Brewing in South Korea: Fiery food, boring beer

Here in the United States we are going through a renaissance in beer.  The craft beer craze is sweeping the nation, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for the rest of the world.  In South Korea, for example, the country is limited (for the most part) to one of two brewing companies.

The problem for South Korean boozers is that their national market is a cramped duopoly. Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewery (OB) have nearly 100% of it. Their beers are hard to tell apart; their prices, even harder. At five out of five shops visited by The Economist, their main brands all cost precisely 1,850 won ($1.70) per 330ml can.


Until 2011, regulations required all brewers to have enough capacity to brew well over 1m litres at a time. This in effect kept all but Hite and OB from bringing foamy goodness to the masses. Smaller producers were allowed to sell their beer only on their own premises.

This is just the type of thing that we’re trying to prevent here at Indy Beers.  But even in the face of this duopoly, there is hope.

However, only a handful of small brewers have risen to the challenge. One of them, Craftworks Brewing Company, is owned by a Canadian, Dan Vroon. Mr Vroon’s pub in Seoul is packed every night. But several hurdles still make it hard for him to sell his pilsners, stouts and pale ales more widely, he says.

Of Course, this hope comes at a cost.

Brewers are taxed heavily if they deliver their own beer. Craftworks’ unpasteurized brews must be kept chilled from the vat to the tap, which creates a problem. Cold distribution is a tiny, pricey niche. This is because the big boys don’t use it: their beers have their tasty, bureaucrat-bothering bacteria removed at the brewery. They can thus be delivered warm and then chilled in the pub.


Punitive tariffs prevent brewing experimentation. The Korean taxman treats malt, hops and yeast as beer ingredients, which are subject to low import duties. Anything else you might put in the brew is deemed an agricultural import, and thus a threat to the nation’s farmers. “Speciality grains like oats aren’t on the approved list, so we must pay more than 500% if we want to use them,” says Park Chul, another frustrated brewer.


Those who do not qualify for a wholesale licence have it even worse. Though they sell only through their own pubs, government inspectors place meters on their vats. These can become contaminated, causing costly stoppages. “It’s enough to drive you to drink,” sighs Mr Vroon.

So next time you’re out at the pub having a great craft beer from an independent brewer, remember, not everyone in the world who has access to beer gets good beer.


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