Tapping into microbrews

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Tapping into microbrews

Fact: Until seven months ago, there were more microbreweries in North Korea than the South.

That's because the North's enlightened leaders allowed the construction of three microbreweries to satisfy the needs of its parched politicos, while the South's bureaucrats steadfastly refused to permit the small-scale production of beer.

South Korea's law was revised in March 2002. Seoul's first microbreweries, O'Kim's Brauhaus and Oktoberfest, opened in southern Seoul last summer. Since then, two more microbreweries, De Bassus and Platinum, have opened in southern Seoul. A fifth microbrewery, Free Crocodile, has been operating in the shadows for years. More on that later.

O'Kim's Brauhaus serves as many as 2,000 customers on weekend evenings; it sells 500-800 liters of beer a day. A 400 cc glass costs 4,800 to 5,600 won ($4.10-$4.75).

The most popular brew is hefeweizen, a wheat beer with a mild taste and a hint of vanilla. It's made from a wheat-barley malt mixture that's fermented for 15 days. Dunkles is a darker variety of wheat beer, made from four kinds of German grains and fermented for 20 days. It's tasty and slightly bitter.

The man behind O'Kim's is Joachim Kilian, a German brew master. He has been brewing beer in Seoul with a Korean brewer, Johnnie Oh, for the past six months. "Unfiltered fresh beer leaves the yeasts alive. Like yogurt, fresh beer is good for drinkers' health, especially for diet and digestion," proclaims Mr. Oh.

Popular side dishes at O'Kim's are the assorted sausage platter (25,000 won), German pork knuckles and sausages (35,000 won) and the house special of nacho chips, fried chicken and fruits (32,000 won).

Oktoberfest is owned and run by Michael Paik and Bang Ho-kwon, two Koreans who spent extensive time sampling German brews at their source. Mr. Paik was studying at the University of Munich in the late 1990s when he teamed up with Mr. Bang, who had learned his trade in Germany.

Oktoberfest sells about 450 liters of beer a day. A 500 cc glass costs 5,000 won.

The pub's weissbier has a sour-fruity taste with a hint of apricot flavor. It's made from a wheat and barley malt and takes takes two to three weeks to ferment. The pilsner is Oktoberfest's tasty variation of the popular, blond brew. Unlike its tepid American cousins, this pils has a bitter tang and rich flavor. It starts with a grapefruit-like zing and ends with a clean finish. Dunkles is made from roasted barley, which has a light flavor with a bitter-sweet aftertaste. Dunkles is usually served in a broad-rimmed glass to better appreciate its aroma.

Oktoberfest also offers import bottled beer: Krombacher Pils, Hoegaarden and Schneider Weisse. A popular side dish is frankfurters (11,000 won) served with a mustard sauce.

De Bassus, which opened in November, features three fresh beers. Brew master Michael Bez, from Stuttgart, makes helles, dunkles and weizen. Beer is sold either unfiltered or filtered; Bez says the two taste pretty much the same.

De Bassus serves about 150 customers daily, and sells about 2,000 liters of beer each week. Its three beers cost 6,000 won for 500 cc.

The most preferred brew is helles. De Bassus's helles is a light-colored beer, which tastes bitter and sweet at the same time. Its dunkles has the round, full taste of malt. The weizen has a light, distinctively smooth banana flavor.

For thirstier drinkers, De Bassus offers a 55,000-won glass flute that holds five liters (or 1.3 gallons) of beer. Bottled beers from Germany include Bock, Helles, Weizen Dunkel and Radler.

To complement the beer, Mr. Bez recommends schwein haxen (30,000 won) and sausages (25,000 won). He says schnitzel, the traditional fried pork cutlet, will be added to the menu next month. To satisfy Seoul's growing demand for fresh-brewed beer, De Bassus is opening another pub, Bavarian Brau, near Gangnam subway station in southern Seoul this March.

Before these highly publicized, high-priced German-style pubs came along, Seoul had its own home brewery. As early as 1994, Kim Ju-su had established a private facility called Blue Beer Lab in Haebangchon-dong, Yongsan district, and was experimenting with brewing. His first beers were very bitter and dark, but homesick American soldiers near Yongsan loved them.

Unlike other local brewers, Mr. Kim says he has specialized in British-style ale made from relatively cheaper American grains, using a top-fermentation process.

In 1997, he opened the pub Free Crocodile in the back streets of Sinchon, near Yonsei University in northwestern Seoul. He moved his brewery to Yongin, Gyeonggi province, and named it Blue Brew Lab.

If microbrewing was illegal back then, how did Mr. Kim manage to make his beers? Mr. Kim claims he used a "secret method" that safely skirted government regulations. Be-cause of the mystery, Free Crocodile had something of a cult following among American GIs and Korean university students.

Today, Free Crocodile serves three types of beer. A 500 cc glass costs 2,500 won.

Porter is the darkest. Made from roasted malt, it has a strong, toasty, bitter taste with a clean aftertaste. Stout is a medium-strength, dark beer that is milder and sweeter than porter. Brown ale has a lasting flavor with a mixture of sweet and bitter tastes. It is the lightest of the beers and generally preferred by women.

To accompany the brews, the manager Kim Eui-tae recommends a plate of four kinds of German sausages that are served with a sweet mustard sauce (9,500 won).

As a home brewer, Mr. Kim used to make just 40 liters of beer at a time. Now that he's approaching microbrewery levels, he's making 10 times the amount. "As the oldest brewer in Korea, I feel I have the know-how [to succeed]," he says.

He says both technique and ingredients separate Free Crocodile from its competitors. "I've been developing a Korean brewing system to cut costs," he says, "while other breweries rely on expensive imports."

by Ines Cho
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