THE BEER ESSENTIALS: Put down the swill and reach for Korea's best
From an expanding line of imports, to great brews cooked up right here in Korea, the ROK has finally joined the rest of the world in its love for great beer. Anthony Velasquez looks at the trend towards better beer and offers up some picks on what to get, where to get it and what to eat with it.
BUSAN, South Korea -- If you were thirsty for a draft beer as little as four years ago, you were forced to choose between domestically-produced Cass, Hite, OB and little else. While quality imported beer in the bottle wasn't much of a problem, if you didn’t mind the price, the selection of draft was another story.
Andy Lee, a 20-year veteran of the beer industry and owner of an importing company that supplies Big Rock beer from Alberta, Canada, explains that upstarts in the Korean beer market were only recently freed up to give consumers more options.
“When I started in the industry, in 1993, taxes on imported beer and whiskey were 150 percent,” Lee said. “In 2006, the taxes came down to 72 percent.”
According to Wayne Gold, co-owner of The Wolfhound Irish Pubs in Seoul and in Busan, only two companies owned all Korean brands until recently. This duopoly limited both the selection and the channels for craft beers to get to market.
“The law required a minimum production of about 100,000 liters,” Gold explained. “So it was impossible for the microbrews and craft beers to enter the market.”
The watershed moment came two and a half years ago, when the brew limit law changed. Along with noticeable shifts brought on by free trade agreements and lower tariffs on imported beers, microbrewed beers, such as foreign-owned Craftworks in Seoul, started popping up. All of a sudden, previously tariff-strapped importers could ply their craft in the Korean market.
Another major contribution to the burgeoning availability of great beer in Korea is Sung Lee, the president and founder of Brewmasters International, a beer import company that brings in popular brands from Lost Coast Brewery, Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Rogue Ales and some complex, highly sought-after Belgian ales.
“I would make regular trips to Korea to visit the in-laws and it drove me up the wall not being able to drink a good beer,” said Lee, who was born in Incheon but moved to New York. “That’s why I founded Brewmasters.”
Recently, a study by domestic store chain Lotte Mart reported that imported beer sales increased 41 percent since this time last summer, and that imported beer outsold wine for the first time. Other industry experts have taken note of the rising demand for imported beer over the last decade, and they agree: this isn’t just a fad.
Much of the change in Koreans’ shift to higher-end beer can be attributed to rising incomes and the 14 million Koreans who annually travel abroad and have access to a variety of beer.
Sampling the local scene here in Busan, Wayne Gold said that 60-70 percent of Koreans are reaching for a “kind,” well-crafted microbrew. Stephane Turcotte, brewer and owner of Galmegi Brewery in Gwangalli, has seen a similar trend.
“On weeknights, 60 percent of our guests are Korean, mostly female, and they mostly prefer our India Pale Ale,” said Turcotte.
With this rising trend in mind, we’ll now offer seven bars and pubs that offer either their own distinct microbrewed craft beers or serve the best draft in Busan. Also remember that all serve great pub grub, which exemplifies how the right beer can enhance the right dish.
Some Good Spots for Great Beer and Food
Galmegi Brewery (Gwangalli)
Stephane Turcotte and partners handcraft their excellent beers in small batches, and Galmegi has become the epicenter for PUB (Pusan Union of Homebrewers). Depending on availability, they offer up to five original brews in a comfortable setting with a mixed crowd and friendly vibe. While the dry hopped, cold conditioned, bitter yet balanced IPA is the most popular, the amber ale pairs well with the earthy flavors of the funghi pizza topped with imported truffle oil. Also, Galmegi and PUB will be presenting a Summer Beer Festival on August 24 where guests can sample six or more distinct homebrews including a Ginseng Pale Ale, Ginger Beer, and an exciting Saison Belgian Farmhouse Ale.
Hangover Pub (Seomyeon)
From Chef Vito who serves (arguably) the best handmade pasta at his eponymously named restaurant, this classic designed, cozy public free house is a new, welcome addition to the Seomyeon scene. The selection is small but smartly chosen and, with a talent like Vito, you know he’ll deliver the goods. Lost Coast Brewery’s Indica IPA with its extra hoppy, fragrant, extra crisp, to its pleasantly bitter finish is the perfect foil for Hangover’s excellent fish and chips which employs local cod in a dark beer/egg white meringue batter over a basket of perfectly seasoned, extra-crispy shoestrings.
