Home brewers lead the push toward better beer

(There’s a Groove Podcast that accompanies this article!)

“OK, put in the hops now,” my instructor commands.

I take the small plastic container of carefully measured hops, greenish and resembling rabbit food, and dump them into the smoky cauldron in front of us. He holds the lid up, and thick steam rushes out from the boiling pot, instantly filling up the small room. The smell is not unpleasant, but it’s reminiscent of an herbal remedy, a bitter concoction one might find in a traditional apothecary.

A friend and I are taking a beginner’s home-brewing class. This is a three-hour informational session run biweekly by Seoul Homebrew, a supply store for home brewers located across from JR Pub. Our recipe for the day: Seoul Homebrew’s rye IPA. We are also enjoying a few beers, provided by the brew pub on the floor above us, the Four Seasons Craft Beer Pub. Our instructor, Jonathan Wilson, assures us that our brew will taste more like the red rye ale we are drinking and less like the ancient medicinal potion we are smelling.

Most of the brewing process, Wilson informs us, involves watching water boil. And now that we’ve added the first round of hops, we’re going to do exactly that.

Along with two other American expats, Wilson opened up Seoul Homebrew in Itaewon last August. He and the other cofounders, Mitch Nichols and Jon Adie, each dedicate a couple days a week to the store, providing supplies and ingredients to other home brewers and running classes.

When asked about how he became interesting in brewing as a hobby, Wilson points to its social aspect: “It’s always fun to brew with people. … And especially if you have friends involved … that’ll push you to make better beer.”

Their weekend informational classes tend to attract small groups of friends who have varying degrees of interest in brewing, but a high level of enthusiasm for good beer. Those who sign up for the classes don’t necessarily want to become home brewers themselves; they are often just looking for a relaxing, fun and interesting way to spend the day.

Wilson compares brewing to ceramics, an art form with which he and Nichols are both very familiar. “In ceramics, there are many steps involved in transforming the raw clay into a finished pot,” he explains. “In the final step, you glaze the pot and put it in the kiln, and it’s kind of out of your hands ­— you’re never quite sure what will come out on the other end. That makes it a little exciting.” 

Similarly, it is this element of surprise that attracts some to home brewing. While extensive practice ­— and trial and error — may help a brewer to commit typical beginners’ mistakes less frequently, the end result is still never entirely predictable, which makes the process both enjoyable and “kind of mysterious.” 

Although home brewing as a hobby appears to be on the rise, the majority of beer aficionados do not brew for themselves, perhaps due to the perceived cost and effort required. Wilson admits that home brewing in Korea is more expensive than in North America, but while the initial investment in equipment can be pricey, the actual ingredients are not very costly. The standard batch size is 19 liters, so the cost for a 500 ml bottle of home-brewed beer is roughly 1,600 won to 2,100 won, depending on the type of beer. It may be slightly more expensive than buying a Cass at a 7-Eleven, but not as expensive as buying a decent craft beer. And when compared to the cost of buying beer from a bar, it is certainly much lower.

While home brewing obviously requires more time and effort than simply walking to the nearest convenience store, it is well worth the effort. Wilson points out that most people are willing to fork over 20,000 won or 30,000 won in drinks at a bar; however, if they spend 55,000 won to 80,000 won on ingredients and take a few hours to brew it themselves, they can enjoy their own beer at home for three months. And the result may be a product that is as good as or better than a high-quality craft beer for which they would gladly pay a hefty price in a brew pub.

Enthusiasm for home brewing and craft beers isn’t solely confined to the expat community. There is also an interest among Koreans, particularly in Seoul. Many want to brew their own beer or try new, better beer. Wilson calculates that roughly 40 percent of his clients are Korean. This is despite the fact that the store is owned by three expats, most of their advertising is in English and the store is located in the expat hub of Itaewon.

As well, Manjeh Kim, manager of the Beer Forum website and owner of the Four Seasons Craft Beer Pub, notes that Koreans are very aware of trends and are constantly looking for the next new thing and the newest “hot place” to try. Setting up shop in Itaewon just a few months ago, Kim expected that at least half of the pub patrons would be expats. However, roughly 90 percent of his customers are Koreans, indicating that they are also eager to participate in the craft beer culture that has already swept much of the West.

Kim was quick to note, though, that not everyone who comes in is knowledgeable about beer or goes there specifically to try craft beer. Rather, he has observed the importance of the “beer geek” in growing the craft beer culture in Korea. “(If), for example, four people come here, (usually it’s) only one guy leading the other three here … and he just explains (the beers to them). … So one ‘beer geek’ leads the other three.”

