This page started in 2013 with my breakdown of beer in Korea back then. It’s been updated on January 20th, 2016 with tons of info and links about craft beer in Korea now! Scroll down to the bottom if you (for some reason) want to see what I thought of beer here in 2012-13.
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 toKyungridan.
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’sGwangalli 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?
This is my original post from early 2013 about beer in Korea. It was bleak. It’s since improved a lot!
A Summary of South Korea’s Beer Scene (2013)
South Korea has a culture that is transforming itself quickly and becoming recognized worldwide. Even before “Gangnam Style” there was a strong international K-Pop following and Korean dramas are beloved around Asia and proliferate on Netflix. The Quentin Tarrentino favorite Oldboy is a must-see Korean revenge flick being re-made by Spike Lee. Korean characters have been showing up in hit TV shows like Lost, The Walking Dead, and Arrested Development. Korean athletes have garnered international attention too, infiltrating Major League Baseball, the UFC, and legendary football club Manchester United.
Seoul has embraced this quickly evolving Western-style Korean culture. Seoul is a city constantly re-inventing itself. One of its most recent transformations has been the explosion of espresso bars that opened in this city over the last five years. In that time, the number of coffee shops shot up almost 900% with sales climbing about 1,600%. The streets of Seoul are markedly different now than even when I was here three years ago. When Koreans embrace something new, they can do so with an unmatched fervor. Many hope the next explosion of unmatched fervor will be for craft beers. At least for the beer-loving foreigner, this is a product and service that has been sorely needed in Seoul.
Traditionally, whether by choice or bad government regulation, Koreans drink the cheap stuff. For a people often compared to the Irish for their epic thirst, the lack of quality choice is baffling.
The greatest example of their cheap taste is their beloved soju. This is a devil drink that tastes like cheap vodka, rubbing alcohol, and Detroit tap water mixed together to give you a deceivingly potent 20% shooter. At the price of $1-2 per bottle, no Korean BBQ feast is complete without it.
Additionally, Koreans also like a fermented rice beverage called makkoli. With the alcohol strength of wine, a massive amount of probiotics, and a taste like milk mixed with Sprite, makkoli is another practical beverage for the same low price.
Finally, there’s the beer. Most Korean beer is also dirt cheap and just as utilitarian. Brands like Hite, Cass, Dry Finish, Max, and OB are ubiquitous, taste almost the same, and are disgustingly underwhelming. Hite is my favorite of the bunch. Its light, crisp universality reminds me of more familiar crowd-pleasing lagers like Molson, Coors, and Miller Lite. And I mean that in the worst possible way.
The others, Cass especially, taste like like someone ashed in my Molson Canadian. And I mean that in the best possible way. With rumors of formaldehyde swimming in it, Cass almost literally tastes like death. Of course, if your too intoxicated to taste your beer anymore, switching to Cass is a great way to cut down on your bar tab.
For years, this was the trinity of Korean drinking. And it was bland. But ten years ago, something started happening. Foreigners began to import European beers, bistros established themselves as a place to find international craft beer, the government slowly relaxed regulations, and a rainbow appeared as the clouds of mediocrity began to part. Good taste came to Korea!
In 2010, the new 7 Brau label established itself as the first officially licensed craft beer in South Korea. With others following close behind, things started to look up. Some pubs began their own microbrew, from Magpie, to Reilly’s, to the standard-bearer — Craftworks Taphouse and Bistro. Foreign microbrews also started to proliferate around the Seoul pub scene. South Koreans and thirsty expats finally began to form an emerging market for good taste.
Now franchise department stores like E-Mart carry a wide range of imports. Taps of good beer are being installed in a wide range of bars & restaurants. And an excellent local brewery is transforming clean local spring water into divine nectar for several brewers. With these developments, the taste preferences of Korean beer drinkers will — hopefully — start to change. If it does, it’s bound to change fast and furious. And that can change everything in a city like Seoul.