That’s really the shortest way to put it. The craft beer scene in Korea hasn’t fully grown or developed yet, but there’s no denying that it’s alive.
When I started writing for this blog in the summer of 2013 with my first summary, I really didn’t know where to get craft beer outside of Craftworks and Magpie. It was mostly Cass, Hite, and some big brewery imports. There were other ways to get your hands on good beer known only by savvy expats and Koreans; ways to find a bottle of Lost Coast or Anderson Valley or even some good homebrew. But for most people, you had to go to Kyungridan.
Ever since then, the scene has been expanding noticeably about every 3-6 months. Soon after I wrote the first summary, Itaewon starting exploding with craft beer. Reilly’s Taphouse had a big selection of imports and almost every hip foreign/fusion restaurant had Lost Coast’s Indica IPA or something similar. Today there’s a zillion places to get a great selection of beer.
I live in Gangnam. Although it’s arguably one of the liveliest and richest neighborhoods in Korea, I just didn’t know where to find craft beer. I was over the moon when the Star Super grocery store at Dogok Station started selling some imports. Fast-forward two years and I can go to Band of Brewers, three different locations of The Booth, Hopscotch, Funky Taphouse, Boutique B, Pong Dang, or Craftbros.
Areas all over Korea are being infected with the craft beer bug. Busan’s Gwangalli Beach is a new haven that rivals any neighborhood in Seoul. Gwangju, Gangneung, Daejeon, Daegu, Incheon… they all have craft beer.
And there’s tons of places that I, as a non-adventurous foreigner, will never hear about. Places that sell Platinum, Ka-Brew, or 7Brau. There’s hundreds or even thousands of people in the business of craft beer now and it’s become impossible to keep up.
More new breweries are opening up soon. Magpie and Craftworks are both expected to open breweries this Spring. Platinum just opened a Korean location. The Booth is re-launching their brewery this January. There’s more and more Korean spots opening up that I can’t keep track of. There’s still too much re-branding, cross-contract brewing, and beers that don’t advertise where they’re from. It’s still a bit of a jungle. But the fact that there’s so much of it, after just 2.5 years since I’ve started looking, is incredible. And within the scene there’s so much good stuff.
As this is what it comes down to. What’s there to be excited about? For someone who’s just visiting or has just moved to Korea, what’s the bottom line?
Well, I try not to be biased and I have to admit that I haven’t tried everything. But I mostly stick to what I consider the highest quality stuff: whether it be pubs, breweries, or imports.
You have to start in Kyungridan. Especially the alley by The Baker’s Table just south of Namsan Tower. It’s the hotbed. I wrote a bit about it in my piece on Magpie for Groove Korea. Magpie is the first place to check out. I’d skip the Brew Shop, with its views of that alley, and go straight down to the Basement. The pizza is awesome and they have their full tap selection. I narrowly named their Last Train Baltic Porter as the best beer of last year. The Booth, The Bottle Shop, Heaven for a G, and even the mom and pop Woori Super are all worth checking out. The great thing about the alley is that you can get a beer to-go and drink it outside in the summertime. The nearby areas of Itaewon and HBC also have cool locations and tons of foreign restaurants, but Kyungridan is the number one MUST for people new to Seoul.
Wherever you go, you have to make sure you drink as much of the Big 3 Korean breweries as possible. I don’t mean Big 3 as in volume or market-share, I mean in quality and reputation: The Hand & Malt, Galmegi, and Magpie.
The Hand & Malt can be found in lots of places (they update a map with every location that serves their beer!), but the three best places are Hopscotch, Maloneys, and The Hand & Malt Taproom. Hopscotch, near Gangnam station, carrys all the Hand & Malt beers. Maloneys, in Kyungridan, has been a favorite haunt of the Seoul Brew Club and Hand & Malt team forever. Maloneys has their own brewing company that contracts with the Hand & Malt. Their Combat Zone was my runner up for best beer of last year. Finally, The Hand & Malt Taproom out near Hongdae needs no explanation: they got the full line-up as well.
I recommend the Hand & Malt’s Extra Special Ale with any food, the Slow IPA, or any of the Maloneys beers. Also, The Beer Post gave out a survey recently and the Hand & Malt blew away the competition for best brewery. I voted for them because they have high quality and great consistency. They also made history twice this year; they grew their own hops in Korea they were the first to age a beer in a bourbon barrel.
