For a second year in a row, I went to the beer zone at COEX Food Week. The beer zone was another Korean beer fest created and hosted by the event planning group Media Param. It ran from Wednesday, November 12th through Saturday, November 15th. My friend Michael Hobbs and I got tickets for the last day of the event thanks to Dami Kang, and we were greeted by Kyoung-hee Lim who gave us our passes and filled us in on the details.
Like last year’s event, the beer zone was a very small part of the greater Food Week expo, just tucked away in the back area of one of the halls. This year it was in Hall D on the 3rd floor. Like last year, it had only six stalls. And also like last year, it was popular and drew a festive crowd! However, this year’s selections were different with the exception of Craftworks and Platinum.
As for the newcomers, the Hand and Malt was next to the stall for the event planners. They had the same beers on tap as at the October event: Extra Special Ale, German Hefeweizen, Mocha Stout, and Belgian White. Along with the samples, they were offering 12oz. cups for 3,000won. Next to them was Jejusien with two beers called Tamra Heavy and Tamra Light. Additionally, Jespi offered a pilsner and a strong ale. Across the way, Smooth International handed out samples from different Pacific Northwest beers they import like Red Hook, Ninkasi, and Widmer Brothers. Next to them was Platinum Brewery, who offered five beers on tap and sold 10oz cups for 2,000 won. Lastly was Craftworks who also had five of their beers on offer.
All in all, this was a nice event and it gave me a few thoughts.
The first thought is inspired by the inclusion of Jejusien and Jespi. As their names suggest, they are both based in Jeju. It was great for me to find them because I had never heard of them before. The two companies seem to come from different traditions with Jejusien seeming to be more conservative in style, like the established brands, while Jespi reflected a more modern craft brewing style.
Michael and I both tried the Strong Ale from Jespi and the Tamra Heavy from Jejusien. Both were similar to an IPA but different from each other. Jespi’s Strong Ale was smoother and barely had any bite to it, but definitely had a citrus taste and smell. The citrus wasn’t overwhelming and came from both the hops used in the brewing and some adding citrus peel. The Tamra Heavy also had a taste of citrus but was stronger than the Jespi with a bitter bite with a fuller mouth feel.
These two new Jeju brewers led me to think that maybe Korea is returning to a past attitude that hasn’t been around for quite a while. I had heard several times that, in the past, each region in Korea used to have its own regional soju brewer. The two Jeju brewers at the event reminded me that Korean craft beer is not just for Seoul, but also rooted in Busan and now Jeju. That doesn’t even say anything about the small craft brewers who just brew for one or two bars in their area. So I wonder, is Korea returning to the old tradition of regional brewing: but in beer, not soju?
Another realization I had was that three of the five brewers at the event had been around for less than a year. They hadn’t even been in existence when the last COEX event happened. This just shows the wonderful explosion happening in craft brewing in Korea.
I also thought about how the event was organized, and for whom. This year’s event was held after October’s very successful Great Korean Beer Festival at the War Museum. The focus seemed to be on the Korean population this time, unlike the October event which mainly attracted expats. Was this accidental? Who knows, but this was a good thing because craft brewing in Korea can’t be more than a niche without the support of Koreans.
The event was quietly mentioned, which may have been because of how much effort the organizers had put into the October event. The October event was huge and may also have been where most of the brewers wanted to focus their energy. Consequently, the COEX event took up a much smaller area and had a lot fewer stalls. Perhaps because of this, there was no additional charge for the beer samples: the 10,000won price that got you into the Food Expo also covered admission to the beer zone! This affordability was excellent for those who were not at the expo for beer. Regular Korean beer drinkers could experience new, exciting beers they would otherwise never see.
Another clue suggesting a Korean-centered focus was that most of the people at the booths had a much better command of Korean than English. My not-so-good grasp of Korean combined with my nervousness and the alcohol led to some interesting confusion for those I was trying to question. We all handled it as well as we could with apologies from me and smiles all around.
Was the event successful? It felt like it was for me. I went in the afternoon and saw a huge crowd. The event overflowed a bit, but not too badly compared to last year. The aisle was crowded and there were good lines for the beer. It supported more of the Korea community and reached people who wouldn’t show up to a 30,000won beer festival. And it was fun. All in all, Mike and I had a great time and enjoyed it.