Gwangju, a metropolis of one and a half million people sprouting from the center of South Korea’s breadbasket province of South Jeolla, is often considered to be Korea’s number three cultural center: behind only Busan and Seoul. In many ways the democratic and artistic heart of South Korea, Gwangju should be fertile ground for the emerging craft beer market to take root.
With help from Paul Flaherty of the Seoul Brew Club, I organized myself a one-man craft beer pub crawl in downtown Gwangju. Starting on the afternoon of July 25th, I visited The First Alleyway, The Boca Beer, Able Taphouse, and Amble, but missed the Alley Taphouse. Although the scene is young, I did manage to find a nice diversity of beer and get a sense of the present and future of craft beer in Gwangju.
The First Alleyway – 3pm
My pub crawl just so happened to begin at the place where craft beer in Gwangju itself started about two years ago. Operated by Canadian Tim Whitman, Englishman James Green, and Korean Ko Young Mi, The First Alleyway group were sold on the idea of carrying craft beer by one of Seoul’s craft beer founding fathers, Rob Titley. Rob traveled to Gwangju looking to find a market for Craftworks beer and, with the help of some tasty samples, quickly found an enthusiastic partner in The First Alleyway.
The best words to describe The First Alleyway are friendly and casual. There’s no pretension in its bright, beautiful room of brick walls, wood paneling, and Star Trek references. The stereo plays good rock n’ roll like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, but at a low enough volume for easy chatting. In the middle of the space sits a shelf full of board games, which captured my heart immediately. Looking around, one also notices a tabletop arcade game, dart board, billiard table, and foosball table.
I was quickly greeted and seated by a friendly waitress. The staff is a balanced mix of Korean and foreign, and everybody speaks excellent English. I was delighted to see poutine on the menu and ordered that. They are still working on their beer menu, so I had to approach the bar to look at their selection, which mostly consisted of Craftworks beers.
Upon approaching the bar, I was immediately greeted by Tim Whitman. He introduced me to the selection of beer, of which I chose a Rogue Dead Guy Ale. In addition to that and the Craftworks beer, they also offer Lost Coast’s Watermelon Wheat and Great White. Prices are on par with places in Seoul. For example, the Geumgang Mountain Dark Ale is 6,500won while the Rogue Dead Guy Ale is 9,500won. The most expensive beer is the bottled Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, which sells at 10,000won.
Tim was very helpful in answering my questions and chatting with me. His most emphasized point was that Gwangju is a close knit community and The First Alleyway strives to be a place which fosters that sense of community. A great example of this community spirit is the Alleycon. Tim’s pub hosted the first incarnation of this event last year, a festival for geeks and gamers to come together to have fun: playing D&D or Magic the Gathering, participating in cosplay, talking pop culture, Skyping with sci-fi and fantasy authors, or whatever else fires their photon torpedoes. In fact, during my visits there, I saw two separate games of Magic the Gathering played at tables, as well as a game of Skyrim on an Xbox 360 near the bar.
However, last’s year’s event reached maximum capacity quickly and it became clear that the Gwangju community would need a bigger venue. The First Alleyway is still involved in its namesake festival, and hopes to cater and perhaps even supply Craftworks beer at this year’s event, if possible. In between festivals, the pub does a great job nourishing this fun, nerdy spirit. As a gamer and self-confessed geek, this pub would definitely be a regular hangout spot for me if I lived in Gwangju. I wish I knew a place in Seoul like it.
Overall, I was very impressed with The First Alleyway. The food was very good (I had poutine on the first day and a classic burger on the second, although Tim said their specialty is pizza). The atmosphere was relaxed and casual, the staff was friendly, English was no problem, and Tim assured me that he is a stickler for taking care of his beer lines. This was the only place I visited twice during my weekend in Gwangju, and would be my number one spot if I lived there.
The Boca Beer – 6pm
The Boca Beer was impressive in a very different way than The First Alleyway. Boca is definitely geared more towards Korean clientele, and looks more like a mix of dance club and chill lounge. Between the two staff members and the six customers in the room, I was the only foreigner. In contrast to the rock ‘n roll of The First Alleyway, Boca played smooth, Korean, R&B-style pop.
The beer selection was very impressive, more diverse than many Seoul craft beer venues. I ordered a Ballast Point Habanero Sculpin IPA. They also had beers from Craftworks, Lost Coast, and even included CraftOne’s Mingle and Reily’s Jeju Tangerine IPA. As for bottles, Boca had a big selection of Brew Dog, Chimay, Brooklyn, and more. They also offered a beer sampler, but the details were in Korean and the bartender didn’t speak English. Considering I was already three beers deep with two more stops left on my pub crawl, I decided that one beer was enough.
There were several comically classic signs that this was a Korean pub. First, the snacks they served complementary with my beer included frosted flakes. They also had a private room for special functions up in the terraced loft, which I imagine is just waiting to host a Korean office mixer. Finally, in a self-conscious realization that they might need to attract more foreigners, Boca advertised an unusual Happy Hour: 2,000won off all Craftworks beers… for foreigners only!
Overall, Boca Beer was a cool place. Although it wouldn’t be my regular hangout spot, it is a place I’d take a date or go to find a beer that I couldn’t find anywhere else in Gwangju.
Able Taphouse – 7:30pm
Able is a small establishment, with a friendly Korean staff. Neither server spoke English, but both were welcoming. Most surprising was the amount of 7Brau advertising. Able seems to have gone all-in on 7Brau. With the exception of a few bottled imports, the menu was so 7Brau dominant that it included a page called “History of 7Brau.” Apparently, Able had recently offered differently named beer, although I can’t be sure whether they were rebranded 7Brau or rebranded Ka-Brew.