Galmegi is a trend-setting brewpub in Busan. Their beers are harder to find in Seoul outside of Neighborhood in the Hongdae area. However, they now run their brew pub and another taphouse called Gwangan Taphouse right near Gwangalli Beach; plus another taphouse at Haeundae Beach. They’ve done some excellent beer and their co-founder Stephane loves sours, so expect more experimentation in the future. In fact, Wild Waves in the same area are also big fans of sours. Busan just hosted Funkfest 2015, a kind of symposium on sour beers. This beach might become the de facto center for sour beers in Korea this year. Galmegi’s Hallabong Gose is my favorite sour of all-time (although I’m still a newbie) and their Doljanchi IIPA is my favorite double IPA of all time!
Magpie is an original darling. They date back to the pre-craft days where people would try to get their hands on homebrew rather than spend 13,000won on Guinness. With locations in Kyungridan, Hongdae, and Jeju Island, Magpie is adding a brewery in Jeju this Spring. Their Belgian yeast twins The Sinner (Belgian Gold Ale) and The Saint (Belgian IPA) are amazing, the Last Train Baltic Porter is my favorite, and their The Ghost gose is the first commercial sour made in Korea. The classic Pale Ale and Porter are still two very solid and affordable beers. And Magpie is well-known for collaborating with other brewers for limited edition beers. My all-time favorite Korean beer was Magpie’s A Bird in the Hand RyePA brewed at the Hand & Malt.
Reflecting back upon 2015 in general, lots of new places opened up: pubs, breweries, contract brewing businesses, etc. But the thing that really symbolizes the growth this year was the fact that several major brewers came here. Colby Chandler from Ballast Point; Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller; Kris Ketcham of Stone Brewing; Bill Covalesk of Victory Brewing; and perhaps the coolest was the brewer who didn’t make it, Jamil Zainasheff of Heretic Brewing Co. Magpie had organized an event with him where homebrewers in Korea would follow one of his recipes and he was coming here to judge the winner! Unfortunately, 2015 was also the eMERSency, and due to the MERS scare he cancelled his trip.
Other noteworthy news included Groove getting its dedicated craft beer column (written by yours truly) and a group of people (including Kimoon from the awesome Craftbros Taphouse & Bottleshop) publishing The Beer Post with all articles in Korean and English. Media Paran organized more Great Korean Beer Festivals while a new company, Good Times ROK, started their own beer festival.
Moving forward, the biggest change that needs to happen is in government. Small brewers are still slammed by insane taxes and import tariffs. At the same time, the two big corporate brewers in Korea (OB and Jinro-Hite) are dabbling in the premium beer market. An all malt Queen’s Ale and competing Aleston came out in 2014. While definitely not to the standards of craft beer, they are a little more expensive and higher quality than most Korean beer. Then Lotte came out with Kloud, a slightly better lager than usual. OB is now producing a weizen and dunkel, years behind the trend but still an advancement. On the other hand, mega company Shinsegae opened a huge brewpub at Korea’s busiest bus terminal, Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam, called Devil’s Door.
This new interest from the big money players could pose unique problems, or could help drive the market towards premium beers. Hard to say what will come. But unless the small brewers get an even playing field, craft beer in Korea will be held back unnecessarily.
On an optimistic note, the grand daddy of craft beer, Craftworks, looks to make a resurgence. They are still the most recognized craft beer name, but have had their reputation tarnished by quality and consistency issues arising from Ka-Brew’s lackadaisical production methods. Once their new, state-of-the-art brewery opens (hopefully this Spring), I except HUGE things from them. Their Geumgang Dark Ale and Seorak Oatmeal Stout brought me into the craft beer fold back in late 2012 and I can’t wait until they start making high-quality versions of their recipes and experimenting with new styles. They should also be producing a lot, and perhaps we’ll see the first big push into bottling or canning. Platinum, as well, will be looking to bottle or can their very solid beers. The store shelves already have beers from Korea Craft Brewery (Ark) and 7Brau, but availability and quality (respectively) are still issues.
The scene moves fast here in Korea. Expect tons of new developments. My summary from three years ago is already laughably out-of-date, where I compared most Korean beer to Detroit tapwater mixed with rubbing alcohol (or was that soju?). Either way, it’s a lot better now but improvements still need to be made. Prices have generally gotten better, with beers ranging from 5,000-8,000 at the best places. Quality and cold-chain issues still arise, but be forgiving. Many times, the pub you’re at is very new to craft beer or the brewery has only brewed that beer a couple of times. It’s still growing and getting better. If you try a beer once and it really stinks, it’s probably not the beer’s fault. Give it another try sometime. The craft beer scene in Korea hasn’t matured yet, but it’s alive!