In many respects, American-style IPAs have become the poster child for the recent craft beer boom. New varieties of hops from the Pacific Northwest—such as Simcoe, Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus—have introduced new flavors and punchy bitterness to countless new beer drinkers. In Korea, too, the IPA is gaining in popularity; not only with foreigners but also with Koreans. In fact, several new establishments testify that many of their newest customers are groups of young Korean women.
Due to the IPA’s importance in the emerging beer culture of Seoul, I decided to conduct my first taste test with some IPAs that can be purchased to take home. From The Bottle Shop in Kyungridan, I selected Lost Coast’s Indica IPA, Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA, and Brew Dog’s Punk IPA. From nearby Woori Mart I selected Kona’s Castaway IPA. Finally, from my local E-Mart I selected Ballast Point’s Big Eye IPA. Also from E-Mart, I chose to throw in a ringer. As this was a blind taste test, I wanted to see how Jinro-Hite’s Queen’s Ale Extra Bitter would hold up against the western IPAs.
Joining me in the tasting were three friends: two Americans (Mike and Tom) and one Brit (Alex). My friends were a little intimidated by the task of describing beer. This is the case with most beer drinkers, who know what they like but don’t really know how to articulate it. I assured them that tasting is pretty subjective and that most IPAs can be described by the same basic flavors: citrus, floral, piney, resin, grassy, and fruity. Likewise, darker ales typically share the malty characteristics of caramel, bread, biscuit, toasty, or roasty.
In fact, one can easily sound like a beer-tasting expert if you just use a combination of these basic adjectives. One thing I want to demonstrate is how widely diverse and, ultimately, predictable the beer community can be. To further demonstrate this point, I’ve listed all the flavors described by the top raters at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. Most of the same adjectives show up in every beer, while some are just off-the-wall silly: Chinese cooking, sweaty, manure, dirt, dusty, cooked vegetables, sweet onion, and match stick.
In this tasting, we weren’t focused on connoisseur-level stuff. I wanted feedback on taste, with any other impressions (aroma, mouthfeel, etc.) being optional. We also didn’t focus on giving scores to the beers. We simply sipped them, enjoyed them, and shared our thoughts out loud. I presented each beer in a numbered cup, without revealing the contents. I fired up a playlist of Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 albums on my widescreen TV, passed around the wireless mouse, and prepared the snacks. I unwisely chose cheese, chips with salsa, and avocado. These fatty and spicy foods really overwhelmed our palates, but what we lost in tasting accuracy we made up for in satisfaction.
Beer #1: Lost Coast’s Indica IPA
The Bottle Shop: 5,5000won per 12oz
RateBeer Top 10 Raters: 74.8%
I thought it was fitting to choose this beer to kick-off our blind tasting. Indica IPA is arguably the most widely found craft beer in restaurants and bars in Seoul.
According to the Top Raters on both rating sites, beer drinkers described this beer, variously, as: Piney, peachy, caramel, dusty, pine needles, fruits, flowery, grassy, creamy, apricot, orange, earthy grapefruit, pine sap, and spicy.
That’s certainly a mouthful.
This huge spectrum of flavors, often associated with the hops that dominate an IPA’s flavor, is repeated time and again with each IPA. It’s as if the Top Raters are as lost in the dark as we are.
My group described the Indica in a variety of ways, too. Alex said there was a smokey, wooden flavor. Tom declared that there was no citrus flavor. Mike noted a distinct floral taste. I thought it had a creaminess akin to a darker ale. Three of us noted specifically that the bitterness was very well balanced with the sweetness. Overall, it was one of the most popular beers amongst us.
Beer #2: Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA
The Bottle Shop: 6,5000won per 12oz
RateBeer Top 10 Raters: 70.6%
This beer was new for me, but Tom hails from Oregon and has loved this brewery for a while. The variety of flavors from the Top Raters were even more varied than with the Indica: Sweet malty, grass, toffee, bread, caramel, fruit hops, orange, grapefruit, tangerine, pineapple, mango, piney, watermelon, pine cones, cooked vegetables, lemon, biscuit, apricot, and my personal favorite, “slightly salty with shallow simplistic malt character barely covered in a thin blanket of citric hops.” That’s nice prose!
Our impressions were much simpler. We all agreed that it had a harder hop punch than the Indica. The bitterness was a bit too much for Alex’s British palate. He noted some grapefruit while I thought it had a marijuana-like dankness and a sweetness like port. Tom and Mike really liked it. Tom thought it was a souped-up version of the Indica while Mike thought it struck the perfect balance of bitter and sweet. This was a potential favorite with three of us, while too bitter for one.
Beer #3: Ballast Point’s Big Eye IPA
San Diego, California
E-Mart: 5,800won per 12oz
RateBeer Top 10 Raters: 72.8%
I was excited about this beer simply because it was something I could buy in my neighbourhood of Daechi-dong. All the other beer locations required an hour-long commute each way. I love Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, but I’m saving that one for a future strong/double IPA tasting.
The Top Raters comments got a little playful with this one: Peach, pineapple, grassy, grapefruit, wooden, licorice, dry, caramel, spice, fruity, marmalade, toffee, and my favorite—a light earthy, manure aroma.
