The Craft Beer Fest at COEX Food Week (Nov 6-9.) displayed a physical model of the craft beer scene in Korea itself: in a corner of an immense convention hall a handful of vendors rapidly sold beer to a teeming crowd. It is not the first year craft beer partook in the Food Week Scene, but 2013 has shown that craft beer in Korea is here to stay.
Familiar brewpubs like Craftworks anchored the fest and were joined by some newcomers to the scene, The Booth and Reilly’s Taphouse, as well as the creative brewers helming the Seoul Home Brew Club. Platinum Brewing Company, formerly based in Korea but now brewing in China, drew some of the longest lines. The Wolfhound reached for the season change by offering mulled wine while Reilly’s Taphouse slung their seasonally-off but tartly satisfying Jeju IPA.
For better or for worse, the Craft Beer Fest stuck out compared to the bulk of COEX Food Week. A lot less sterile, a lot more spills, a lot more facial hair, and super-eager customers.
The brewers behind the craft beer scene in Seoul are reluctant to say what their next craft brew will be or where exactly they plan to open new locations, but there’s one thing they’re all rubbing their hands together about: major positive change is coming. If craft beer in Korea were a baseball game, 2013 was just the singing of the national anthem.
Dan Vroon, CEO of Craftworks Taphouse, believes the impending boom is due to a combination of bursting demand and subsequent pressure on antiquated brewing and distribution laws crying out for amendment. What Vroon sees in the market matches up with the scene at the Craft Beer Fest: though foreigners ignited a fever for craft beer in Korea, that flame has been kindled by, and could not sustain without, Koreans embracing the stuff. Korean customers in clusters, most of them young women, endured the elbow-to-elbow crowd.
Cho Kwi Yeom is happy to see that the beer scene has changed. “I never went to Itaewon 10 years ago, but now I do. I don’t mind spending money for beer that tastes good,” she said.
“This year has really seen Korea embrace craft beer, as small as the country is. Our new locations have exploded. Koreans are refusing to compromise and would like to spend their money on beer that tastes good,” said Vroon.
As it stands now, he says, homebrewers in Korea are making the best beer due to their freedom from the harsh restrictions of Korean brewing regulations. And, the homebrewers did deliver some of the most interesting brews of the day, including Ukranian Imperial Stout and a honey mead. Not limited by ingredients they can use or commercial refrigeration laws, the homebrewers can get weird with it, in a good way. Korea’s regulations, as they exist now, were built primarily to protect large domestic companies and also speak to the undeveloped technologies in things like refrigeration at the time they were written.
Should these regulations be repealed, as Vroon anticipates they will in the next year or so, Korea’s beer scene could be “on the verge of becoming Japan,” a neighbor country which enjoys a thriving craft beer scene. Craft-beer-at-the-Family-Mart levels of prevalence, in fact.
Now that the brewpub scene offers a good deal of variety, including geographic variety around Seoul, the next demand on everyone’s lips is the craft stuff you can buy and take home to enjoy. Craftworks is offering casks at select locations and Reilly’s Troy Zitzelberger says they’ll offer growlers starting in early 2014.
Words by Charlotte Hammond. Photography by Juanita Hong.