For a country that loves drinking as much as South Korea (and they do love it, as the highest imbibing Asian country according to WHO), it’s a curiosity that Korean craft beer hasn’t become as prolific globally as it’s other liquors. These days it’s commonplace to find Soju, Makgeolli, and your typical macro Korean lager at the neighborhood grocery store, so obviously there’s generic brand recognition for Korean liquors. We don’t expect to find Korean craft beer at these places, but when it’s easier to find Cambodian-brewed craft beer on the shelves of specialized craft beer stores in Singapore than Korean craft beer, there’s really something odd going on. At this time of writing, we found zero Korean craft beer brands readily available in Singapore.
If you do some online digging about the Korean craft beer scene, you’ll likely come across this article from November 2012 by the Economist. In it, it tears the Korea beer scene apart, with the notable excerpt “brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South”. If there were a statement to start a war on craft beer, that would be it.
It’s not that microbreweries didn’t exist back then. Most of them were owned and operated by taprooms brewing to serve in-house, catering mostly to an expat population. Archaic liquor and brewing laws forced many of these microbreweries to operate in a certain way that stifled proliferation. Rules limiting distribution (small-scale brewing only for in-house but not for distribution), huge barriers to entry (new breweries had to immediately produce a massive quantity of beer in order to receive a license) immediately killed any possibility of Korea developing a craft beer scene. As a result, Korean craft beers were limited to niche locations or contract brewing (outsourcing recipe production to a larger brewery with a license).
Simultaneously, maybe Korean drinking culture just wasn’t a hotbed for craft brewing. In 2012, according to the WHO (and visualized by this great chart), 72.38% of all alcoholic beverages purchased in South Korea was “other”, of which the majority is Soju. 22.05% was beer. If you’ve ever hung out with a Korean friend, somaek (a cocktail of Soju and Beer) is often a go-to beverage of choice with meals, so it stands that the beer here is likely the commonplace macro lagers. With Soju staying king and likely not leaving for the forseeable future, it’s difficult to visualize a Korean drinking culture without Soju, and as a result difficult for craft beer to find it’s roots beyond the expat population or the younger population that had been exposed to foreign craft beers.
But in April 2014, it seemed that the Korean government had a change of heart. Independent craft brewing is good, they said, and started to deregulate the laws that long plagued the growth of the scene. Small-scale production breweries were able to receive licenses, and distribution could commence outside of their own taprooms. There was finally light at the end of the proverbial beer bottle.
Let’s remember – this only happened in 2014. Breweries started registering and popping up almost immediately but most of them didn’t get to production until 2015. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, considered the granddaddy of American Craft Beer, was founded in 1979. Korea’s craft beer scene had 35 years of catching up to do, and they were ready to do it quickly. The beer revolution wasn’t just limited to Seoul, but it expanded across the country all the way to Busan as well as Jeju.
First though, they had to convince majority of the Korean population that good beer was 1) possible, and 2) something that had been missing in Korea. The taprooms came first, almost always coupled with a restaurant serving Western food like burgers and pizzas. Controlling the food pairing was always key – It would be too easy to distribute beers, have an unfamiliar audience take it home and have it with traditional Korean food that might pair poorly, and immediately dismiss the concept.
Secondly, they had to quickly develop the supply chain to support this boom. Since there was little craft brewing activity previously, there was little to no infrastructure to support this growth. Majority of quality malts and hops had to be imported initially, but as time passed many of the breweries we work with like Gorilla Brewing and Hand & Malt now own and operate their own hop farms, taking control of a key element.
Once all the basics were said and done, Korean craft brewing was ready to start taking things to the next level and adding it’s own unique take. Adding Yuja, or Ginseng, or Barrel Aging in Soju barrels, these are all some experimental steps taken and well received by the Korean audience, something that would have never surfaced in the past. The third wave craft beer movement had arrived and it was here to stay.
And here we are, 6 years after the rules had changed and are poised to change further for the betterment of the Korean Craft Beer industry and easily more than a hundred craft breweries popping up over that period. Even convenience stores recognize the demand for such products and have developed contract brewing brands just for their own distribution. Don’t expect to walk in to a GS25 and pick up an imperial stout or NEIPA, but the “gateway” craft beers available at these places can only mean a future growth as Korean audiences continually seek better and more interesting beers.
In 6 years, Korea’s once handicapped craft beer scene has grown at an amazingly rapid pace, thanks to the global exchange of knowledge as well as local demand, and we can’t wait to see where it will land just a few years from now.
“If you brew it, they will come” – Field of Dreams, poorly quoted