In 2007, I moved to South Korea with my then girlfriend (now wife) to teach English in South Korea as part of a post graduate school plan to travel and make money. It was an incredible experience. Part of my inspiration for going was my friend Jason DiGennaro. He was teaching there and has to this day.

South Korea is full of rich culture, food and as Jason describes below, great beer. Craft beer has found its way across the globe and South Korea is no exception.  Here’s Jason’s  first hand look at some of the country’s great offerings.

Article written by Jason DiGennaro – (Seoul, South Korea)

Yes, they fill growlers! While growlers are still gaining interest here in Korea, I was fortunate to bring a bit of the Tap Trail in for a quick fill up. They were more than happy to oblige.

As I approach a decade here in South Korea, I’m able to reflect on just how great life has become, in large part because of the boom of good coffee and beer. Born and raised in Alaska, with years spent in Bellingham and Portland before Seoul, good coffee and beer had become not just a luxury, but a necessity. Until even six or seven years ago, however, coffee outside of the sickly sweet instant sticks ubiquitously had after meals was not be had in Korea. And beer was limited to a few awful choices that were better mixed with the local vodka-like liquor, soju, than drunk on its own. Fortunately, laws changed, tastes changed, and good beer and wine slowly made inroads to Korea, along with great coffee culture. Fast forward to 2015, and South Korean craft breweries are booming. Breweries here are not only offering the standards (pales, stouts, weizens, etc.), but are pushing the envelope and injecting great creativity into their beers, which would be available at an actual beer festival in Seoul.

Magpie Brewing’s Sinner and Saint, a Belgian IPA and Belgian Golden, respectively, are but a few of the taps rotating through their brew pubs. This one found in the heart of the hip university district known as “Hongdae.”

I rushed through the gates filled with anticipation, and quickly checked my stash of supplies for the evening. Crackers and water to cleanse the palate between tastings? Check. A fistful of cash coupons to keep me going throughout the festival? Yup. List of must-try beers and brewers, in an order that would allow me to actually enjoy them (that is, not get completely blitzed too quickly) and discern their unique flavors and nuances? In my front pocket.

Anyone who remembers playing the old Nintendo hit, Megaman, remembers that there is a distinct order in which one must approach the levels in order to be successful. The Great Korean Beer Festival, recently held in Seoul, South Korea, was my Megaman, and I was determined to stick to my plan in order to win the day. But then it all went to hell, as I laid eyes on all the incredible offerings from all over the country.

It wasn’t but five minutes before I was double-fisting tasters of special IPAs, pales, reds, and stouts, as my well-designed list remained folded neatly in my front pocket, serving more as a fashion item at this point, barely peeking

Hand and Malt puts out some very high quality brews, one of the most popular being their Belgian Wit, a tangy and refreshing take on the Belgian recipe that goes down a little too well during the sweltering Korean summer.

Hand and Malt puts out some very high quality brews, one of the most popular being their Belgian Wit, a tangy and refreshing take on the Belgian recipe that goes down a little too well during the sweltering Korean summer.

out from what would now be its home for the night. After regaining my composure, I got back on track, and lucked out in finding some time to chat with the owners and lead brewers from a couple of the up-and-coming breweries in South Korea, as well as the vice president of Ballast Point, Colby Chandler, who was in attendance at the festival and busy enjoying the fine beers on offer while also exchanging ideas with some of the brewers there.

I first had a chance to talk with Brandon Fenner, the lead brewer for The Hand and Malt Brewing Company, located in Namyangju, just northeast of Seoul. Brandon emphasized working to create “quality and consistency” in their beers at Hand and Malt, which was very refreshing news. Some breweries are not able to maintain as much control over the sourcing of ingredients and brewing process as they would like, so consistency can sometimes be an issue. While I enjoyed samples of their Slow IPA and Belgian Wit (the wit was particularly popular, with good reason), he continued to share that Hand and Malt was working to use locally-grown centennial hops in their beers. Even with free trade agreements in place, it can still be difficult and expensive to import high quality ingredients needed to produce high quality beer, so this could be a step towards making that process more sustainable and less expensive.

While they still put a pain in the wallet (better PNW brewed options cost upwards of 7 or 8 dollars per bottle!), the growing number of bottle shops certainly put a smile on your face. This one is fairly small, but has a surprisingly good selection, with a knowledgable owner

I then spoke at length with Stephane Turcotte, the CEO and brewmaster at Galmegi Brewing Company, located on the southern coast of Korea, in Busan. While Galmegi has a long list of beers in their lineup, they had some very nice offerings tapped at the festival. After trying their Moonrise Pale and Espresso Vanilla Stout, I naively settled on a couple larger cups of their Doljanchi IIPA, brewed to mark their first anniversary (doljanchi means “first birthday,” in Korean). At 9% ABV, I probably could have made a smarter choice so early in the evening, but it went down like a session IPA, with a great mouth feel and clean finish. As the night faded into a blur, Stephane shared his philosophy on brewing, and where he sees Korean craft beer in the future. “I love hops, and I love funk,” he said. “I love hoppy beer, and I’d like to brew saisons and sours for non beer drinkers.” Korean beer drinkers are starting to become more adventurous, yet they may need tamer introductions to some of the flavors that fall further outside their comfort zone.

Stephane talked about avoiding generalizations in beers, and finding a way to introduce sours to customers under a different name, as Koreans hear the term and shy away from trying them. Colby Chandler, from Ballast Point, offered his view of the future of craft beers, mentioning session IPAs, wilds, and sours as new territory for brewers around the world. “Alcohol carries flavor, so there’s a challenge in making a really flavorful session IPA at 3.5%.” As a hop-head with a lower tolerance than in my younger years, I’m thrilled to hear that sessions are not simply a flash in the pan. He continued to explain that producing consistent sours will be something that many breweries will be seeking in the near future, and indeed, we are seeing sours enter even the fairly young Korean craft scene.

Overall, there are some exciting trends occurring in Korea, as experienced brewers maintain contact with the pulse of the international beer scene, and also work to incorporate local ingredients and flavors. While a kimchi sour may be years away, there is more than enough room for all the amazing beers coming out of the breweries here in South Korea, and I intend to try them all.