Seeking out the craft beer scene in Seoul

One of the biggest adjustments we’ve had to make in Seoul is the drinking culture – more specifically living with the lack of craft beer options.

Hailing from Michigan, home of Beer City USA, my husband Michal and I found drink ordering difficult when it seemed that only low-quality beers were at our disposal in Seoul. However, we didn’t give up on our search: Facebook groups like Seoul Brew Club saved us by providing two recommendations in town – Mikkeller and Magpie.

Setting the standard:

As Michiganders, we’re used to drinking Founders from Grand Rapids, Bell’s from Kalamazoo, Dragonmead from the Detroit area and so on.

Michigan microbrewery highlights from the summer before moving to Seoul. We used Michal's old kegerator to serve Bell's Oberon on tap at our Going Away Party.
Michigan microbrewery highlights from the summer before moving to Seoul. We used Michal’s old kegerator to serve Bell’s Oberon on tap at our Going Away Party.

Not to mention, Michal became a homebrewer around five years ago when we lived in Chicagoland, and then later did consulting projects with local beer startups in Charlottesville, Virginia when he was doing his MBA. We’ve grown discerning in our beer taste buds, as Michal prefers hoppy, bitter IPAs while I prefer sour Belgians.

Left: Michal at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in California. Right: Michal at a brewery in Phuket, Thailand.
Left: Michal at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in California (2013). Right: Michal at a brewery in Phuket, Thailand (2013).

We drink beer for the flavor, often visiting microbreweries all over the U.S. and abroad when we’re on vacation, trying out several brews in samplers or flights as often as possible.

Left: Samples/flight at a pub in Cambridge, England (2014). Right: Bottled beer vending machine in Vienna - I was excited to bring the chili pepper beer home! (2012)
Left: Samples/flight at a pub in Cambridge, England (2014). Right: Bottled beer vending machine in Vienna – I was excited to bring the chili pepper beer home! (2012)

Usual suspects in Seoul:

We were aware of what we were getting ourselves into with Korea’s budding beer scene. The majority of the time we go out for dinner/drinks, we experience the following:

  • Limited brands – Beer (or mekju) in Korea is typically a cheap, watery lager with a low ABV: Hite, OB, Cass. Plastic two-liters, or glass 40s, are shared among a large group like pitchers in the U.S. The beer drinking glasses aren’t pints, but smaller cups.
  • Less focus on flavor – Beer always seems to be more of a vehicle for stronger alcohol. Usually, soju (rice liquor) fortifies the tasteless beer to make a mixed drink called “somek.” Our Korean friends liken soju to very cheap vodka, as it’s a clear liquor. The soju ABV ranges anywhere from 14-25 percent (red cap indicates the highest ABV) and they can come in fruit flavors. Most often, somek is the drink of choice in big groups and compliments a large dinner like Korean BBQ.

Confirmation that quality craft beer exists in Seoul:

  • Mikkeller

We arrived in Seoul just in time – the second Asian outlet location of Mikkeller opened in late June of this year. (There are only five total in the world.) Michal and I were excited, as Mikkeller is well-known for its wide variety obtained through “gypsy brewing” (not owning an official standing brewery but instead collaborating with and brewing on-location of other established breweries).

Located within Sinsa-dong in Gangnam and serving small plates of French-style food with a Korean twist to accompany the beer, the overall feel is bit more upscale. Some dishes had fairly ostentatious presentation like the beet salad over the dry ice and the salmon with the glass-encompassed smoke. The food was high quality, and we even met the chef who studied in France, but it’s important to note that you won’t get full easily and the prices are higher than the average bar food.

And now presenting: the most beautiful beet salad I've ever seen!
And now presenting: the most beautiful beet salad I’ve ever seen!

The bartenders were English-speaking and accommodating with call-ahead seating for a large group, as my husband invited co-workers and spouses for a Happy Hour get-together. They were also knowledgeable about the beer, as we were able to tell them our likes and dislikes, and they were able to find beers matching our preferred palates from among the 30 beers on tap. I happily got my favorite sour taste from a taste of the Lingonberry on draft. My husband and his co-workers were also impressed with the high ABV bourbon-barrel beers – some upwards of 20 percent.

