An Interview with Seoul’s Craft Beer “Pioneer” – Bill Miller

Article by Rob Shelley (Craft Beer Asia’s S. Korean Correspondent)

Last Saturday I met with Bill Miller, a member of the Seoul Brew Club, at Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro. Bill has had an impact on the craft beer culture in Seoul by organizing beer festivals and sharing his recipes with local gastropubs.

While waiting for me, Bill sat at a table with Dan Vroon, the founder of Craftworks, drinking a beer of his own invention: the Bukhansan Pale Ale. This craft beer is one of the three recipes offered on the Craftworks menu that was created by Bill.

Craft Beer Korea Craftworks Pale Ale
Craftworks Taphouse Buk Han San Pale Ale

Two other surreal encounters happened while I spent the evening talking beer with Bill Miller. One was at a new pub opened by a couple of Seoul Homebrew Club members called The Four Season. The room was almost at capacity with Korean customers (a healthy sign for the future of craft beer in Seoul), and one table got up to ask if they could take their picture with Bill.

Bill has a distinctive looked, with his forked, ZZ Top-like beard; but this request was about more than recognition—it was about respect. One of the Korean gentlemen referred to Bill as “the beerfather”, and several times Bill was thanked for helping make good beer in Korea. I later asked Bill if he knew who they were. He had no idea.

Bill will be the first to tell you that he is not “the beerfather.” He said that there isn’t really any one Godfather-like character of the Seoul craft beer scene.

As for the major influences, he points to guys like Dan Vroon of Craftworks, which is the true trailblazer and current epicenter of the scene. Guys like Rob Titley, who is the current brewmaster at Craftworks and founder of Homebrew Korea. Or Troy Zitzelsberger, founder of the Seoul Homebrew Club and Reily’s Taphouse. Sung Lee deserves credit, too, as the CEO of Bremasters Korea, for filling many pubs and restaurants with great American craft beer. And finally, the person closest to being the Godfather, Park Chul: the founder of Ka-Brew brewery, which currently brews almost all the Korean craft beer.

Korea Craft Beer Bill's Pale Ale
Bill’s Pale Ale on Tap

Like most emerging scenes, there is no one person responsible for creating it. Instead, several individuals arrive at similar conclusions at the same time and seek each other out. In this case, individuals started to realize that Korean beer was rough and it was time to brew something better.

Bill was one of these individuals. He first arrived in Seoul back in 1990 and has done three “tours” here, the latest one starting in 2006. Hailing from West Virginia, Bill was actually introduced to homebrewing while living in South Korea. Things have changed for homebrewers in Seoul since the days when Bill started. Now there’s the Seoul Homebrew Club which offers tons of advice. There’s the associated Seoul Homebrew shop, which sells supplies and products. And there are seasonal events, like this month’s Winter Beer Fest, where members of the SHC tap kegs of delicious and varied brew to share with each other and the public.

Since the early days, Bill has refined his craft. In fact, Bill has made more of a mark on the Seoul craft beer scene than many people realize. Bill’s beer recipes can now be found on menus at both Craftworks and The Booth.

Bill tells a story about how he got so many beers on Craftworks’ menu. Dan Vroon and Park Chul were planning on using Bill’s recipe for an IPA, but Park wasn’t yet a fan of hoppy beers. According to Bill, Park had never used more than 5lbs of hops in a batch while Bill’s recipe called for 20lbs. Feeling uncertain, Park altered the formula by reducing the hops and malt: This was how Halla Mountain Golden Ale was born.

However, Dan insisted that Park try Bill’s IPA recipe, unaltered. The result is now a Craftworks favorite: Jirisan Moon Bear IPA.

Craft Beer Korea Craftworks Jirisan Moon Bear IPa
Craftworks Jirisan Moon Bear IPA

Bill later entered a Craftworks Pale Ale brewing contest, with the winner’s ale becoming the recipe for Craftworks new Pale Ale. I’m sure you know how this story goes: Bill wins and the Bukhansan Pale Ale is born.

Due to his employment with the US Military, Bill’s homebrewing exploits can’t be anything more than a hobby. But that suits Bill just fine. He’s simply a beer lover. If he can contribute by sharing recipes, managing festivals, or helping newcomers on the scene (like myself), then that’s reward enough for him. That, and having good beer to drink.

But Bill undeniably attracts attention in this small community of beer aficionados. While talking at Four Seasons we were first approached by the co-founder and I had the opportunity to congratulate him on his Red Rye Ale. Then another SBC member approached us, holding a growler of homebrew he had just finished. Of course, we were invited to taste it (or, to put it more accurately, Bill was invited while I imposed myself). It was a lovely dark ale with huge hops. Bill proceeded to dissect the taste of the beer, pinning down how, and with what, it must have been brewed. It was really something amazing to witness for a recent student of beer, like myself.

The surreal experience of drinking with Mr. Miller continued at The Booth. After being briefly introduced to the founders, I decided we had to order the first beer on the menu: Bill’s IPA. Different than the Moon Bear IPA at Craftworks, this is another one of Bill Miller’s creations. It’s pretty surreal to be drinking with someone who introduced me to the founders of all three pubs we drank at, and then discuss with him the beer we’re drinking… when it’s a beer he created. Just when I thought the feeling of drinking with Seoul beer royalty had peaked, the founder of The Booth came over to offer us a free round on the house!

To wrap things up, I asked Bill to look into his crystal ball and tell me what he thought was coming next in the Seoul craft beer scene, and what things could look like five years from now.

There are three things Bill sees coming next. First, he expects Craftworks to open their own state-of-the-art brewery in the near future. This will help Ka-Brew focus on their other contract brews, as it’s rumored that they’re struggling to keep up with the growing demand.

Next, he expects the diversification of beer styles to increase. I personally thank the guys from the SBC for hitting me with some unique beers at the Craft Beer Fest last November, and I look forward to this month’s Winter Beer Fest.

Finally, Bill foresees a change in governmental and taxation policy which will allow the microbrew movement to really begin to thrive.

As for the next five years? Bill Miller foresees an emerging regional and national identity for Korean craft beer. Something that rivals Japanese and American beer. He expects the beginnings of beer tourism and perhaps a unique Korean beer style that distinguishes itself.

And if anyone knows about being distinguished, it’s Bill Miller.

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