Expat homebrewers introduce craft beer to Korea
May 02, 2012
For decades, beer drinkers in Korea have had limited options. But as Korea becomes increasingly interconnected with the outside world, more and more alternatives are becoming available to its residents. More and more imported beers can be found in grocery stores, and microbreweries are popping up across the country. And out on the cutting edge, there are the homebrewers.
Homebrewing is exactly what it sounds like: brewing homemade beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages, usually in small amounts for personal consumption. Homebrewing is practiced around the world, although laws differ from country to country. In Korea, where regulations governing beer production have recently been relaxed, there has been an explosion of craft beers brewed by individual hobbyists, many of them foreigners residing in Korea.
“Due to the law there is no profit involved,” explains American homebrewer Troy Zitzelsberger, “but most of us wouldn't be in it for money even if we could make a profit. This is just a hobby for all homebrewers here.”
To British homebrewer Rowan Chadwick, making craft beers is “entirely a loss-making hobby! I make beers simply for the pleasure of it and the pleasure of sharing them,” he says.
Much of the activity of the foreign homebrewers revolves around www.homebrewkorea.com, an online resource for beer brewing. It offers a community forum where brewers can share recipes and ask for advice, an online store selling hard-to-find equipment and ingredients, and a blog offering the latest events and news on Korea’s beer-brewing scene and beer laws in Korea.
“For expats (and some Koreans, I’m sure), homebrewkorea.com has been the epicenter of brewing here,” says Jason Lindley, one of the active homebrewers in Korea. “I don’t think I’d have gotten over a lot of the hurdles of brewing in Korea if it weren’t for that site.”
Lindley was introduced to homebrewing four years ago, while visiting friends in Portland, Oregon. His friend’s roommates were brewing their own oatmeal stout in the kitchen, and he was hooked. “I’d never seen it done before but absolutely knew that I had to try it once I got back to Korea,” he recalls.
Homebrewers such as Lindley produce beer for small-scale consumption, usually sharing their products with friends or exchanging at beer-tasting events or competitions with other brewers. Lindley runs an annual event called Fermentation Celebration, inviting amateur food makers to introduce their share their fermented experiments, including not just beer but also yogurts, cheeses, and even kimchi.
Another hugely popular event is Spring Beer Fest, in which brewers set up shop in various venues throughout Haebangchon and Gyeongnidan, offering their wares free of charge. This year’s Spring Beer Fest took place on April 21, with craft beers offered at ten venues scattered throughout the neighbourhood.
“I typically always try to make something new,” says Lindley. “However, I do keep returning to stouts. They’re just tasty and really hard to screw up. That said, I always try to find a way to play around.”
This year, he debuted a new creation, using makgeolli yeast (neureuk) to make beer. “I was actually super proud of that one,” he says. “As far as I know I’m the first person to ever use makgeolli yeast to make beer. I could be wrong, but that’s a really exciting thought. I’d used neureuk before to do ridiculously strong winter warmers (like, 19% alcohol), and it gives a really nice but almost too-strong cardamom taste. So, using it as an IPA [India Pale Ale) at the beer festival was risky, but I’m told people liked it.”
Meanwhile, Troy Zitzelsberger offered a Cascadian Dark Ale. Zitzelsberger, originally from America, has lived all around the world, but he got into beer brewing in Korea because most of the beers he wanted were unavailable, so he decided to make them himself.
"The Spring Beer Fest was more of an educational event to make people aware of the number of varieties of beer and to hopefully create a demand for more craft beer in Korea," he explains. “Despite the rain, we had a great turnout and the brews couldn't have turned out better.”
Despite a strong rain, Chadwick and his fiancée Sophie Hale stood out under a canopy near the bottom of the hill in Gyeongnidan, where they offered eight of their own homebrewed beers for the festival. “I never make the exact same recipe twice,” says Chadwick. “That said I do have some favorites, mostly English bitter and ginger beer.”
Chadwick got into homebrewing after attending the first Fermentation Celebration, and he soon dragged Hale along with him. “After I started taking over the apartment with [brewing equipment] regularly she got interested and wanted to have a go at make a beer herself,” he explains.
The pair moved from the UK to Korea together two years ago, during which time they’ve noticed decisive changes in Korea’s beer culture, including availability of imports, as well as the increasingly refined tastes of Korean beer drinkers.
“I think most Koreans’ beer horizons are broadening,” says Chadwick. “Certainly I have seen the variety and quality of beer available increase significantly in the last two years.”
“Many Koreans have traveled overseas at some point,” says Lindley. “And the longer that they’ve stayed abroad, the more they miss things like good beer. So the market is ready for something new and much more flavorful and interesting.”
But still, homebrewers face some skepticism in local communities. “I’ve experienced a variety of different attitudes about homebrewing,” he says. “Most people have been interested and want to taste it. I’ve had a few people wondering if it is illegal or dangerous and I have to explain to them that neither are the case.”
Although the beer-brewing community seems dominated by foreigners at the moment, Lindley is hopeful that Koreans are slowly but surely beginning to embrace craft beer.
“When I meet Korean brewers they’re very scientific guys,” says Lindley. “Engineers and computer techs. That’s basically exactly what happened in America, so I think things are going to change really soon.”
“I think that the more of the public that taste craft beer or something besides the typical mass-produced lager the more demand will be created for better beer,” says Zitzelsberger. “The future is looking bright now -- it's all about getting better beer in the hands of the public.”
To find out more about brewing beer
By Jon Dunbar
Department Global Communication and Contents Division