I was in line outside The Booth Brewery in Pangyo this past January, waiting for their relaunch event to begin. I had already interviewed Sunghoo Yang, the co-founder of The Booth, and was dictating some notes in private when I realized that a sizable line-up had materialized out of nowhere. To make matters worse, I had left my winter jacket, gloves, and hat inside the bar and now had to wait in the cold before I could try The Booth’s new line-up of beers, brewed by their new Head Brewer Chris Shelton.
The Booth do everything with a sense of style. Heeyoon Kim, Sunghoo’s wife and co-founder, has an eye for style and pays great attention to detail. Her pubs are decorated with graffiti, Astroturf, camping furniture, barrels… you name it! Each location is unique, but they all seem somehow like The Booth. Here at the brewery, they had laid out cups full of gourmet popcorn for customers to take, for free, while they waited. Furthermore, Chris, the head brewer, also came out with several glasses of beer—offering them to people in line as a reward for braving the cold.
Once inside, I ordered every dark beer they had to warm myself. I tried a taste of their beer cocktail and then their Transporter, The Dotting Stout, and limited edition Hazelnut Vanilla Espresso Stout. They were all fantastic!
The Transporter was maybe the best of the beers I tried. A very nice, smooth, dark beer with some complex, layered flavors. It had an refreshing, almost juicy, finish. There was a hint of a tropical/citrusy aftertaste from the hops that wasn’t too over-bearing, but slightly reminiscent of Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Very easy to drink. I demolished mine in no time while chatting with Chris.
“What we wanted to do with our porter is that I wanted to do a beer that had different levels of complexity but I needed it to work altogether,” explained Chris. “Most beers that I do, I use two, maybe three grains. I’ve done one with five. For this one, we went up to eight different grains and malts because we wanted different levels of complexity. So we wanted to get some toffee, we wanted to get some caramel, some chocolate, we wanted to get a little bit of roastiness. But it was important that it all worked together. So we put a lot of thought into what malt we wanted to use. So we pulled the trigger, we brewed a big batch of it, and the result was that it came out fantastic. I’m so happy with it and it’s something that we’re gonna brew from now on. When I drink it, it’s like a flavor bomb that just builds. You have your toffee, your caramel, a little bit of roastiness, and just a little bit of citrus flavor that comes out from the hops.”
The Dotting Stout was a very nice example of a dark, roasty, slightly chocolaty stout. It had a full body and creamy mouthfeel and was very satisfying. But the special Hazelnut Vanilla Espresso Stout was the real treat. It was served pretty warm, which really helped bring out the aroma and flavor. There was a bit of hazelnut on the nose, but not as much in the glass. It reminded me of Ballast Point’s amazing Victory at Sea, where the vanilla, espresso, and stout all mix to create a cream soda and root beer float kind of flavor. The espresso was made by the neighboring coffee shop, Moon, who impressed me also with their hand drip coffee and whole beans. It was a pricey glass of beer, as the espresso was quite expensive, but it was delicious.
I really loved all three of the dark ales. Interestingly, Chris admitted that he doesn’t really even like dark beers that much, although he is really proud of the Transporter. He’s a hop head and his signature homebrew is actually an amberish, pale, specialty, honey beer; a kind of style-less beer he brews in tribute to his son. But, overall, he’s a big fan of IPAs and IIPAs; and it goes to show as most of the beers on the menu were versions of pales, IPAs, or IIPAs.
It was obvious that Chris would love to unleash some really big, hoppy beers if he had his way. He wants to raise their Today (오늘) Pale Ale into a full IPA, getting the ABV up and hitting it with more Citra hop bombs. The Comma Session IPA is a cross between a pale and an IPA. The aroma is similar to pale ale, but has a little more bitterness to it. His All Night IPA is dank and resiny with stone fruit and pineapple flavors. He said he used Mosaic as the main hop, but supplemented with three other hops. The Stay IIPA has lots of citrus hops and malt, which balances to make it nice and smooth, and an ABV that sneaks up on you. He wants it be to be at least 8%, though he’d really like to make it 9-10% once the market is ready for it. The versions now found at The Booth locations might be a little tamer compared to the event I attended. Chris said he wanted to have different flavors for the grand opening. ”We wanted to do some special things for today.”
There’s always a balancing act, especially at this early point of the market growth in Korea. Most customers aren’t ready for a pale ale yet, let alone a 10% ABV, hop bomb. I asked Chris how The Booth’s regular lineup will shake out. “We’re pretty confident we’ll always have a stout. We’ll always have an IPA, which is basically our pale ale right now. I think the porter is something we’ll have to have all the time because I think word will get out and people will love that and want to drink it. And we’re going to get an amber ale on the menu sometime.”
The beer he’d truly love to make for The Booth is his Amber Honey Pale Ale aged in wine barrels. Chris hopes The Booth can develop a relationship with a winery in California, where they use The Booth’s barrels for their wine and vice versa. But there’s always that gap between what a beer geek wants and what a new customer base wants.
“I always tell people ‘our competition is soju. You can go to the convenience store and get a bottle for a buck.’ Now we wanna transition them to good beer.” Chris hopes that furthering the education of Korean beer drinkers can help with that. “We wanna have [homebrew] classes. We want to teach people. The more people who are knowledgeable about craft beer the more people who will want to drink craft beer.”
Chris’ tenure at The Booth was a fortuitous one. Although he had experience with Toppling Goliath Brewery in Iowa, Chris came to South Korea because of his wife. She had a job interview with a school in Korea and, three weeks later, they were on an airplane headed for Seoul. Chris insists that he had no idea he would wind up in such a great situation.
“If you take five minutes you realize how special [The Booth founders] are. They’re so knowledgeable in what they want to do. We met a couple of times and we all just kind of felt the same thing: that this was meant to be. I didn’t come here because of that, but we all felt like something threw us together and we were all meant to do something special together. [And both Sunghoo and Heeyoon are] just so kind and loveable. Their passion for this market is just so amazing.”
Chris doesn’t lack for passion either. Whether it was talking about beer, or flashing his big smile, or his booming voice when giving out free glasses of beer to customers lined up in the cold, Chris exudes passion. “That’s what I’m a big fan of, the people who are doing it with passion and love, and you can see the smile on the people’s faces who are there all the time and sharing beer with the customers and that’s kinda the vibe that I want to build here.”
Soon, Chris will be off to the new brewery in Eureka, California, where The Booth will be producing a heck of a lot more beer. Perhaps they’ll experiment with selling some of it there, but most of it will be for the market here in South Korea. “In Eureka we’re going to brew between 90-120 barrels per day.” Chris said. For reference, he compared it to The Booth Brewery in Pangyo. “This can do 4.5 barrels per day. So we’re going to pump out a lot of beer there, and then we’re gonna bring it here! We’re hoping for June we’ll be fully operational.”
Finally, I asked him if he and his family are happy with how things turned out. “Coming here was the best decision we made, ever.”
To read Part I of my interview with The Booth, featuring more information on their beginnings and their future, click here: