Korean Beer: Why It Sucks, and How It’s Getting Better
Last week, for our Fire Friday section, we published a piece about a craft beer company in Garosugil. In it, for the sake of contextualization, I wrote a little bit about the state of Korean beer and the craft brewing trend sweeping Seoul. But truthfully, there’s a lot more to say on the subject, and it’s one that warrants being discussed on its own.
Beer first started showing up in Korea in 1876, as a result of the Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity. This treaty caused an influx of Japanese cultural influence, including Japanese immigrants who brought Japanese beer with them. In 1905, Kirin breweries built facilities in Korea to aid with product distribution. Three years later, the first beer brewery opened in Seoul. By this point, beer was considered a luxury item, with more class and prestige than its Korean counterpart makgeolli.
Korea’s first real beer company, Jinro Breweries, was founded in 1924, followed by Chosun Breweries, initially a liquor-only distiller, and Showa Kirin Breweries, both established in 1933. In 1998, Chosun Breweries changed their name to Hite Breweries, and acquired Jinro Breweries in 2006, creating the now ubiquitous beer and liquor brand Hite-Jinro. In 1995, Showa Kirin Breweries changed their name to Oriental Breweries, or OB, which today is Hite-Jinro’s major competitor.
While the market has been dominated by these two giants for the better part of the century, one surprise underdog deserves to be mentioned; in 2014, Lotte Chilsung came out with Kloud, an ambiguously Germanic-styled malt lager. We’ll talk more about it in a bit, but it’s important to note that, for a beer with a vastly shorter history than the other two, Kloud has done surprisingly well in the market.
Both Hite-Jinro and OB have come out with myriad variations of their beers, ranging from low calorie versions to dark stouts. However, at any restaurant, sul jib, or convenience store, there are three main beers from these two breweries that are by far the most common. Hite-Jinro makes Hite Beer, a pale lager that was launched in 1993. Hite is brewed from barley malt and rice. OB makes all of the Cass beers, which originally were made by Cass Breweries and contain hops and rice. After Cass fell behind Hite in the 90’s, OB bought it up and took over production. OB also makes OB Golden Lager, which was released in 1948, and is a 100% malt beer.
As of 2016, OB accounted for 56 percent of the market, and Hite-Jinro held 37 percent. Lotte only held 5% as of 2015, but given that it had been released the year prior, it’s safe to assume it’s grown since then. If the presence of Kloud at bars, restaurants, and convenience stores is any measure, it’s grown a lot.
And yet, pretty much anyone will tell you these beers are, I’m sorry, trash. Don’t take my word for it; ratebeer.com aggregates ratings for basically every beer on the market from everywhere in the world. When referenced with every other beer in their system, OB Golden Lager holds a 4/100, and Hite has a 2/100. Cass Fresh clocks in at a solid 1/100. Well, 0.833, to be exact.
A 2012 Economist article brought a lot of controversy to the scene when it excoriated the quality of South Korean beers, going so far as to assert that they’re worse than North Korea’s national brew, Taedonggang Beer. The article posited that this was due to a number of byzantine legal restrictions on brewing, which is probably true, as well as dubious ingredient selection, which is a more hotly contested claim. “Some South Korean beers skimp on barley malt,” the article stated, “using the likes of rice in its place. Others are full of corn.” Korean brewers shot back, stating that most Korean beers contain at least 70% malt. The article also claimed the lack of flavor may be due largely to the removal of a flavorful bacteria that allows producers to ship the beer warm and then refrigerate it. Whatever the case, the outcome remains; these beers just aren’t good.
Certainly, it’s possible that regardless of how Korea’s commercial beers compare on the global market, the way they taste may just be what Korean beer drinkers are into. And while it does seem like Koreans are well aware that their Hite and OB brews are less than pleasant to drink by themselves, it’s worth considering that there may be some larger cultural context at play.
First of all, this blog claims that “90% of Korean beers are consumed after the drinker is too drunk to taste anything.” The source linked to this claim is a piece by the Korea Times about Korean binge drinking, which is a very real issue, and the article gives a lot of insightful statistics, but it doesn’t once make any mention of this 90%. So while I’m not sure as to the credibility of that number, the idea of it is, frankly, fucking hilarious and kind of scary.