Alex said it wasn’t too bitter, which was a relief after the Ninkasi, with a pine resin flavor. Tom noted the strong piney aroma, with a strange acidic hit in the chest upon swallowing. Mike thought it was very weird compared to the previous IPAs. He also thought the alcohol taste was very notable and also complained of a strange feeling going down the throat. I personally thought it had a dank, almost peaty malt taste: Like a Scottish Ale inspired IPA.
Tom had been with me when I bought the beer, so he vaguely knew which beers were on the list. He also knew that I was going to slip in a Queen’s Ale as a ringer. Surprisingly enough, Tom guessed that this beer was probably the Queen’s Ale. This was, overall, the most divisive beer of the lot: two liked it and two didn’t.
Beer #4: Queen’s Ale Extra Bitter
E-Mart: 2,060won per 12oz
Queen’s Ale is a very interesting beer. For one, it’s not a craft beer: it’s made by the corporate brewer Jinro-Hite. Also, although the terms Extra Special Bitter (ESB) and India Pale Ale (IPA) can be interchangeable, the Queen’s Ale is far less hoppy than the western IPAs.
Reaction to this new beer, an attempt by a mass-brewer to capture the emerging market for quality beer, has been mixed within the foreign beer drinking community in Seoul. Some people still hate it. Some people, like myself, actually think it’s a very decent beer: Perhaps the best beer that can be bought at this price in my neighborhood. Although it has often vanished from store shelves, and was even rumored to be dead, Queen’s Ale still pops up at my local E-Mart from time to time. I think it’s by far the best “quality” beer amongst the new Korean corporate beers designed for that market.
I dug into a rumor that Queen’s Ale actually won a medal at the last World Beer Cup. I contacted Competition Manager Chris Swersey, who confirmed that Queen’s Ale Extra Bitter won the Silver medal in the Extra Special Bitter category. This news probably comes as a shock to its detractors and supporters, alike.
So how did it stack up amongst the western IPAs? Well, there’s not enough reviews online for RateBeer or BeerAdvocate scores. Alex said that it was lighter and sweeter than the other IPAs. He also echoed the rest of us by claiming that it had no bitterness. Tom added that it was very crisp. Mike described it as “IPA 101” or an IPA “with training wheels.” He added that it was like a regular ale with a little added artificial IPA flavor. I simply couldn’t detect any hops. After our palates had been subjected to three small glasses of real west coast IPAs, the moderately bitter Queen’s Ale just got washed out. I thought it would have stood out at least a tiny bit. Well, it’s clear that you get what you pay for. No one hated it, but it was the only real plain tasting beer of the day.
Interestingly, Tom didn’t fully back off of his prediction that the previous beer, Big Eye IPA was the “ringer”. This beer gave him pause but, perhaps out of stubbornness, he still thought Queen’s Ale was one of the “real” IPAs. Classic Tom.
Beer #5: Kona’s Castaway IPA
Woori Mart: 6,500won per 12oz
RateBeer Top 10 Raters: 71.8%
Kona’s Castaway was the only true IPA on this list that wasn’t found at The Bottle Shop. It can be found a few doors down at Woori Mart as well as a few other department stores. I haven’t noticed it much in bars or restaurants, but I do recall seeing it around a bit.
This beer was described online as: Smooth caramel malt with floral hops, grapefruit pulp, citrusy, tropical fruits, grapefruit and tangerine, passion fruit, pineapple, grassy, peachy, earthy, biscuit and sweet onion, white grapefruit peel, pine tips, semi-sweet caramel, resiny, herbal tea with honey taste, woody, mango, guava, and my favorite: a match stick finish.
Alex thought it was fruity, citrusy, and had a strong alcohol taste. Tom agreed, saying fruity, citrusy, and grapy. Mike thought it was very distinct with a fruity, white-grape juice flavor. I went totally off-script and thought it had a caramel and coffee wafer taste. For any Canadians who know what I mean, it tasted like a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar. I also tasted dank resin flavors. I really liked the taste because I’m a big fan of the darker malts found in porters and stouts which give those chocolate, coffee, and caramel flavors. I liked this one more than the other three, but everyone was satisfied.
Beer #6: Brew Dog’s Punk IPA
8,070won (The Bottle Shop) per 12oz
RateBeer Top 10 Raters: 72.6%
The last beer of the afternoon! We were all feeling pretty good by this point, and our tongues had taken quite a lot of hops. The Top Raters described this beer as: Lemon, limes, straw, malt, citrus peel, pine needles, grapefruit (peachy, salty), soft, creamy malt, orange, toffee, earthy, dirty, passion fruit, hay, grass, Chinese cooking, resiny, sweaty, jam, and citrus zest.
Alex said it was fruity and one of the lightest beers of the day. Tom said it was citrusy. Mike noted some hefeweizen-like banana flavors. I thought it was well-balanced with a distinct apricot-like fruitiness. Tom and Alex agreed with the apricot taste. It was a hit with all of us!
Now that the blind tasting was over, I revealed all the beers and we went through the tasting one more time. I planned on getting some new input the second time through, while asking for favorites, but we had just enough alcohol in us to skip all that for the sake of YouTube and the inevitable: cute kitten videos… in French.