I had the 7Brau sampler, consisting of four 200ml samples: pilsner, hefeweizen, stout, and IPA for 12,000won. Good value. They provided plain nacho chips and even added some grilled cherry tomatoes, which was a nice thought.
For those who aren’t familiar, 7Brau is one of the original craft beer companies in South Korea. Cans of their IPA can be found in some grocery stores, though they’ve disappeared from On the Border restaurants and are rarely seen in convenience stores. They do have their own pub, and Able Taphouse is the only place that I’ve seen with four 7Brau beers outside of 7Brau’s pub in Gangnam.
Although a nice place, Able isn’t a place I would recommend over The First Alleyway or Boca. With a limited selection of both food and beer, no games, and music that was either unremarkable or non-existent (I honestly don’t remember hearing anything), I’d only recommend a visit if you really like 7Brau—or grilled cherry tomatoes.
Amble – 9pm
Paul, my online inspiration for this pub crawl, had not actually informed me of Amble. He had mentioned the Alley Taphouse, but I got mixed up when Tim Whitman named Amble as a place with craft beer. With The First Alleyway and Alley Taphouse, and then Able and Amble, things can get a little confusing. I found Amble quite easily. As Tim had joked, Amble opened right across the alley from Able and basically stole their name, just adding the letter “m” for the sake of difference. Considering this insight, I had expected Amble to be very similar to Able. I really wish it had been.
Amble has a unique look, so there’s that. There’s a pale cherry colored front wall, vinyl couch-like upholstered booths, and an antique wooden bar (antique as in a 1970’s rec room bar, big and solid). The wall behind the bar was adorned with vinyl album covers which showed a very hit-or-miss taste in music, ranging from The Beatles, to John Denver, to Nana Mouskouri (who is, apparently, a very popular Greek songstress). Curiously enough, there was no sign of a turn table and the music playing was all modern electronica. The mix of an old-time looking aesthetic with electronica music gave Amble a surreal vibe.
I was seated at the bar, but the staff spoke zero English and seemed afraid of having any kind of communication with me. Perhaps they had correctly predicted that I was waiting to ask questions. The room was close to full capacity, but I was the only non-Korean. They eventually gave me some soda crackers, but I basically had to serve myself. I grabbed my own menu and waited about fifteen minutes before approaching the till and forcing them to take my order. All the while, the staff was just standing around: idle to the point of near boredom.
Although technically a purveyor of craft beer (Lost Coast’s ubiquitous Indica IPA was available, as well as Erdinger), Boca mostly traded in Max. There were three special, unlabeled draught beers on the menu that, due to their low price, concerned me greatly. Trying to squeeze an ounce of helpfulness out of the staff, I tried asking what Amble Draft, Green Grape Draft, and Mojito Draft were. Their answer realized my worst fear—the draughts were Max beers spiked with ingredients poorly described to me as “coffee”, “green grape”, and “mojito”. Although no longer in the spirit of the craft beer pub crawl theme, I decided to order the franchise’s namesake, which was Max plus coffee. I feel the need here to point out that I saw no espresso machine or any other recognizable coffee maker. Needless to say, the Amble Draft was undrinkable. After five sporting sips, I paid my bill and left.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy anything about my time at Amble; but I could see its appeal, especially for Korean customers. Max beer was priced at 2,500won, which is pretty incredible. And less discerning palates might have enjoyed the Max fusions. As well, the food was very reasonably priced and the French fries actually looked and smelled amazing. On the other hand, the Amble Draft was… something. It had the same malty, adjunct-y, crisp taste of Max, but was overshadowed by an instant coffee taste—especially the aftertaste. Instead of imparting a toasty, dark lager flavor, the coffee made it syrupy and nauseating.
Thus, my Gwangju craft beer pub crawl ended with a literal bad taste in my mouth, and I had still not visited Alley Taphouse. So, the next day I revisited The First Alleyway. After a beer and burger, I asked Tim for directions. He graciously pointed me in the right direction, but warned me that it was in an alley that didn’t look like much until you took a sharp turn left.
After some wondering and backtracking, I finally found the building Tim eluded to and saw the sign he described. However, upon searching, I concluded that there were no alleys nearby. The location was in the middle of a block of businesses, with the only exits and entrances being into other businesses. Confusingly, the arrow on the sign simply pointed outside. After some fruitless turning ‘round and ‘round, I noticed that the red wall next to the sign was actually a door; and despite having a padlock on it, the door could open.
This door revealed pretty much what Tim said: an alley that wasn’t much, but sharply hooked left. I followed the alley to the end, but saw two other doors with number-coded locks. Neither looked like the Alley Taphouse. Frustrated, I retraced my steps again and again, feeling like I was in a Zelda game and missing some obvious detail to trigger the next phase of the quest. Alas, the mythical route to the Alley Taphouse guarded its secret too closely for me, and after ten minutes of searching I gave up and went to the park that’s south of the stream, and which I later concluded was haunted.
So what did I learn from all this? Well, Tim was the only owner I could communicate with, so he and I talked a lot about craft beer in Gwangju and its future. Tim agreed that it was inevitable that the market will continue to grow. He has observed that his customers split pretty evenly along Korea/foreign and male/female lines, which is a very positive sign.
However, the scene is only two years old. Tim expects growth to be very slow for the next few years. As well, until things grow bigger, Tim foresees many suppliers and distributors being less than enthusiastic in dealing with the logistics of doing business so far from Seoul. Having spent only three days in Gwangju, I can’t really argue with him.
That being said, I do have a naive faith that the scene will grow quickly in Gwangju. Partly because of the hard work of guys like Tim, partly because of all the growth and development in other parts of the country, and partly because of my faith that—once you get a taste for finely crafted beer—there’s just no turning back.