By Rob Shelley in Seoul
On July 5th, Seoul saw its first craft beer event since January’s Seoul Brew Club Winter Beer Fest. That event (written about here) was a major success. Anticipation built with the coming of the Spring Beer Fest, until government regulators threatened legal action. While the SBC and their friends raced to find some sort of legal solution, Media Paran capitalized on the opportunity by organizing a commercial festival: Craft Beer Fest Korea. Craft breweries who participated were Craftworks, Platinum, Levee, Craftone, Weizen Haus, and Lovibond.
The CBFK was a grander festival than the previous Winter Beer Fest or the Craft Beer Fest at COEX last November. The crowd was bigger and the amount of beer was greater. As well, there were free snacks and live bands. Certainly, in many ways, it showed an evolution of the beer fest in Seoul.
Of course, with a new festival and new organizers, the main concern becomes: how did it compare? The CBFK did a lot of things right and offered a very good time. However, as it is with any first time, there are lessons to be learned.
First, let’s start with what the CBFK did right!
January’s Winter Beer Fest was a great event. However, its main concern was the lack of, well, beer. All kegs ran dry after 2-3 hours and most, if not all, ticket holders were left with holes to punch on their ticket but no reason left to punch them. A friend of mine had four samples instead of the promised fourteen. In its defense, the Winter Beer Fest was a grassroots, home brewer supplied festival looking to cater to a fast-growing market. Although the event organizer promised to correct this shortcoming at the now-cancelled Spring Beer Fest (which I was so looking forward to!), the Winter Beer Fest remains the standard to compare from.
At the CBFK, ticket holders had no problem getting their allotted amount of beer. For 25,000won, participants were able to get one beer from each vendor, plus two extra of their choice, for a total of eight 3-4oz beers. Added to that were free samples of snacks: pretzels, jerky, crab-flavored potato chips (I judge the flavor from the creepy crab on the bag, not from personal experience), and a piece of bagged pizza. Although the pizza was cold, greasy, and stored in a plastic bag, it did come with a coupon for a free pizza, so it kind of evened out.
One fine improvement was the ability to buy things throughout the CBFK. Although they sold vouchers instead of letting people use cash, participants were able to buy burritos, sandwiches, and coffee at Duke’s. More importantly, however, 12oz beers could be purchased from the vendors themselves at the reasonable price of 4,000-5,000won. In contrast to the Winter Beer Fest, one could actually get more festival beer long after their ticket was punch drunk. One’s favorite beers from the day could be revisited or, more importantly, the avid beer geek could try almost everything!
The main difference between the two festivals was the source of beer. The COEX festival had professional and homebrew beers. The Winter Fest was solely homebrew. And this festival was solely professional beer, finally a possibility with the amount of craft brew businesses starting to take off.
Although the festival served beer from professional brewers instead of homebrewers, these breweries are young. Many of them I had not heard of before. The SBC members, in most cases, have been around longer and produce beer that is pretty much on par. This gives a slight advantage to the SBC Winter Beer Fest, as it offered a greater variety and more novel beers.
Some beers did stand out at the CBFK, for better or worse.
From the misstep category, the Lovibond beers were far too cold. They offered a Tropical Pale Ale and Chocolate Porter, and both were initially tasteless. I spent a few minutes warming the cup with my hands, and then letting the sip sit in my mouth for several seconds before swallowing. The beers were much improved! Dispensing off-site can be a challenge, so I’d love a chance to taste the beers on-premise.
My companion and I were split on the two Levee beers. I had the Double Stout and thought it was strange. It tasted much stronger than the 6.8% would lead me to believe. However, it had a very light mouthfeel and no taste of dark malt: no chocolate, caramel, toast, biscuit, coffee, etc. It also had a homebrew-like aroma, as if it contained some slight imperfections. My friend, however, really enjoyed his Citrus Rye. He loved the heavy mouthfeel and its hefeweizen-like banana esters.
