Koreans like to drink. They drink a lot. And the prevalence of bars and alcoholic beverage vendors reinforces the fact that Korea is the largest per capita consumer of alcohol in Asia. According to a recent Bussiness Insider article, Koreans consume twice as much alcohol as Russians, but that was only in reference to liquor. From what I saw, Koreans prefer beer (or maybe it was a summer thing considering I was there in June and July).
I figured Korea would be similar to Taiwan in beer quality.
I at least enjoyed a couple beers in Taiwan, but there was very little variety. I wasn’t about to go near the liquor because I remember some painful mornings after drinking baijiu in China. Anyway, Korea was a pleasant surprise in the alcoholic beverage department.
There are more than enough bars throughout Seoul to keep anyone busy. Some are rundown and dingy, while others are new and trendy. There are even some unusual bars with an eclectic collection of memorabilia. And sometimes if you go alone to a bar they’ll seat you with a companion who doesn’t talk much.
Drinking up the soju
Usually, people think of soju when talking about Korean alcohol — it’s certainly the most widely sold alcohol in the country and it’s cheapest option for drinking in most places. Soju can be a bit harsh — there’s a bit of variety to this spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or barley, which can range from 20-35% ABV. Some of the lower-alcohol soju is more pleasant; it doesn’t have as much of a bite to it. Generally, soju should be drunk with friends, which makes it difficult to drink when traveling alone.
What’s this about makgeolli?
The second option for drinking, which also isn’t expensive in most cases, is the cloudy rice wine called makgeolli. This is more of an acquired taste; I wasn’t sure what to think of it the first time I tried it with my coworker and her friend. Most makgeolli is sweet, though the sweetness can vary considerably, and it has a natural carbonation. The beverage is traditionally drunk from small bowls rather than glasses, which I found rather fun.
While walking around Daehagno I came across a friendly bar/restaurant called Do You Know Makgeolli? Of course, I had to try it. This little establishment on a quiet street has a fridge full of makgeolli — there were at least 40 varieties. My server tried to help me choose a bottle in our broken communication, and suggested a lotus-flavored makgeolli. It was light and not too sweet — a refreshing beverage for the humid evening. He came back later and offered me a taste of a chestnut makgeolli that was a little too sweet for my liking.
While just about every establishment in Seoul serves beer, soju, and makgeolli, there are also small sidewalk stands that serve cocktails, sometimes in ziplock bags with straws sticking out. I had to try it once. They had no whiskey or rum, and the drinks weren’t strong but tasted much too sweet for my palate — I drank half and threw the rest out.
Then there was the beer. A few years ago, The Economist proclaimed that beer in South Korea was boring. The major beers like Cass and Hite are boring, but I’d still choose them over Budweiser and Miller. I drank my share of the cheap Korean macrobrews — it was the thing to drink at most local bars. The major brewers have come out with some more appealing options in the last year as well. Hite-Jinro has its Black Beer Stout, which is actually a black lager that tastes pretty good as the only dark beer that’s widely available. The brewery also makes Queen’s ale in blonde and extra bitter varieties — the blonde has much better flavor than the bitter (it was the beer of choice for my day at the ballgame). Oriental Brewery also has it’s Aleston brown and black ales, which are alright but nothing I’d go out of my way to drink again.
Discovering Korean brewpubs
After a couple weeks in Seoul, I discovered the brewpubs in the city that have opened in recent years. Most are located in Noksapyeong, a trendy neighborhood of bars and restaurants just a short walk from the foreigner-haven of Itaewon.
I was first introduced to CraftWorks Taphouse, which has some pretty good hot wings for half price on the night I sampled their beers that are named after local mountains. The IPA was decent, but nothing special, while the dark ale was lighter on alcohol but had a pleasant malty flavor. My friends who introduced me to the brewery ordered the porter, which was bland and definitely not worth ordering.
Just down the street from CraftWorks is Room H, which serves Weizenhaus beer. This is an American brewery that also brews in Korea. Their stout was rich and flavorful with hints of coffee. The industrial interior and open storefront made this brewpub more appealing.
Around the corner from the other brewpubs is Magpie, the original Seoul brewpub. They have a small room on street level that’s only open until 10 pm, when they tell patrons to head to the basement bar to avoid annoying the neighbors with excessive noise. The basement bar can get crowded, but it’s a cool place to hang out if you get a seat. The most impressive beer I tried at Magpie was the lavender ale, which was light for the summer heat and humidity. I was skeptical, but the lavender didn’t overpower the light hops and added a relaxing aroma to a beer to enjoy while hanging around a dim alley in the middle of a metropolis.
Over in Itaewan, I found my favorite basement bar in the city: Four Seasons Craft Beer Bar. I introduced three local friends to this rather quiet bar that was devoid of the annoying expat crowd — it attracts locals and well-behaved expats in the area. The beer menu changes and has a nice balance of Korean and international microbrews. I stuck with the Korean beers like Seoulless Ginger and Noul Red Rye, the latter of which had some sharp hops.
The last brewpub I sampled was Platinum Brewery. I stumbled upon this one while wandering the crowded streets of Hongdae on a Friday night (a huge mistake with all the university students roaming around after a week of classes). Although I only tried the oatmeal stout and strong pale ale, I found Platinum to be the most consistent brewery — both beers were smooth with enough flavor to keep me interested as I drank. Despite the bar being empty, I was inspired to order my second beer.