Visitors to North Korea frequently complain about the quality of the beer, arguing that local beer often lacks taste and leaves the drinker with a nasty chemical hangover.
Despite the surprising possibilities for a good night out in Pyongyang and the Korean peninsula’s enthusiastic drinking culture more generally, North Korean beer – with some notable exceptions – tends to leave a lot to be desired.
But now the country famous for its pilsner beer, which for decades followed a socialist system not dissimilar to that of the DPRK, appears to have been invited in to help improve the beer.
Opening in December last year, it was confirmed this May that Czech company Zvu Potez was closely involved in the construction of the first brewery to be built with European know-how in North Korea’s far north-east, the Rason Special Economic Zone.
And Czech staff have played a significant role in training North Korean staff at the site, with one member telling NK News he was present at the factory for at least six months after the factory’s opening.
CZECH EXPERTISE, PLEASE
Zvu Potez, which describes itself as specializing in the “production and supply of energy, chemical and food technology and equipment,” is well known for its beer production expertise, saying it helped build “up to 200 complete breweries and 50 minibreweries” around the world to date.
Speaking to Czech news website iDNEZ in May, Zvu Potez Sales Director Martin Kovar said that North Korean representatives in the Czech Republic contacted his company directly, saying they wanted to open a brewery in the DPRK with Czech expertise.
“We took them to a few Czech microbreweries so they could examine them and know what to expect from them,” he said, “And they chose a type of beer that most of them liked”.
The brewery subsequently opened in December last year, with equipment brought directly to the site in shipping containers from Prague, via the Russian railway line across Siberia from Khasan in Russia to Rajin port.
According to visitors to the Rason area in late 2013, two staff from the Zvu Potez company arrived in Rajin to help set up the site and train three to four locals in how to use and maintain the brewery.
Among the Czech staff was Tomáš Novotný, who worked as Chief Technologist for Zvu Potez in North Korea for six months while the brewery was being set up.
His job, he told NK News in an email, was to give the North Koreans the “know-how” and supervise the production of the first beer, which he said would be brewed primarily for the local market.
“Working in the DPRK was a very interesting experience,” he said, “in particular, working with the locals, who unfortunately were using a lot of bad equipment”.
But the North Koreans were guided by “certain rules and procedures”, he added, which meant that often the equipment would not work and made them difficult to work with.
“Towards the end of them fortunately everything was fine and started to work,” he said.
But Zvu Potez also ran into difficulties in managing the brewery with the local infrastructure, Novotny said. “Internet is very expensive there. You need to buy a modem, cable and pay for the installation work” he said, adding that the brewery faced frequent power outages while he was there.
Novotný says he does not what type of beer is now being produced at the brewery now, but explained that local customers will be able to enjoy a “consistent quality” thanks to his company’s Czech assistance.
The Czechs have now all returned home, he said, and the brewery is under the full direction of the North Koreans.
IMPROVING BEER QUALITY
The quality of North Korean-brewed beer is decidedly mixed, Simon Cockerell, a tour leader at Koryo Tours told NK News, with the guide often warning beer enthusiasts “their first taste of a local beer will not be the best!”
Several years ago the leader of the North Korean beer market was Ryongsong Beer, Cockerell told NK News, which is sometimes served on Air Koryo flights. “When chilled it is not terrible but is far from being a good beer,” he said, describing it as “a bit heavy and sweet and not well balanced”.
But Cockerell does recommend Taedonggang Beer, which he describes as the “best mass-produced beer in the DPRK”.
Notably, the Taedonggang brewery – like its Rason-based cousin – is also of foreign origin, with the equipment previously used at a British factory in Trowbridge, UK, before it was purchased by North Korean authorities for £1.5 million in the year 2000.
Now sitting at a brewery in the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang, Taedonggang has gained favorable reviews, being praised even by the New York Times, which described it in 2008 as “one of the highest quality beers on the [Korean] peninsula for several years”. And in 2012, former Economist journalist Daniel Tudor stirred South Korean media into a frenzy by writing that Taedongang put South Korean beer to shame.
While Novotný, the Czech beer expert dispatched to train the factor staff, said the the beer would be brewed primarily for local consumers, it’s possible that the increasing number of foreign visitors may benefit from Prague’s pilsner expertise.
Increasing numbers of foreigners are being encouraged to sample North Korean drinking culture, with news that even bars once reserved for locals are now open to tourists.
While beer at the bar Kyonghung bar is free for locals, who are allotted 5 litres of beer a month in rations from the state, tourists must pay 50 euro cents per pint, it emerged last week.
North Korean enthusiasm for quality beer appears to be on the rise, and increasing numbers of tourists can visit North Korea and tour its various microbreweries.
And if beer produced with Czech and British equipment picks up in the DPRK, it could make its way across the DMZ to South Korea – also not famous for great beer.
Additional reporting: Kate Whitehead
Photo credit: Kate Whitehead