An American brewer overcomes his roots

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An American brewer overcomes his roots

"Why is American beer served ice cold?" is the classic question. "So you can distinguish it from urine," comes the inevitable reply.

Yes, as anti-Americanism sweeps the nation, your writer is gleefully pandering to the masses by planting his boot squarely in the groin of America's liquid commerce. For while there is much to admire in the land of the free, educated drinkers find damn little to commend in most mass-market American brews. Weak-tasting, sweet, concocted with Grade-X cereals and chemical enzymes, these watery lagers are best suited to tickling the tonsils of Boy Scouts. But their spell has spread far and wide; even local beers here have not escaped their influence.

The grim prevalence of bland lagers is what drives us to seek refreshment in the deepest, darkest corner of Apgujeong, at an establishment that has Korea's (tiny) community of beer lovers abuzz. Rumor has it that here, at Platinum, genuine European-style suds are available.

First impressions are unpromising. Set in a dark basement, all is black, with highlights of neo-cool brushed aluminum and a giant TV screen. This could be any Apgujeong wine bar, jammed with fashion victims quaffing Chardonnay; it is far removed from a European pub ambience. But who is this defiantly unfashionable bearded gent striding across the floor, clad in jeans, waders and sweatshirt?

"Phillip Kelm, Beer Ambassador," says he, extending a paw. "They call me that 'cos when I arrived in Korea, not too many people here knew about beer."

Mr. Kelm speaks in the tones of his native Michigan. Michigan!? Yes: We have stumbled across a rare shining light of American beer culture. Educated at Chicago's Siebel Institute, Mr. Kelm joined the elite brewers who revolutionized the U.S. beer market in the 1990s: The microbrewers. He has personally set up micros on four continents; "Platinum" is the latest. "The guide books say 'When you come to Korea, don't plan on finding decent beer.' But I would like to change that, and show Koreans that all beers don't have to taste like water!" he says. Noble mission.

In the gloom behind the bar stand a row of vats containing Platinum's raison d'etre. Unlike Korea's other nascent micro-breweries, Platinum doesn't specialize in German or Czech style beers, but the brews of Belgium and the British Isles. Prices range from 4,500 won ($3.85) for a 360 cubic centimeter glass (a little over 12 ounces), to 7,800 won for 700 cc (24 ounces). In the interest of research, your correspondent sampled all five beers available -- it's a hell of a life.

Moving from light to dark, first up is Belgian white beer, brewed with wheat in the Hoegaarden style. Offering a strong coriander flavor -- more so than its foster parent -- this is superb, and is ideal suit to spicy Korean food. Next, English ale is a light brew, of moderate strength and hoppiness. Rather like a summer ale it is a pleasant starter beer. No. 3 is the house flagship: Platinum, an ale flavored with the famed American cascade hops, producing a uniquely zesty, almost citrusy tang. It is sharp and refreshing, with buckets of flavor. Brown ale follows. This is a maltier northern British style beer, with a hint of chocolate in the aftertaste. Finally, stout: not much of a nose on it, and not as bitter or creamy as Guinness, but with an oatmeal flavor and a touch of butterscotch in the mouth.

Complaints? All are served chilled, rather than at cellar temperature. "I'm trying to get management to change this, but it will take a while," growls Mr. Kelm. Future brews will include a barley wine (an extra strong English ale) and perhaps a persimmon or spiced beer.

Mr. Kelm is impressed with the softness of Korean water, but less so with Korean regulations: "Imported malts are taxed at 275 percent, there is a finished product tax of 130 percent and we have to source 40 percent of our cereals locally, but we can't malt them, so they are just thrown out," he says. Nor can micro brewers bottle their beer or distribute them in casks. Korea's long overdue granting of regulatory approval to brew pubs last March was commendable, but regulatory hands still hang heavy.

A range of salads, cheese and sausage platters, pastas, etc. make up the menu. We are recommended fettuccine with ham and baked cream sauce (12,000 won) and fried shrimp with pineapple mayonnaise (28,000 won). Both are okay. But frankly, we're here for the beer. Service is adequate, but in the murk, it can be tricky to catch wait staff's eye.

Verdict: Mr. Kelm is serving the finest suds in Seoul at present, and as such, he has restored my faith in American brewing. If you want to escape the miasma of bland lagers inundating Seoul, aim your belly at Platinum.

by Andrew Salmon
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