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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