Craft beer really started in 2001 when the government eased entry for brew pubs in Korea before the 2002 World Cup. Dozens if not hundreds of brew pubs popped up everywhere, then died out fairly quickly and most went bust by 2004 to 2005. Then things got interesting in April of 2014 where the entry barrier for brew pubs were lowered in several different aspects.
Number one – vessel capacity from 150K liters went down to 75K liters for micro breweries, anything above that would net you a general license.
Second – alcohol tax was lowered also to 80% for general licenses and 60% for micro breweries.
The third and most important change was that micro breweries were allowed to distribute outside their own restaurant premises and to general distributors. Before 2014 April most “brewing companies” were still contract brewing out of Ka Brew, the de-facto craft brewery in Korea until then. Ka Brew contract brewed for the likes of Craft Works and Magpie who are general considered the pioneers of the second craft brew revolution. Then once the barriers came down the flood of micro breweries started to get onboard, including us – The Hand and Malt.
I used to work for Microsoft for the better part of a decade (half of which in Singapore) and while I was working there I had an old friend wanting to get into the F&B business in Korea. We started a gastropub called Hopscotch, one of the first craft beer bars in Seoul, Gangnam. While selling Magpie and Craft Works local craft beer, I noticed a supply issue(and also an opportunity). I was also an avid homebrewer. My passion for beer got the better part of me during my so called mid-life crisis and I took the plunge, giving up my executive position with Microsoft for plans to launch a brewery in August 2013. I got the contacts of the former head brewer (Phil Kelm) for Platinum, engaged him to set up a brewery with me and now here we are – one year into my beerventure.
Tell us about your brewery, direction and beers!
I am one of the few independent breweries in Korea where we don’t have a company or a fund driving the brewery’s priorities – which gives me the autonomy to focus on quality and consistency over profits. My mindset was dead on having a great product over a great brewery for show. The bulk of our funds were invested – not in marketing but on the ingredients and people in our company. I insist on using malt from four different countries and liquid yeast for most of beers. I wanted our beers to be the same beers that people would taste from the respective countries – true to their stylistic traits. The best compliment we get is that if consumers closed their eyes and drank our beers it would be akin sitting in a pub at their home country.
The people that we have on board have been a great fit for the operation. We have Phil Kelm(of probrewer.com fame) as our CTO and his wealth of knowledge has been vital for our growth. Our head brewer Brandon Fenner comes to us from Maui Brewing Company and Magic Hat with 10 years of brewing experience under his hat. We make six year-round beers which are true to style. Belgian Wit, Extra Special Ale (English Bitter), German Hefeweizen, Slow IPA(session), Mocha Stout, and a Pilsner.
On Korea’s beer industry…
Like most of the developed world, craft beers are becoming a massive trend so everyone is jumping on the band wagon. The difference in Korea is that a many breweries trying to join in have no idea about craft beer and they want to just make a quick buck. I think that is a recipe for failure. I welcome competition but not from people who are going to produce bad beer, which will affect the reputation of the industry as a whole. Also a pet peeve for me in Korea is that everyone is called a brew master if you are the head brewer at a brewery/brew pub. I find this annoying when someone with less than a year of experience in production brewing is called a brew master. If you were a starting out as a cook on a cooking line or even a sous chef, you wouldn’t feel comfortable being called Master Chef, would you?