Hurshimchung Brau (Dongnae)
This German beer hall is the most unique watering hole in Busan. Where else do you get a six-piece coed Ukrainian band covering Korean classics or The Bangles to scores of ajummas getting down? Brewmaster Choi Dong-jun uses all the equipment and ingredients imported from Germany to make his traditional brews crafted on-site. The pilsner is unfiltered and unpasteurized, making it fresh and popular, especially in the outdoor beer garden. For pairing, Choi’s smooth, flavorful dunkel washes down well with the roasted German Schweinehaxen (ham hock). Also, don’t forget their Octoberfest, usually in mid-September, an event not to be missed.
Sharky’s Gwangan (Gwangalli)
Sharky’s on Gwangalli Beach offers 14 beers on tap and seven choice selections featuring the Lost Coast Brewery and Anderson Valley beers. Among the drafts, two are exclusively found here: Hopcat Amber Ale and Anderson Valley’s Summer Solstice. The Hopcat, which is lighter and fresher than most ambers balancing the hops and malt, is a nice pairing with Chef/Pastor Caleb’s perfectly temped to medium, moist cajun seasoned salmon filet. Another great pairing is the uniquely flavored McNally’s Extra Ale, a strong Irish Red Ale replete with notes of brown spices that match well with Sharkey’s BBQ sauce.
Tap & Tapas/TBR (Haeundae)
T&T/TBR serves seven beers on tap and five by the bottle. Beverage director Jerome Park cleans the lines and the taps, and checks the temperature daily to ensure that every beer is optimally served. This gastropub, with its Spanish/Mediterranean menu, presents the finest imported quality ingredients to its urbane style. One unique pairing to enjoy is the chorizo cazuera with a Guinness. The roasted, smoky notes of Guinness match the smokiness of Iberico chorizo and the creaminess of the body compliment the acid of tomato sauce. Also, Paulaner Hefeweizen brings citrus and tropical flavors to their delicious seafood dishes.
The Wolfhound Irish Pub (Haeundae)
With 11 beers on tap and nine available by the bottle, Wolfhound offers the widest selection of kind brews in Haeundae. One that is exclusively offered here is the Jeju Tangerine IPA from Reilly’s Brewing Company crafted in Seoul. The tangerine flavor doesn’t overpower the hoppy profile, but instead compliments with notes of orange peel on the nose, a little orange zest on the finish. One very well-matched pairing is the curry chips with Lost Coast’s Great White. This summer refresher with its natural citrus notes and coriander is killer with potato wedges topped with curried gravy.
Eva’s Ticket (KSU)
The bar is anchored by its sleek, modern-designed refrigerated storage, among one of only eight in the country. Eva’s Ticket also offers 13 taps plus 11 bottle selections. Also, Chef Mutt’s extensive menu of delicious appetizers, salads, pizza, sandwiches and entrees make it hard to choose. The Paulaner Dunkel, a dark lager that falls in between an amber and porter, brings roasted malt flavors without the heaviness that matches well with the mushroom mozzarella burger, the poutine of fries topped with mozzarella and homemade gravy, or Mutt’s chicken fried chicken.
Five Imported Bottles to Savor
1. Delirium Tremens (12,000 won at HQ, 8.5 percent ABV): A special Strong Pale Ale from Belgium, it is acclaimed the world over for its golden color, fragrant, flowery nose and notes of tangerine, pear, dried apricot, malted barley, hops and spice to a complex finish.
2. Fuller’s London Pride Premium Ale (9,500 won at Hangover Pub, 4.7 percent ABV): This traditional ale, brewed along the Thames, achieves its distinction for storing in casks and kegs which contributes to its roundness of malt and hops that makes it flavorful yet smooth.
3. Duchesse de Bourgogne Flanders Red Ale (12,000 won at Galmegi Brewery, 6 percent ABV): One of those beers that brewers and aficionados fetishly adore. This oak-casked, naturally sour Belgian ale looks dark and heavy but is actually light in body with its nose of balsamic and loaded with briny, pickled cherry flavors.
4. Monteith’s Summer Ale (8,000 won at Beached Bar, 5 percent ABV): While Beached offers almost the full lineup of New Zealand’s finest beers, this malty, ginger-inflected summer ale is now offered year-round from a 150-year-old Kiwi brewing tradition. It is certainly one to try while enjoying beautiful Gwangalli.
5. Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout (8,000 won at Sharkey’s Gwangan, 5.8 percent ABV): From Anderson Valley, one of the most popular and celebrated American craft breweries, the carbonation of the Barney Flats perfectly lifts up the notes of coffee, toast and mocha, making it rich, dark and balanced.
Sudwerk brewmaster Michael Hutson, John Meyerriecks and Song Eun-jin contributed to this article.