Although there is a growing interest for craft beers, it appears that the Korean market for craft beer is still small. Quoting an article he read recently, Kim reported that 95 percent of the beer drunk in Korea is domestic macro beer such as Cass or Hite. Only 5 percent is imported beer, and of that 5 percent, only 1 percent is craft beer. Kim jokes that the 1 percent figure can probably be attributed to the expat population in Seoul.

Despite the low market share for craft beers, both Wilson and Kim believe the demand is on the rise. Kim notes that there has been a dramatic increase of craft beers available in Korea in the past year. Pointing at the Four Seasons’ on-tap menu, Kim states that of the eight beers currently served at the pub, “seven beers did not exist in South Korea (last year).”

Wilson says home brewing is a niche hobby, and that people who enjoy craft beers don’t necessarily want to brew their own. However, he still believes that the number of home brewers in Korea will continue to increase. There is already a strong beer-drinking culture in Korea, with alcohol being almost a mandatory aspect of company dinners. And “as people’s tastes change and appreciation for better beer grows, some of those people will want to try to make it.”

Korea already has a strong brewing culture, especially in relation to makgeolli. Wilson observes that “it’s quite common for grandmothers to make makgeolli at home. … So with the introduction to Western culture, I think a lot of people would be interested in just expanding that (brewing culture) into beer.”

As for the brewing industry’s future, there are reasons to be optimistic. In a large, globalizing city like Seoul, Wilson is confident that the demand for high-quality beer will only increase. Anyone who has lived in Korea for five years or longer can already attest to these changes. They can be seen in the widening selection of foreign food, wine and beer available at Homeplus or E-Mart, in the increasing number of brew pubs popping up around Itaewon and Hongdae, and even in the cultural makeup of the city itself.

Additionally, because of the average Seoulite’s desire to keep up with current trends, many will want to try a new brew pub or a new beer in the same way that they will want to eat at the trendiest restaurant in Hongdae or go to the hottest club in Gangnam. And as the number of brew pubs increases, so, too, will the number of beer geeks.

A recently passed law coming into effect in April will have significant implications for the brewing industry. This law will make it much easier to open breweries and let brew pubs sell their beer in other licensed establishments. Previously, to obtain a brewer’s license, the company had to be able to produce 150,000 kiloliters of beer — an absurdly high quantity that would require a large initial investment in equipment and facilities. However, the new law will halve the production capacity requirement.

So will Seoul suddenly become oversaturated with business-savvy brewers looking to get in on this fairly untapped market? Kim hopes not, but notes that the trend for businesses in Korea seems to be “easy come, easy go.” Recalling the recent makgeolli boom, Kim remembers that a few years ago, “makgeolli was very popular. But one year, then two years later (people didn’t) have any interest.” He worries that the same will occur with brew pubs; they will pop up ubiquitously around Seoul, and then suddenly the “bubble (will burst), and everybody (will) leave.”

But Wilson has a positive outlook on the future of the industry. “Weekend beer drinking in Korea is not going anywhere, so I don’t see any reason that craft beer will not become increasingly popular as in the West. … (It’s) an expanding market.”

We have just put the last round of hops into the pot. Smoke billows out, along with a blend of mostly unidentifiable scents. Wilson passes us another pint — “The Wisco Sippin’ Stout,” a Pitch-black, toasty creation brewed by Nichols — to try. There is nothing more to do but drink and wait, and our instructor uses this time to quiz us on our general knowledge of beer; we perform abysmally. When asked, “What are the four main ingredients of beer?” we are only able to come up with two of the correct answers.

Today has been slow, but Wilson isn’t concerned with the number of clients they have. Their main goal at the moment is to learn the ins and outs of the industry and to stabilize as a business. Wilson states: “We would like to expand in some way (in the future), but we’re not sure whether it will be producing a few of our own beers for distribution to other bars or opening our own brew pub. … At this point, we’re just setting a foundation; we’ll see where it goes from there.”

If the market does expand significantly over the next decade, will this mean a new brew pub will open up on every street corner? Will home brewing become an increasingly popular pastime, with clubs, schools and events being launched all around Seoul? Or will there simply be a few more options of craft beer available in already existing establishments? Either way, it’s likely that a strong craft beer culture will emerge in Korea over the next few years. And drinkers from all walks of life will be welcomed into its fold, including niche home brewing hobbyists, beer geeks, prospective brewery owners, trendsters or beer lovers simply looking for a finer tasting brew to share with friends on a Friday night.

Groove Korea website

Home Beer Brewing

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