JuliaMellor

Good Beer…Wherefore Art Thou?

In The Social Fabric on April 10, 2011 at 11:25 pm

With the warmer weather approaching, agonizingly slowly though it may be doing so, I find myself more in the mood for an afternoon beer.   Blue skies and warming sun are best accompanied by an outdoor bench and a cold draft brew.  Unfortunately, Korean beer is not a well championed achievement.  If you’re expecting to be overwhelmed by choice and range of domestic brews when frequenting the local Seoul barkeep, disappointment surely awaits.  Not to put too harsh a point on it, but each of the leading brands have their own unbecoming nickname to reflect their reputation.

Hite = Shite, Cass = Ass, and OB = BO.

After my recent sojourn in Australia, I was confronted with a mind-spinning array of range and choice in every kind of beer imaginable, a lot of them being domestically produced.   Australia of course has been a long time conn0isseur of all things beer and wine, and demand most definitely keeps supply in the green.  However, the capacity for Korean society to drink beer would give us Aussies a fair run.   Beer in Korea is currently a 3.5 trillion won industry ($3.1 billion US) with much of that revenue spent on more quality imports.  Koreans have an increasingly sophisticated palate, and their standards for good taste can be hard to satisfy.  So why do we put up with this flat, weak excuse for a beer as the domestic industry standard?

Essentially, the market is a duopoly.  The two breweries are Hite, and OB (Oriental Breweries), which bought out the flailing Cass Brewery in 1999.  Since then, these two giants have been supplying the nation more or less 50/50.  Whilst there are some microbreweries battling it out and forging the way, government regulation stands firmly in the way.  As of December 2010, the Ministry of Finance overseeing the liquor tax law lowered the manufacturing license from 1,850 kiloliters to 100 kiloliters.  Whilst this is a step forward, there’s still one massive obstacle for small beer crafters.   They can’t sell outside their own stores, and mostly only have a 25 kiloliter capacity anyway.  This means they still can’t expand.  And that means we’re still stuck with Shite, Ass and BO.

A peek at the North’s beer industry was far more interesting than the bipartisan beer government of the South.  In 2002, Kim Jong Il decided he wanted a brewery.  Well known for his curiosity for scientific achievements and his desire to replicate them, he did one better.  Instead of building his own brewery, he went out and bought one.  Ushers of Trowbridge, Wiltshire England to be exact.  For a price of 1.5 million pounds, Kim Jong Il had the whole brewery dismantled and reassembled in North Korea, complete with German brewing technology.

The brewery produces a beer named Taedonggang, named after the river running through Pyongyang.  Taedonggang beer could be bought in Gangnam since 2005, but due to an unexpected 70% price increase in 2007, supplies are now scarce.  The North captured headlines in 2009 when for the first time, a commercial for the beer was aired on North Korean TV.  Such capitalist trends set tongues wagging, though it surely couldn’t have been from it’s production style.  Certainly not ready for the Superbowl.


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