Seoul’s Winter Beer Fest 2014

By Rob Shelley – Craft Beer Asia’s Correspondent in Korea

This year’s Winter Beer Fest was part pub crawl, part race against time. Seven different venues, sixteen unique homebrews, with a 20,000 won ticket entitling you up to fourteen different samples of homebrew courtesy of the Seoul Homebrew Club.

However, event co-ordinator Bill Miller had warned me: completing the circuit of all seven venues and sampling the allotted fourteen beers before they all ran out would be all but impossible.

Two hundred tickets were originally for sale, making it unlikely that there would have been enough to go around in the first place. However, due to popular demand, extra tickets were made available, leaving the final number somewhere closer to 275 tickets. Calculating for inevitable over-pouring, spilled drinks, and freebies, and it truly was a race against time and each other!

My small group ignored the warning and attempted do the impossible. We plotted a route starting at Upper Deck in Noksapyeong and finishing at Phillies in Haebongchon (aka HBC). What ensued was whirlwind trip that would have me trying new beers and new venues, meeting the same people again and again, and forming frienemies with each other as we all raced against the ticking clock that was the constant emptying of the kegs.

Upper Deck

The Winter Beer Fest was scheduled to run from 2pm until 5pm (or whenever supplies ran out) on January 18th. We met near the Upper Deck, a sports bar I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting before, at 1:50pm. Bill Miller was pouring three of his own concoctions there, and I’m a big fan of his beer.

The Upper Deck is a nice, clean looking bar. “Minimalist” is the word that came to mind. The walls were sparse grey, like the basement rec-room of a new home. The big windows allowed daylight to pour in. New flatscreen TVs mounted along the walls showed Kevin Durant filling the NBA scoresheet.

At least 30 people lined up once Bill opened the kegs and started pouring the first samples. Bill offered three unique beers: a Pineapple IPA (7.2%), Xmas Ale (7.2%), and New Year’s Ale (9.7%).

The Pineapple IPA wasn’t as hoppy as I’d expected, considering how much Bill enjoys bitter IPAs. However, this beer seemed to be the consensus favorite among I people I asked. The pineapple flavor was very subtle, imparting enough sweetness to balance the hops. The Pineapple IPA would be a great crossover beer for someone not used to IPAs.

Bill Miller Upper Deck Craft Beer Korea
Bill Miller’s three beers served up in Upper Deck (Seoul, Korea)

The Xmas and New Year’s ales were both tasty as well. The Xmas was more of a stout with its dark, roasty sweetness, but was hoppier than most stouts. Meanwhile, the New Year’s ale was much more experimental. Bill said he used cilantro and candied ginger in the recipe. The ginger imparted a strong spiciness, while the cilantro was very subtle. The hefty 9.7% ABV hid behind the sweet and spicy ginger pop.

We finished our three samples quickly and headed across the road to visit our second venue: Maloneys.

Maloney’s

If the Upper Deck was a brand new baseball glove, Maloney’s was well broken in. Smaller than the Upper Deck, Maloney’s had a homey feel and traditional pub décor. The two members of the Seoul Homebrew Club who poured here were a real blast to talk to. This place also offered three beers, forcing ticket-holders to choose two out of three. Unlike at the Upper Deck, here we could not weasel our way into trying all three. On tap were a Toasted Coconut Porter (5.5%), a Caramel Robust Porter (6.9%), and a Black Forest Stout (5.5%).

My first choice was the Caramel Robust Porter. The brewer said that he wasn’t sure what to expect from this beer until he smelled it earlier that morning, and was surprised by how strong the caramel notes were. He used very little caramelized malt, but the results were spectacular. This porter was roasty and sweet with a strong presence of rich caramel, but it was also very smooth. A real crowd pleaser.

My companions chose the Black Forest Stout first, and find it almost indescribable. They seemed a little displeased and could only voice the taste as being sour like vinegar, yet not like vinegar. I was a little worried about trying it, but juat couldn’t pass up a stout; it’s my favorite kind of beer!

Maloney's Seoul Craft Beer
Three craft beers served up at Maloney’s during the Winter Beer Fest in Seoul.

I asked the brewer about it first. He suggested letting it warm up to mellow the tart flavor. Before I tried it, he explained that, to achieve the Black Forest taste, he added raspberries to the dark, chocolaty malt.

When I took my first sip, it did hit me funny; unlike any stout I’ve ever had. But I processed what he told me and realized that the “sourness” my friends were describing was just a raspberry tartness. It was quite strong and a little sharp. However, it was unmistakably raspberry, followed by a mellow, dark-chocolate aftertaste. After I described this taste to my group, it all clicked. Sometimes it just takes a little context!

I’d have to chose the Black Forest Stout as my favorite beer of the day. That being said, I don’t know if I could drink more than one or drink it with most food. This is really a one-and-done pint or a dessert beer. But—man!—did it ever have a nice flavor.

With five samples down, I started to notice the effects of the alcohol. Although five samples would probably equal a single pint, most of the beers had been quite strong. In fact, I actually spilled my first Black Forest Stout sample and had to ask for another. I apologize to the first person who was refused a Black Forest Stout. That one’s my fault!

The three of us finished up headed towards the eye of the storm: Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro.

Craftworks

This place really is the epicenter of the craft beer scene in Seoul (as I’ve mentioned in my last article), and it’s usually quite busy around brunch time on a Saturday. On this day it was, unsurprisingly, even more chaotic. I felt bad for the wait staff who had to navigate, and tolerate, a bunch of intoxicated leeches queuing up for free beer.

The fourth member of our group finally showed up here, an hour late. That would turn out to be a critical failure, as the beer supply was already running low in some places!

Craftworks had two selections of unique beer: a Saison (5%) and Sour Braggot (half beer/half mead, 8%).

Seoul Craft Beer Winter Beer Fest
Two craft beers served at Craftworks

This was my very first experience with the Belgian style ale known as Saison or Farmhouse Ale. The consensus amongst us was that it tasted unlike any beer we had ever had, and the closest analogue was white wine. It had a fruitiness and dry, crisp finish. It was quite nice and very interesting. That’s what the beer fest is all about! Discovering new tastes.

The Sour Braggot was another first for me. The mix of beer and mead definitely went down easier than the pure mead I tasted at the last Beer Fest. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, and this drink still tasted more powerful than the New Year’s Ale (9.7%) because of that unfamiliar “honey wine” flavor. An interesting experience.

While finishing our second sample, we struck up a conversation with some other ticket holders. They warned us that Magpie—our next destination—had run dry. We soundly cursed them for drinking our beer, in a friendly manner we used with everyone who got to the samples faster than us. However, we were still determined to try and finish the entire circuit, so we ignored their warnings and made our way to Magpie to see what fate awaited us.

Magpie

Magpie was another early forerunner into the mainstream Seoul craft beer scene. Following the success of Craftworks, Magpie created their own Pale Ale and Porter that can be found in restaurants around the city. The location itself is small and serves only a few items. On this day they only offered the porter. Magpie is simple but what it does, it does well.

We were lucky to have ignored the warnings because there was one beer left: a Chipotle Stout. At this point, my palette was a mess and my ability to judge beer had bottomed out. However, the Chipotle Stout struck me as surprisingly good. It was spicy, but not in a hot way: the chipotle giving it a unique punch of flavor. It was interesting and smooth, another completely unique experience for me.

Very shortly after we all finished getting our sample, the keg ran dry. We made it with less than a minute to spare! I felt bad for the folks in line behind us, but I would soon experience that disappointment for myself. However, our luck would hold out for one more beer as we carried on to another spot that brews its own craft beer—The Booth!

The Booth

This location was different than the one I mentioned in my last article. However, the same zesty smell of pizza sauce hung in the air and punched me in the gut. But there was no time for ordering food, and we fought our way to the back of the room to see what the SHC had in store for us here.

Seoul Korea Winter Beer Fest
The Booth in Seoul serving up Craft Beer during Winter Beer Fest 2014

Considering how packed The Booth was, and the fact that the SHC beer was running out, the line at the back was deceptively short. However, it wouldn’t be short enough.

The two guys pouring were really friendly and funny. The brewer of the Double Milk Stout (9%) kept making Communist jokes at the brewer of the Red Rye (?%) simply for, as far as I could tell, brewing a red beer.

I had already tried a Red Rye at The Four Season a few weeks before. Although it was very tasty, I opted to try the Double Milk Stout first because I had never tried a Milk Stout. At this point, all I can say about the aesthetic and culinary qualities of the beer was that I drank it and it made me happy. As it was my ninth different sample of the day, I honestly can’t differentiate more than that without venturing onto shaky ground.

Just as I got in line for the Red Rye (and before I had even finished my Double Milk Stout) they announced that the Red Rye and run dry. Our luck had finally ran out! I had to settle for another serving of the Double Milk. I know, first-world problems.

We had thus sampled nine different beers. Our 20,000 won had served three of us pretty well at this point (our late friend didn’t get quite as much value, as he only sampled four). However, there were still two venues left across the overpass into the neighbouring HBC area: Bonnie’s Pizza and Phillies Pub.

Bonnie’s and Phillies

Sensing that this was probably the end, we crossed the road with low expectations. I had been wanting to visit Bonnie’s for a long time, as their pizza is legendary.

Unfortunately, Bonnie’s had about 20 people outside the door waiting to get inside, while Phillies had no obvious line-up. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that both situations were dire. Phillies had run dry, while Bonnie’s was on their last keg (allegedly a double IPA). With such a long line and a cold wind blowing outside, we decided to cut our losses and return to Maloney’s for a couple of purchased pints.

Maloney’s: The Return

All in all, it was a great day. The first three of us got to taste nine beer, and the fourth got four. Pretty decent value when you factor in the energy, excitement, and novelty of it all.

Maloney’s was really on-the-go as everyone stopped pub crawling and began to settle down in one place.

We bought three rounds and drank a selection of beers from Anderson Valley. I also got a super greasy (and completely satisfying!) double bacon-cheeseburger.

I ended the day with a pint of Paulander, and it stuck me that I’ve come a long way in my beer taste since returning to Korea only 18 months ago. Back then, a friend took me out to a classy little place in Gangnam because they served Paulander. It was the first time I’ve had it, and I fell in love right away! I had just started getting to Hefeweizens, and this stuck me as a luxuriously delicious beer with a thick, sweet head that conjured the memories of an orange creamsicle.

Seoul Korea Beer Taps
A set of imported Taps at Maloney’s Bar in Seoul, Korea

Now that I’ve fallen in love with IPAs and flavorful stouts, I’ve started to become a little unsatisfied with the Hefeweizen’s light, banana & clove characteristics. Especially after a day of drinking very strong, bold beers, I found that this beer—which as mesmerized just a year and a half ago—was now barely drinkable. I’m sure I’d love a single Paulander on a hot summer day with a clean palette. But still, it startled me how quickly my tastes could change.

And that’s the best thing about the SHC beer fests: the invaluable experience of tasting a wide range of strong, bold, flavourful, and often experimental beers. It broadens your horizons and changes how you experience beer. And whether you race around in area trying to get as many free samples as possible, or so focus on just a few venues and enjoy a day of drinking with the city’s best beer lovers, the Winter Beer Fest provided an amazing opportunity to celebrate beer. For only 20,000 won, it was the best money I’ve spent all year.

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