More realistically, Korean beer has significant functionalities in Korean cuisine other than being consumed by itself. The extremely mild and slightly sweet flavor that is consistent among these top brews is great for mediating the strong flavors and spices of many Korean dishes. It makes sense that beers drunk mostly as dining companions rather than on their own would lack a lot of deep flavor, so as not to compete with the food.
The other thing to consider is that, even in a strictly drinking situation, beer is almost always accompanied by a bottle of soju. And what you might come to notice about Korean beer is that, as it is, it’s actually really good for making somek [소맥]. The mild taste and light metallic sweetness balance out the sharp alcohol hit from a standard bottle of soju, creating a drink that’s actually very similar to a bottle of Olde English or Colt 45. Granted, malt liquor isn’t the highest quality drink, but it’s cheap, it tastes decent enough, and it gets you fucked up. Somek is basically the same deal.
But no society can survive on drinks like somek alone, and especially not one where drinking is, for better or worse, an integral part of the culture. In came the craft beer movement, riding into Seoul on a wave of foreign business owners around 2010. Prior to this, the few beer bars that did focus on quality, drinkable-rather-than-chuggable brews, built their credibility around European themes and imports. Then, Dan Vroon opened Craftworks, ostensibly the first craft beer bar of its kind. Instead of shying away from negative associations with Korean beer, he sought to change them – the bar began a trend of naming their brews after Korean mountains and landmarks, something that has come to nationalize the movement.
While at first beers with such strong and varied flavors were unfamiliar and not necessarily pleasant to Korean palettes, the past several years has shown a huge boost in craft breweries and bars in Seoul. There are three factors that may have facilitated this massive trend.
First, as craft breweries became less the domain of exclusively expats, and Korean co-owners, owners, and brewers began taking control, they were able to tailor their brews more towards Korean tastes. This doesn’t mean making craft beers more similar to Cass and Hite, but rather toning down the bitterness of an IPA, or introducing a sweetness (and sense of national pride) by incorporating Jeju tangerines.
Second, the entire phenomenon of craft beer introduced a sort of paradigm shift; drinking beer by itself, slowly, and not expecting to get particularly drunk from the experience, is different from the traditional method of Korean alcohol consumption. In many senses, it’s enjoyable in a lot of different ways – there are nights for downing a few bottles of soju with the aid of a shitty glass of beer and making stupid choices, and then there are nights for hanging with friends and having a more chill couple of hours over a few beers worth savoring. While this change would have been new to Koreans at first, it isn’t inherently something the culture would reject. The now apparent popularity of the movement is evidence of that.
Finally, a growing propellant of the trend is likely that it is just that – a trend. Koreans are notorious for enthusiastically embracing trends at their inception, let alone ones that are occurring worldwide. Craft beers are, and for the last decade or so have been, cool in pretty much any city you go to. Seoul is not the city to accept being left out of such a movement.
While the craft beer movement may be a trend, regardless of whether it passes or not, it is almost certain to leave a lasting impact. Naturally, the introduction of Korean-made brews that Koreans can and should be proud of reshapes the standard of beer quality nationwide. The fact that these quality beers are being fitted to the Korean palette means that they aren’t “good” because an international community says they are – rather, it means that Koreans are making them how they want, still marking a new attention to quality that didn’t seem to exist in the beer market before. Additionally, having comfortably drinkable beers adds an alternative style of alcohol consumption to the binge drinking that, yes, plagues the nation. While soju, makgeolli, and even Korean beer can (and should) be consumed responsibly, having drinks that aren’t particularly strong and are genuinely pleasant to imbibe offers an option other than knocking back shots.
Ultimately, the craft beer movement exemplifies a shift that has resulted from Korea’s ever increasing acceptance of foreign influence. Whether or not you find this globalization positive or abhorrent, the outcome is the same: Korea’s beer selection has gotten much, much better. It’s been a long time coming.
Let us know what you thought of this week’s feature. While we accept submissions for every section, this one in particular is one we love to get pitches for, so hit our line if you have an idea and feel like writing about it.
Cover photo via flickr user ╬ಠ益ಠ).