Beer criticism hard to swallow
The reputation of Korean beer has been degraded seriously. The British business weekly The Economist called Korean beers less tasty than North Korea’s Taedonggang Beer made with $3.5 million dollar second-hand equipment imported from Britain. The pride of South Koreans has been critically damaged. Of course, this reflects the British nationalistic view.
The London-based news agency Reuters was the first to praise the taste of Taedonggang beer in 2008. It described the North Korean beer as “a full-bodied lager a little on the sweet side, with a slightly bitter aftertaste” and “infinitely superior to the mass-marketed beers in South Korea.” Beer production facilities in the South are mostly imported from Germany.
However, we cannot blame it entirely on British patriotism. Korean consumers have become far more sophisticated. Now, Koreans say, “I cannot forget the taste of the Pilsner Urquell I had in Prague,” and “China has Tsingtao and the Philippines has San Miguel. But why are Korean beers known only for their celebrity endorsements?”
Every autumn, Korean beer lovers fly to Munich on chartered planes for Oktoberfest. Resident foreigners are also critical of Korean beer. They sarcastically call Korean beer “piss of the Devil.” English teachers’ Web sites ridicule Korean beer poignantly: “Hite is sHITE and Cass is cASS,” they say.
Korean beer companies are defensive about the criticism. They argue that the foreigners have overlooked the preference and characteristics of different beer-producing countries. Since Koreans enjoy beer with food, the bottom-fermented lager is more popular. Lagers dominate the world beer market, beating the darker and bitter British ales.
However, consumers are skeptical. The taste of beer is determined by aroma, body, aftertaste, mouth feel and strength. But Korean beer’s only strength is its cheap price tag. No matter how the producers make claims to quality, the consumers say otherwise, and that’s the end of the story.
Perhaps, the chronic illness of Korean alcoholic beverages can be found in an unexpected place. In short, they are overly under the control of the National Tax Service. In case of soju, the National Tax Service still has the ethanol distribution system. The Korea Ethanol Supplies Company still monopolizes the circulation of alcoholic beverages. The manufacturing of the beverage caps, too, is under the influence of the National Tax Service.
The function of the National Tax Service’s Technical Service Institute remains the same even after it changed its name from the Brewing and Distillation Laboratory. Beer is also restricted by invisible regulation of the National Tax Service. Until 2006, the government purchased the barley used to make beer and sold it to the beer companies. Now, beer companies grow barley on contract.
However, Korean malts are far more expensive compared to Eastern European imports. If they take the farmers into consideration, they have to compromise price competitiveness. In order to close the gap, they have to consider cheaper imported barley and hops.
Water, yeast, barley malt and hops are needed to make beer. Yeast is the business secret for each beer company. The composition of barley and hops changes the flavor and aroma. The most important secret is the 40 days of fermentation. Some blame the high-gravity brewing technique for the bland taste as it dilutes the alcohol content.
However, it is an unjust accusation, as this process is increasingly popular and is used by many world-class beers. In fact, one of the subjective standards for a good beer is head retention. When a foamy head is strong and lasting, the flavor and taste lasts longer. What can we say about the weak head of Korean beer?
Now, the administration of liquor tax should be separated from alcoholic beverage management. The National Tax Service can continue to be in charge of taxation but should transfer the management to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. When the regulations are lifted, we will get to enjoy a wider variety of beer. Then, Korean beer won’t be the target of international ridicule.
People say Korean beers taste better when mixed with soju. While beer companies claim that they export as much beer as is imported, most exports go to the low-end market in Japan. The criticism that Southern beers are inferior to Northern beers is not something we can laugh off. Korean consumers are seriously upset.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho