Something's brewing ...A quart of ale is a drink fit for a King.
The glass brims with froth as the European gentleman raises it to his lips. He pauses, passes his nose over the rim and inhales. He takes a draft. He savors it. His eyes close; a smile spreads across his face. Reverently replacing his mug on the bar, he says, quietly but forcefully, "That is a real beer!"
Southern Germany? Actually no ?southern Seoul. Welcome to Korea's first microbrewery.
A microbrewery is an operation producing niche beers for sale on the premises, and/or for limited bottling. This means beers produced by master brewers, not factory assistants, using high-quality natural cereals rather than artificial preservatives and ersatz grains. Micros produce many fine brews in Europe, and have transformed America's liquid landscape: While there were only 40 breweries in the United States in the 1970s, by the late '90s there were over 1,000. The rise in gourmet culture spurred changes in drinking habits ?educated drinkers switched from heavy consumption of cheap, mass-market beers to lighter consumption of more expensive, but higher-quality beers.
Considering the alacrity with which U.S. trends are seized upon in Korea, it is odd that local brewers did not found micros long before this summer. After all, there has been a microbrewery operating in Pyeongyang for several years. What stopped South Koreans?
In short, the law. For tax reasons, breweries were permitted only to produce beer in factory-sized batches. (Oddly, this law did not affect manufacturers of makgeoli and dongdongju, two Korean traditional alcoholic beverages. Being brewed from grains, being of moderate alcoholic content, and by dint of social history ?they used to be drunk by agricultural workers in the fields ?these are technically beers, not wines. But that's another story.) Lobbying by European interests finally led to legal changes this March. Hot on the heels of this regulatory change have appeared two Seoul micros.
The Chosun Hotel-managed "O'Kim's Brauhaus" opened on June 28 in a ground-floor food court in the COEX mall in southern Seoul. Here, shining copper brewing vats dominate the square bar. The German brewmaster Dominic Tapa trained in the Mecca of beer, Munich, and set up the facilities as well as produced the first batch. Currently he serves two beers: a helles (a mild, malty lager) and a hefeweisse (wheat beer), each 4,800 won ($4) for 400 milliliters. The former is pale, rather dry, with a light, hoppy aftertaste. The latter has a cloudy, coppery color, a smoky, slightly gingery taste, and a gentle aftertaste. Both have solid bodies and excellent, long-lasting heads. They are superb brews, and there are plans to add seasonal beers.
Service, however, is problematic: This writer waited 15 minutes before discovering that service is via chits from the checkout, not at the bar. No staff made this clear. Also, for a pub producing German-style beers, the name seems odd: Would "Von Kim's" not be more appropriate? "Well, the Chosun has an Irish Pub called O'Kim's," explains Mr. Tapa. Ah.
The second micro opened on July 12: Gangnam's "Oktoberfest," named after the Munich festival that is to beer lovers a pilgrimage they must make at least once. It is a subterranean beer hall: wooden floors, faux brickwork, hanging lanterns, all backed by the copper brewing vats. A selection of cereals and a glass of brewers' yeast are out for the curious. Three beers are served by brew-master Bang Ho-gwon, a Korean who learned his trade at Munich Technical University: a pilsner (a hoppy, Czech-style golden lager) a dunkel (a dark lager) and a weisse. All are available in a tasting set of three glasses for 8,800 won. A Berliner weisse (a light wheat beer, often flavored with fruit cordial) is in the works, "but I haven't got it quite right yet," Mr. Bang says.
The pilsner has a golden color and flowery aroma, but is weak in the mouth and seems undercarbonated. However, it offers a powerful aftertaste. The weisse has a strong nose, a refreshing, smoky dryness, but lacks body. Finally, the dunkel offers a slightly burnt bouquet, and a strong, woody taste, almost like a British or Irish stout. Food is also served. Lunch is an unexciting 7,700 won set, but in the evenings a German menu includes fish salad and various sausages.
The above is great news for beer lovers ?but not everything is rosy. "Our company, Caspary, has installed147 microbrews from Norway to Japan," Mr. Tapa says, "but only in Korea do we need official permission and tests every time we introduce a new beer. And we can't bottle it." Afficionados will also note that both micros produce German and Czech style beers, leaving the world's other great brewing traditions ?the ales, lambics and fruit beers of Belgium, and the ales, stouts and porters of the British Isles ?unrepresented.