First round at Mikkeller. Staff was very understanding - letting us save seats for other co-workers who would join later in the night. (I highly recommend doing this, even during the week, as it got very busy at night while we were there.)
First round at Mikkeller. Staff was very understanding – letting us save seats for other co-workers who would join later in the night. (I highly recommend doing this, even during the week, as it got very busy at night while we were there.)

Magpie

Close to our apartment, we walked to the Itaewon location of Magpie Brewing Co. one weekend. Our experience here was more a chill, hipster haven rather than that of a European trendsetter – something more closely resembling our Midwest microbrewery days. Beers are brewed on the premises by a group of expat friends with a desire to be innovative.

The Itaewon location has an upstairs bar with less music and more light, along with a basement bar (in a separate building) that is larger, louder and darker. Easy bar snacks like spiced nuts and cheese are available upstairs, while homemade pizzas are downstairs. As a couple on a date night, Michal and I opted to stay upstairs, but noted how the downstairs would be perfect for a group of friends out on the town. Not to mention, one of the co-owners was behind the bar and we started up a conversation about expat life.

Overall, there is good variety in the beer selection with IPAs, a porter and a gose on tap. I, of course, had a taste of the brew on tap that had the lowest IBU – the mildly sour Gose, named The Ghost. The little bit of coriander, salt and citrus made it slightly tangy. The spicy nuts had quite a kick and the creamy sharp cheddar was a necessary pairing to cool the heat and make it palatable as a beer accompaniment.

Date night in Itaewon/HBC: Happy to find American expats who know their beer at Magpie.
Date night in Itaewon/HBC: Happy to find American expats who know their beer at Magpie.

Beer is better in the U.S.

Ultimately, the craft beer scene is slowly becoming more common in Seoul, as I’ve started to read articles like this one about the deregulation of brewing laws that once made it difficult to make small, artisanal batches here. However, at the same time, there are many wary critics out there who see the scene is more of a passing trend, rather than a mainstay or a lifestyle like it has become in the U.S.

Beer Buddies: Top left - Michal's birthday celebration at Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Virginia (2015). Top Right: Stone Brewing Co. in SoCal with friends (2013). Bottom: Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado with family (2013).
Beer Buddies: Top left – Michal’s birthday celebration at Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Virginia (2015). Top Right: Stone Brewing Co. in SoCal with friends (2013). Bottom: Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado with family (2013).

It’s helpful to have found a few gems in the rough. Any other suggestions for microbreweries or craft beer bars to check out in Seoul?

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Halloween Spirit in Seoul

I’m a big ‘fraidy cat so Halloween isn’t my fav holiday.

I used to put myself through scary movies and haunted houses as a child and preteen, but in late high school and undergrad, I outgrew these once adrenaline-pumping experiences as they became more anxiety inducing.

Two anecdotes contributing to my distaste for all things creepy and crawly:

  • Senior year of high school – A couple classmates played a prank on me by sending “the video” (signaling impending death) from horror flick The Ring. I immediately took the TV out of my bedroom.
  • Senior year of college – I tried out my first haunted corn maze (so Midwest) with my cousin and other friends. My cousin and I moved slowly through the maze with our eyes half-closed, clutching each other. We were so frightened that one particular frustrated employee actually stopped his act, took off his mask and reassured us that were fine, encouraging us to move more quickly so the line didn’t get too long.
Jersey Shore Halloween
Halloween undergrad reunion in EL (2010)

With this context in mind, Michal and I have pretty much only truly celebrated the holiday and done couple costumes a handful of times in the years we’ve been together – and usually because there was a specific event we were attending.

One Halloween highlight is when we returned to East Lansing to reunite with friends from undergrad and revisited classic dive bars to relive those glory days. At this point in time, reality TV show “Jersey Shore” was really popular so I was Snooki and Michal was The Situation.

Halloween Hi-jinks in Seoul

Now living in Seoul, we have discovered Halloween is more of a holiday for expats with local Koreans who are out to enjoy the show. First case in point: The only time/place we saw groups of children and parents trick-or-treating was in Hannam-dong – the neighborhood known for its international community as it houses all the embassies.

