers too boldly off of the expected ranges of flavor. This may sound like he’s looking to mimic the bland taste of the mass-produced lagers. But that’s not so. He did offer a fresher, tastier beer that could entice any casual beer drinker with his middle-of-the-road Golden Ale. However, his two IPAs showed that he likes a tasty beer, just not an extreme or gimmicky one. Each brew definitely had clean tastes, but the Strong IPA (my favorite of the bunch) had a beautiful hoppy bitterness that would please a more seasoned and adventurous beer drinker.
A surprise treat at the Craft Beer Fest was the Seoul Brew Club. This is a ragtag group of homebrew enthusiasts in Seoul. Each day of the expo had four different kegs prepared by various members of the club. As I only attended one of the four days, I unfortunately missed out on many delicious sounding beers. All the beers had nice, unique qualities. They ranged from a Burnt Honey Mead to a light Ginger Peach IPA. A few of the beers (I’m not saying which ones) had some impurities that certainly reminded you that you were drinking a homebrew, despite how good the flavor might have been. I have a feeling that the brewmaster from Platinum would have disapproved. But every beer served had several advocates who were delighted to taste something bolder than the common fare.
However, one of the homebrew beers was so good that I asked the server to stamp other places on my card reserved for other brands, just so I could try it three times. It was so good it belongs in restaurants and brewpubs along with Craftworks, Magpie, and Platinum. I knew I had to find out more. I asked, and was directed to a tall, spikey-breaded fellow named Bill Miller.
At first it was hard to pry him away. He was busy and the event had become a packed and well-refreshed social event. When I did manage to lure him away for a minute, he turned out to be a delightful wealth of knowledge. He has been brewing in Seoul for about a decade, and knew far more about the birth of the craft scene here than I did. He proceeded to enlighten me on details about the Brew Club and the ever elusive Ka-Brew brewery, which seems to be the well-spring from whence almost of all this newfound craft beer comes from. He even told me he had helped on a recipe there. This came as no surprise, considering how good his Columbus Rye IPA was.
Bill filled me with tons of knowledge that, in my half-cut state, I knew I was bound to forget. However, one very important detail stuck with me: the notion that looser regulations would be coming soon. This was something echoed by the fellows at Platinum as well, but made a little more explicit by Mr. Miller. In fact, many here believe that the new Korean government of Park Guen-Hae will loosen the tight restrictions that make it difficult for smalltime brewers to start, grow, and thrive. Economic democratization has been a huge buzz word in Korea, even for the current conservative government. And a spotlight was cast upon the craft beer issue after articles in the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and an expose by Korea’s JoongAng Daily.
Those new political forces and growing public awareness are combing with an emerging market, a budding scene, and the precedent of America’s recent craft beer surge. It’s looking as if the end of 2013 might pale in comparison to what’s coming next.
Rob Shelley is Craft Beer Asia’s correspondant in Seoul, Korea.