But it is a start. With the sweaty season of 2002 well under way, the global beer wave has finally washed over Korea. Prost!
Beer: A drinker's guide
Beer is the world's oldest alcoholic beverage: the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians all produced it. Today, this brew of cereals ?usually barley or wheat ?plus hops in water is the world's most popular alcoholic beverage. Below, we list some of the major beer styles and recommended brands available in Korea.
ALE (Belgium/Germany/United Kingdom): Basically, a top-fermented beer, usually red or brown in color. Britain is today the world's major ale producer, but few British ales travel well. Ales match meats and strong cheeses. Brands: Duvel and Leffe (Belgium), Dubels (Germany), Newcastle Brown (U.K.). Serve cellar temperature (about 11 degrees centigrade).
LAGER (Global): German monks discovered that ales stored in vats (lagers) in cool caves fermented from the bottom, not the top, stabilizing the brewing process. Darker lagers such as Negra Modelo (Mexico) and Red Rock (Korea) match pizza and pork; pale lagers such as Heineken and Grolsch (Netherlands) suit various dishes. Serve chilled (about 5 degrees centigrade).
PILSNER (Czech Republic): Named after the town of Pilsen, this was the world's first golden lager. Pilsen was a center for glass manufacturing, so the color of the beer was noted and widely copied. Today, a pilsner refers to a well-hopped golden lager. Excellent as an aperitif or with fish (including sashimi). Brands: Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (Czech Republic); Warsteiner (Germany). Serve chilled.
STOUT (Britain/Ireland): A strong, heavy version of London porter, a black beer made of roasted barley. Matches shellfish and egg dishes. The most famous brand is also the world benchmark: Ireland's Guinness (hideously expensive in Korea). Serve cellar temperature.
WHEAT BEER (Belgium/Germany): Dry, refreshing, frothy beers with enough taste to handle strong smoked or spiced foods. Brands: Hoegaarden (Belgium), Erdinger and Franziskaner (Germany). Store chilled: Allow to stand before drinking.
Beer: A hunter's guide
Apart from the micros noted above, where in Seoul can one find decent brews? After all, most local pubs (hofs) serve bland local lagers and demand expensive bar food (anju) of dubious quality be bought. However, while import beers occupy less than 2 percent of the local market, there exist a growing number of bars, pubs and shops where decent suds can be drained. Thirsty? Read on...
BEER TO GO (Banpo district):
For beer-lovers, simply the finest shop on the peninsula. Sells a range of 180 beers and alco-pops from Korea, Europe, the Americas and Asia. ... Heaven!
Being south of the river, this pub is slightly more expensive than those north, but the decor ?tall windows, dark woodwork, painted shields on the wall ?and the street-side seating imparts the most authentic British or Irish ambience in Seoul. Recommendation: Draught Guinness
Subway: Gangnam, line No. 2
HANNAM SUPERMARKET (Hannam-dong):
This establishment, which claims to be the first shop in Seoul to call itself a "supermarket," offers a strong range of bottles. Noteworthy are the German and Belgian selections, particularly Duvel and San Sebastian, the grand cru of ales
Subway: Hangangjin, line No. 6
OH & OH (Sinchon):
This ill-lit, second-floor student bar insists on music at unrelentingly thunderous levels. Why come? Simply because the ice filled trenches set into the table-tops offer one of Seoul's most eclectic selections of beer and alco-pops. Recommendations: Sam Adams Lager, Paulaner Hefe Weisse
Directions: Diagonally across from Sinchon Rail Station, on the right.
Subway: Sinchon or Ewha University, line No. 2.
QUEEN'S HEAD (Hongik University area):
Apart from the name and hanging sign, there is nothing particularly British about this pub, but the balcony and terrace offer pleasant al fresco drinking opportunities. Recommendations: Draught Guinness or bottled Leffe.
Subway: Hongik University, line No. 2, or Sangsu, line No. 6.
3 ALLEY PUB (Itaewon).
Popular expat hangout offering Seoul's widest range of taps. The windows and doors of the enclosed forecourt are opened up to the street in clement weather. Australian/German owner Gunther Kamp also cooks up some of the best bar food in town. Recommendations: Draught Hoegaarden, bottled Erdinger
Subway: Itaewon, line No. 6.
Evenings only. Closed Tuesdays
by Andrew Salmon