Game Changer in Korean Craft Beer
Sitting next to my Christmas tree, I cracked open a can of Craftbros’ Gangnam Pale Ale, and poured myself a glass. The dark golden color, stimulating bitterness, citrus aroma, and dense white head were all little Christmas miracles. Because for the first time in the history of Korean craft beer, I could drink one inside my own home.
I’d be amiss not to point out that 7Brau and Ark have brewed and bottled Korean craft beers for a while now. Yet 7Brau never seemed to really penetrate the market and Ark is much more familiar as bottled than draft beer. But now for the first time there are dozens of beers, from 23 different breweries, you can take out.
All this is made possible by a brand new pub in the French district of Seorae-maeul called Can Maker.
Can Maker opened in mid-December and will surely shake-up the Korean craft beer market for good. Owner Kimoon Kang, also owner of Craftbros and formerly of The Beer Post magazine, thinks the time is right to open a pub with 40 different beer taps, all serving locally brewed beer. “Now there are new breweries in Korea and the quality is incredible.”
Can Maker is the first pub in Korea to put beer in “crowlers.” Crowlers are empty cans that can be filled with draft beer for take out. The name comes from the take-out bottle version, called growlers. Crowlers are getting quite popular in the US, but until a regulation change in July 2016 they weren’t reasonable in Korea. Until then, only pubs that brewed their beer on sight could sell customers their beer to take home. The Hand and Malt started canning beer earlier this year but, until the law changed, you could only buy them to take home if you bought them at their brewery. Otherwise, you had to open them on the premise.
For Can Maker’s soft opening they had 36 taps serving beers from Korean brewing companies like Craftbros (which is Can Maker’s big brother, just next door), Ark, Weizenhaus, Goodman, September, Kabrew, The Table, Wild Waves, Playground, Hop Mori, Pong Dang, Gorilla, Pyrus, Galmegi, Amazing Brewing Company, Magpie, and more. They also served pre-canned Hand and Malt, and bottles of Ark and Goodman. Kimoon says he’s in talks with a few other local breweries, will rotate his tap selection, and is already planning tap takeovers.
This gift of Can Maker has come at the perfect time. It opened just before the Christmas season, and this year’s Lunar New Year’s will treats us with another holiday season at the end of January. Now, for the first time in Korean craft beer history, you can bring some locally made holiday beer to your parties, gatherings, or Netflix holiday binges.
“Now, for the first time in Korean craft beer history, you can bring some locally made holiday beer to your parties, gatherings, or Netflix holiday binges.
The steep discount for taking cans to go caught me off guard. Many were as low as KRW3,900, while the most expensive beer, Craftbros’ Cosmos IPA, cost KRW6,900. Having a glass in-house cost KRW2,000 extra per drink. The craft beer culture in Korea has set a reasonable price for beer at about KRW8,000 a glass, with some menus offering glasses for over KRW20,000, while anything around KRW6,000 a glass is a steal.
The prices are so low in part because the price of canning is negligible. The cans, the same ones used by Coca-cola, hold roughly 355ml of beer and cost the business less than KRW100 per unit. The cans at the soft opening followed the minimalistic metallic and analog design. Kimoon plans soon adorn the cans with multiple designs and has already invested in a computer program that prints Starbucks-style labels on each can so you’ll know what you’re drinking. Another thing Can Maker does, which should be standard with every pub but is frustratingly absent, is include the name, style, and brewing company of each beer.
The canning process itself is pretty fascinating. The device looks kind of like a sewing machine. Upon first seeing it I asked Kimoon how easy was it to use? “It’s very easy,” he replied. “Just five seconds.” The bartender simply pours the draft beer into the can, puts on a lid, and the device spins it around. Can Maker advises customers to drink the beer as soon as possible to ensure maximum freshness, but I’ve opened a can days later and it was perfect. Online, people recommend drinking them within three days, or two weeks, or even several months later.
Can Maker is now the premier spot, not just for take-out, but for sampling a wide selection of Korean craft beer — so I invited some savvy beer geeks to join me in sampling every single one of them.
“Can Maker is now the premier spot, not just for take-out, but for sampling a wide selection of Korean craft beer — so I invited some savvy beer geeks to join me in sampling every single one of them.
Bill Miller, known as “The Beerfather,” is an influential homebrewer and the recipe master behind some of Korea’s signature beers including the Maloney’s Combat Zone IPA. As a hop-head, he tasted all nine IPAs on the menu. Standing out above the rest was, first and foremost, Goodman IPA (6.2% / KRW 4,900 take out). Next was the Craftbros Cosmos IPA (6.3% / KRW 6,900). And the third favorite was the Budnamu Double IPA (8.5% / KRW 4,900).
Nicky Lee, owner of The Bottle Shop, was responsible for covering the eight pale ales. His favorite of the night was the oddly named Goodman Table Beer Pale (3.1% / KRW4,900). Next was Craftbros Gangnam Pale Ale (5.9% / KRW4,900) and Hidden Track’s Elysse Pale Ale (5.3% / KRW4,500).
Our photographer, Robert Evans, tried the porters, stouts, honey brown, and amber ales. He really liked Amazing Brewing Company’s Shocking Stout (8.5% / KRW4,500), the Magpie Porter (5.5% / KRW4,500), and the Goodman Table Beer Amber (3.3% / KRW4,900).
Finally, I tried all five wheat beers (Weizens and Wits), as well as their two sours and two saisons. Although hard to admit with my undeniable masculinity, I really enjoyed Craftbros Snow White Ale (5.0% / KRW5,500) and Princess Weizen from Weizenhaus (5.0% / KRW3,900). I also enjoyed the sour Surleim Plus from WIld Waves (6.0% / KRW4,500) and the Goodman Garden Saison (5.5% / KRW4,900).
Some of the beers had off-flavors, which is sadly still normal for craft beer in Korea. The industry is very young and immature. Whether it’s a problem of brewers not being consistent with their batches, or troubles with transporting beer while maintaining freshness, or pub standards for cleaning taps and proper storage, you’re bound to come across some bad beers. In this case, I don’t think Can Maker is at fault as many of the beers were delicious and Craftbros always serves delicious beer. The main thing to do if you come across a flawed beer is politely explain that it’s bad and ask your server for another one. But don’t write that beer off forever. Even with my favorite imports like North Coast’s Old Rasputin, a world-renowned beer, I’ve had a bad bottle. With locally brewed draft beer the probability of an off-batch is increased, but that’s the growing pains of going from a country with only bad industrial lagers to one of the best Asian countries for craft beer in the span of half a decade.
Overall, Goodman Brewery was the big winner on the night, followed by Craftbros. A relatively new and still mostly unknown brewery, all of Goodman’s beers were solid at worst and really tasty at best. Their quality also surprised owner Kimoon Kang, who now carries all of Goodman’s bottles and planned a tap takeover for Goodman at the end of December.
In the meantime, I look forward to trying lots of new Korean beer and seeing what rotates through Can Maker’s lineup over the next few months. And with their beer in cans, I also look forward to enjoying many more of those delicious beers in the comfort of my home.
Address: 17, Sapyeong-daero, 22-gil, Seocho-gu
Hours: 6pm-1am; closed on Mondays