Getting later into the night, we attended a party hosted by Michal’s co-workers with mostly expat guests, and then attempted bar-hopping in the infamous foreigner-friendly Itaewon neighbhorhood. The expats were all decked out and some had clever costumes like one group I spotted who were Legos (was definitely a DIY Pinterest-type project). Most of the Koreans were not dressed in full costume, or instead had simple costume accents like some scary make-up or animal ears.

Itaewon Halloween 2015
Walking the streets in Itaewon on Halloween night was at times impossible with the crowd!

Michal was out of town for most of October on his business trip, so we came up with costumes separately. I decided to be Agnes from the Pixar movie Despicable Me because I thought the costume would be easy to put together. (Most people thought I was a Minion, which I was fine with because it at least was a related character.) Michal was – cleverly – an MSU Spartan. (Most people reacted with “boos” because we know a lot more U of M grads than MSU in Seoul.)

Halloween costumes in Seoul
Our Halloween costumes in Seoul: Agnes from the movie Despicable Me and an MSU Spartan warrior.

Tips and Tricks with Costumes in Seoul

All dressed up for Halloween with the ladies at the party!
All dressed up for Halloween with the ladies at the party!

GMarket: I got the overalls and yellow T-shirt from this Amazon-like website based in Korea. Make sure to select the English version of the site and search using Google Chrome so you can right-click to translate pages when needed. When some of the drop-down menus were in Korean, I would use the Google Translate app on my phone to quickly understand the options. Shipping is fast (got my clothes in just a couple days) and prices are mostly fair depending on the product/item.

Namdaemun Market: This ginormous open-air market is known for whole sale. Michal found a few stalls dedicated to Halloween with costume options and accessories. As he already had a Spartan flag and shirt at home, he only bought the helmet and the spear for a decent price (under $15 total with some bargaining). Make sure to bring cash to these types of markets and always ask for a discount – especially if buying more than one item.

What a majority of our friends/colleagues did:

  • Borrowed costumes from other friends or put together a homemade outfit.
  • Selected some easy accessories to buy like cat ears or witches hats from street vendors in Itaewon and paired these with items already in their closet.
  • Bought costumes from the few pop-up shops that are available in Seoul. Check out this link for a recent TimeOut Magazine article, but keep in mind these shops may not exist next year.

*For the adventurous – Some guy friends bought costumes from “role play” sections of stores. (Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?) The biggest differences with these costumes were that they were a bit risqué and had titles that were suggestive spin-offs. (i.e. Julius Caesar costume was called Julius Pleaser.) They ended up making their outfits passable/more conservative by wearing a shirt underneath the original top.

October Book Buddies

Another fun Halloween-related activity Michal and I participated in was hosting a book club get-together. (Meetings are held at the end of the month after reading.) The club is typically composed of spouses of Michal’s co-workers, but I chose a book that would have some appeal to both crowds and that also had a movie version out – The Martian so that the turnout would yield more attendance/participation. It ended up being an entertaining discussion comparing/contrasting the book and movie version.

Michal brought back a ton of Mars brand candies from his U.S. business trip to share with the group and to go with the theme. And, with this week’s Gachi CSA shipment, I made some American autumn treats like caramel apples and slow cooker vegetarian chili with all the fixings. (Slow cooker stews are the easiest and most efficient way to clean out the fridge and use up veggies before they go bad!)

October 2015 Book Club
October 2015 Book Club Meeting: American Autumn classics

The caramel apples were Koreanized as I made them out of mini-apples, very common in local produce, and with skewers instead of Popsicle sticks because these are cheap and easy to find. Overall, I liked this version better than the usual size apples because caramel apples tend to be overwhelmingly sweet and too big. A couple bites is usually just enough. And there were a few people who had never tasted a caramel apple before, so this was just an introduction.

What’s next for expat holiday experiences?

I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like to be in Seoul for Thanksgiving. It should be interesting among the expat community with the turkey shortage due to Avian Flu …

What have been your favorite Halloween costumes? And if you live in Seoul, how do you celebrate Halloween? Got any suggestions for me for next year?