Shopping around for an excellent brewWhatever happened to summer? The sun bypassed us this year, but the sweaty season didn’t. While Seoul is not quite the steamy concrete sauna it was a couple of weeks ago, the atmosphere remains humid enough to merit cooling down with a brew or two.
But where? And which brews? When it comes to beer in Korea, there is good news and bad news. First the bad news: Either it is my imagination, or Korean beers are getting blander than ever before. (Believe me, that is really saying something.) One light on the horizon last year was the opening of the microbrewery market. False hopes: almost every Seoul microbrew has been a disappointment. Two of the most prominent imported braumeisters left before their contracts expired, and virtually all now feature a basic range of only two or three beers, brewed with minimal skill and no panache.
The good news? All is not lost. Suds lovers, point your gut at the page as we investigate some of the finest and rarest purveyors of malted cereals in Seoul.
Pub: Three Alleys Pub
Subway: Itaewon station
The bar: Three Alleys is one of Itaewon’s most popular watering holes, run by a man who has never seen “Scarface” (“Don’t get high on your own supply”). Landlord Gunther Kamp has a formidable beer-drinking pedigree: of German extraction, Australian nationality and Korean residence, he is seldom spotted without a lager close at hand. His establishment includes an enclosed veranda, a bar (naturally), booths and pool tables and darts at the back. Above the bar are brass plaques bought by patrons, the proceeds donated to a North Korean charity. The pub’s X-rated neckties cannot be described in a respectable journal such as this. The place can be raucous, but the friendly Korean staff keeps things running when Herr Kamp is hors de combat.
The beers: Three Alleys claims the greatest range of draught beers in Seoul (Guinness, Becks, Fosters, OB, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe Dark, Red Rock). Recommendations? The Belgians. At 5,000 won ($4.25) Stella Artois is a strongly flavored, well hopped, bitter lager. Hoegaarden (4,500 won) is a spiced white wheat beer, offering a dry taste with a spritzy finish thanks to the coriander and orange peel added to the brew. The draught is creamier than bottles. Leffe Brun (5,000 won) is an Abbey-style dark ale, with taste by the ton; it is malty and fruity, but not overly heavy. Among the bottles is Strongbow, an English cider (7,000 won). Cider ― in English, not Konglish! ― is a carbonated apple wine, drunk like a beer, slightly stronger in alcoholic content and with a taste rather like champagne. I believe this is unique in Seoul. Also of note are the excellent Franziskaner wheat beers.
The food: Classic pub grub ― hearty, heavy and not too fancy. Bratwurst and pork loin (both served with mashed or sauteed potatoes) are hearty and authentic, while lentil curry (10,500 won) will light a fire for the beers to quench.
Ice Bar: JS Texas
Recommended beers: German
The bar: Has something gone horribly wrong with the decor here? It looks like the result of a clearance sale at a kitsch factory. Outside is an Elvis model, inside are a cowboy and a pink convertible with Marilyn Monroe at the wheel ― all in a European-style wooden interior. But for those with a raging thirst-on, the illuminated display of hundreds of beer bottles and alcho-pops from all over the world will get the juices flowing. Window tables offer views of the world passing by, while bar-style seating is available around the bottle-filled ice trenches set in the centers of elevated tables. Some of the beers are highly priced: this joint is, after all, set in the heart of the financial district, and is popular with investment banker-types on Fridays after hours. Service ranges from excellent to clueless.
The beers: Texas offers one of the best selection of cold bottles on the peninsula. From jolly old England, Old Speckled Hen (8,500 won) is an excellent copper ale, with a malty, raspy, gingery taste. But the real action here is from the Fatherland. The full range of Germany’s Erdinger wheat beers is offered. The Erdinger Pinkantus (13,000 won) is a dark brew with a caramel flavor and a huge body ― it is one of the world’s “chewiest” beers. The Erdinger Dunkel Wiessenbock is equally good. Another German wheat beer with an excellent pedigree is Schnieder Heffe Wiesse (12,000 won). This gives you maltiness, fruitiness and a touch of cloves. For a lighter beer, try the Munchen Hofbrau Oktoberfest (9,000 won), a fine Munich-style lager with a creamy aroma and a complex taste. For a touch more bitterness, a Paulener Pils (7,500 won) should do the job.
The food: Frankly, best avoided. Ever eaten in a beer hof and wished you hadn’t? This is more of the same.
Subway: Gangnam station, exit No. 8
The bar: The only microbrew I know of in Seoul that looks like a 21st-century entertainment establishment rather than an ersatz 19th-century German beer cellar. It is a three-floor place. The top floor (“Sky”) is pretty blah ― wood, potted plants and mirrors give it the ambience of a business bar ― but the ground floor (“Earth”) is tastier: brushed aluminum, black leather and the beer vats. Best of all is the basement: black and blue, with a water table bar in the center, and illuminated blue wave designs in the wall. Very funky ― a microbrewery for tomorrow.
The food: A creative mix of European, Asian and American, Platinum offers a cosmopolitan approach to beer fodder, with a menu matching dishes and beers. Korean green chili sausage (11,000 won) is a spicy porker with sauerkraut, while tuna black pepper sashimi steak (13,000 won) offers a sophisticated match of flavor and textures.
The beers: Platinum is the only micro in Seoul that offers international beer styles rather than simply German/Czech style beers, and is probably the only one with a world-class brewer. At the helm is Phil Kelm, one of the new-generation American microbrewers. In the same way that New World wine makers have rejuvenated some European vineyards, American microbrewers today lead world brewing trends. There are seven beers on tap, including a brown ale, a Belgian Wit, a German wheat and a Czech pilsener (all 6,000 won for 600cc). Recommendations? The English ale is a fine red bitter, with a fruity foretaste and a smooth character. The Irish stout is dark, coffeeish and bitter, with a pleasing caramel aftertaste. The best? Platinum is an English ale, brewed with the renowned American Cascade hop. It is dark, zesty and complex; clean but strong-tasting with a lingering bitterness. If this is not the finest ale east of Dover, I am teetotal. Splendid!
Shop: Hannam Supermarket
The place: Er ― what can I say? It looks like a supermarket ― and indeed, claims to be the place that coined that term in Korea. But this is no ordinary supermarket ― it has been catering to the expatriate community for 38 years. It is one of the only places outside, on one hand, the luxury department stores and the hotel delis, and on the other, the black-market “goblin stalls,” where a wide range of imported foodstuffs is available. And all at decent prices.
The food: Yes, there is lots of it, but the catch is, you have to take it home and cook it yourself. If you are really caught short, there is a small deli counter outside (“Hansel and Gretel”) which not only offers a great selection of cold cuts and cheeses, but also a range of sandwiches at lunch time.
The beers: Now we are talking. There is a great selection of beers from all over the world ― I counted 40 on my last visit. From Germany, the Erdinger and Franziskaner wheat beers, as well as Warsteiner Pils. From Belgium, there are the Leffe Abbey-style ales, as well as Hoegaarden and Stella Artois. From Ireland, the two famous stouts, Guinness and Murphys. From Scotland, Bellhaven ales. And from Holland, the grainy lager Grolsch, served in its handy pop-top bottles. For those brave souls nurturing a true championship beer belly, the stuff can be purchased by the crateful. All that are missing are English ales and Czech pilsners. Should one feel the urge to add a bit of taste to weaker lagers, bottled lime cordial is also available. And for those who have had quite enough of beer (congratulations for reading this far), there is also one of Seoul’s best selection of cheap ‘n’ cheerful wines, plus a full range of spirits.
by Andrew Salmon