As for beers of note, there were lots of great brews to choose from. I’m leaving out Platinum and Craftworks because those brands are established and their beers are always very professional and high quality. For the newcomers, I was most impressed by Weizen Haus’ Harry Porter and Craftone’s “I hop so.” Both were high-quality brews that hold their own against both the established brands and the recent flood of craft beer imports.
Another big change in this festival was choice of venue. The CBFK was hosted in and around Duke’s at the Korean War Memorial. The War Memorial itself is gorgeous, displaying beautiful monuments and back-dropped by a view of N-Seoul Tower. The festival area itself included a paved courtyard, Duke’s café, a balcony, and a fenced off area partitioning a performance stage. The venue offered enough space to feel comfortable, but hardly felt like an improvement.
On the other hand, the Winter Beer Fest’s choice to use several hip, popular pubs and restaurants in and around the gentrified, craft-beer Mecca of HBC and Gyeongnidan provided a really cool atmosphere. The crowds were broken down into smaller groups, allowing more interaction and exchange. As well, participants could order food or beer from these places with real cash, not vouchers. In contrast, the CBFK had a live band and collected everyone together one area. For some people, that might be better than walking all around the neighborhood. Though I enjoyed the intimacy and adventure of the Winter Beer Fest more, it’s really a toss-up.
As with everything after its first time, there are lessons to be learned and improvements to be made. Although the beer lines moved rather quickly, the line to get a punch card and bracelet moved very slowly. The lines were also confusing at first, snaking around the back of the venue, up some stairs, then into and throughout Duke’s itself. Also, having the line run through Duke’s meant it was very inconvenient to buy anything there during the first few hours, and that there was absolutely no seating.
Seating was a bit of a problem throughout the first hours. More concerning was the location of three vendors’ booths set up near a sidewalk that was barricaded from the road. This bottlenecked traffic. If it’s possible to move the barricade into the first lane of the (not busy) road, that could improve things next time. Also, more seats, benches, or even tables to lay down your beer could help.
Additionally, without giving offense to Duke’s pre-made burritos or California Pizza Kitchen’s pizza-in-a-bag, why wasn’t someone grilling on a BBQ? Some fresh-made food would have scored big time with hundreds of beer drinkers. Instead of including crab chips and jerky sponsors, where were Vatos or Gusto Taco? A zillion vendors around Seoul could have provided awesome food, freshly cooked from a truck or BBQ.
Finally, the value of offering only eight samples and cheap snacks for the price of 25,000won is still being debated amongst Seoul’s beer enthusiasts. Considering that the snacks came from sponsors, and weren’t very impressive, why couldn’t there be more beer for that price? This whole event is, at least partially, about advertising and exposing a product; be it jerky or stout, businesses are here for exposure, not short-term profits. If one thought the snacks were not satisfactory, then they were basically paying 25,000won for two pints of beer. Not everyone considered this good value for their money.
I see that argument but personally disagree: I will spend that money again—every time—if they organize more festivals.
The beer is only part of what is paid for; one must also consider the value of being at the festival itself, surrounded by hundreds of fellow craft beer lovers and local experts. Plus, according to one vendor, this festival was actually run at a loss for his brewery. When one considers the expense of renting equipment, paying staff, and setting up an entire festival for only a few hours of business, maybe this fact shouldn’t be so surprising. Besides, a participant isn’t paying 25,000won for a few samples of beer. They’re paying for entrance to a whole event: music, friends, socializing, tastings, etc. Where else in this country can you try all these beers or gather these many beer lovers in one place?
And that’s really the bottom line. As with the Winter Beer Fest, though some may squabble over value and other issues, this event was fun and I want to see more of them. I’d be disappointed if there weren’t improvements, but I would do this four times a year if they held seasonal events. Why not? This is a chance to try lots of different, good quality beer, mingle with like-minded people, and (hopefully next time) taste some good food.