Three North Koreans walk into a bar. They order a Ponghak, a Taedonggang, and a Rakwon. The bartender apologizes: they’ve only got a new beer, Ryongsong, on hand.
“No problem, we’ll have three of those!” says the Rakwon-drinker and goes to the toilet. The bartender brings three Ryongsongs.
The Ponghak-drinker takes a sip and grimaces in disgust: “That’s terrible.” The Taedonggang-drinker takes a sip and is sick into the glass: “This is disgusting.”
They storm out, leaving the glass of regurgitated beer. The Rakwon-drinker, back from the toilet, grabs the glass and, before the speechless bartender can interject, downs it. Silence.
“Huh,” he frowns. “I thought you said you were out of Rakwon.”
Frank Zappa once said: “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
North Korean football has always punched above its weight and these days, Air Koryo even serves vegetarian. The nukes are certainly claimed for. But what about the beer?
But surprising as it may be, as any visitor will tell you, North Korean beer is good. Really good. Rakwon aside, it’s “where-can-I-get-more-of-this-stuff?” good.
Some topics are like lemons – you need to squeeze them for juice. Others are like mushrooms – ideas spring up faster than you can type. “North Korean beer” is a super-mushroom on fertilizer and steroids. There’s so much to cover. It’s an intellectual hydra – every time you answer one question, two sprout from it.
There’s the straight business, such as growing beer tourism, increased domestic consumption, and foreign imitations and hurdles to export.
There’s the sociological analysis, including the divergence/convergence of North and South drinking customs (including potential replacement of “chukbae” or “cheers” with the South’s version “geonbae“), a developing “bar culture” in Pyongyang, the rise in female drinking, and beer as a consumer product.
There’s even the human interest story, such as how North Korea bought and shipped a UK brewery 10,000 miles to Pyongyang, the existence of beer expos promoting human interactions over pints, and how one article’s praise of “Taedonggang” transformed the South Korean beer industry.
Four letters, a dozen potential articles. It’s enough to make your head spin – and that’s before you’ve even tried the stuff.
But because it’s a worthy cause (and quite a malty one), this article will attempt a compression of all the weird, wonderful, and “I-bet-you-didn’t-know” of DPRK beer.
A hop(s) into the past
Marcus McFarland, tour manager with Koryo Tours, believes Korea developed their taste for beer in the 1930s. It had been available before then, but only through expensive importation. It was during the Japanese occupation that beer gained widespread popularity.
The first brewery in the north of Korea sat on the banks of the Taedong River. But, though it may have gained popularity in rural areas, access was presumably limited. It’s likely that beer was mostly for the moneyed urbanites.
In rural areas, “soju,” the native Korean liquor, remained and remains the principal alcohol of choice. It was so in the 1930s, and it’s so today. Rural life is undoubtedly harsher than urban, perhaps inducing some to prefer a liquor-anesthetic — but the real reason is simple economics.
As Andray Abrahamian, Koret Fellow at Stanford University’s Asia Pacific Research Center, puts it: “Soju is the cheapest drink in terms of bang for your won.” Where beer did appear in rural areas, it “tended to be produced and sold locally … because beer is a perishable good.”
Furthermore, many in rural areas brewed their own alcohol and, historically, they’ve tended to want something stronger than beer for their trouble.
But the North’s first brewery didn’t last very long. The Korean War left few buildings standing in Pyongyang, and the brewery wasn’t one of them.
After the war, the ensuing information vacuum makes it harder to understand beer’s place in North Korea, existentially as well as geographically. The North’s industrial rise from the ashes probably didn’t extend to breweries, however, and the soju “status quo” likely persisted.
An educated guess would be that from 1953-1991, Pyongyang had sporadic access to imported Soviet and Chinese beers, whilst the rest of the countryside stuck to soju, with the occasional locally-brewed beer on the side. If any reader has further information on this, the comment section and a free “Taedonggang” beckon.
Then, in 2000, everything changed. When most countries want a brewery, they build a brewery. Not North Korea.
Instead, they bought one, lock, stock, and barrel.
The brewery in question was the UK’s defunct Ushers of Trowbridge in rural Wiltshire. It was bought, dismantled, shipped around half the globe to Wonsan, and re-built. “Colossal” fits the project — two thousand tons of kegs and equipment, tens of millions of pounds, and the start of an infuriatingly-bad pun about “Kim Jong-ale.”
After a frantic 9-month gestation period (with one Brit, his team of Russians, and hundreds of North Koreans powering away), “Taedonggang Beer Brewery” was born.
The King (and its rivals)
Named after the river that makes up Pyongyang’s spine, “Taedonggang” reigns supreme as King of North Korea’s beers. It’s as good as it is ubiquitous, easily recognizable by its just-too-tall slender-necked green bottles.
In fact, many tourists will never make it past this full-bodied lager with hints of sweetness and a faintly bitter aftertaste. This is a shame, though, for the King has some pretty tasty rivals.
For North Korean beer is by no means monochromatic. Forget missiles — the biggest explosion in North Korea has been in the number of beer brands.
There’s “Ponghak,” “Rakwon,” “Kwangbok,” “Haean,” “Ryongaksan,” “Unjong,” and a host of others — not to mention the more recherché local ones.
A distrust of “capitalist marketing” also means different beers made by the same company are numbered: “Ryongsong 15,” “Taedonggang 6,” “Rakwon 12.” Numbers seem to be picked arbitrarily though — there aren’t 11 more varieties of Rakwon in the world (thankfully).
So if its quality and quantity are so worth writing about, why aren’t we all drinking it? Well, like all things DPRK, it isn’t as great as it’s made out to be.
The main problem is what’s been termed “Maekju Roulette.” Though not as bad as “Russian,” maekju (Korean for “beer”) refers to the hit-and-miss nature of DPRK beer. Off-flavors arise more than they should, mostly due to quality-control problems.
Poor brewing hygiene, along with the weather and time of year the beers are brewed and/or packaged in, can negatively affect taste. This is why certain hotels and restaurants brew theirs on-site.
Marcus McFarland tells of how his tour group sampled three bottled beers from Taedonggang Brewery. “The dark beer,” he says, “was flat as hell.”
Journalist Dan Tudor practically repeats McFarland verbatim when he tells of bringing Taedonggang to a party in Seoul. Excitement gave way to dismay when it was opened and found to be “flat as a pancake.”
When a proud Pyongyangite tells you “Taedonggang No. 2” is his favorite because it’s consistently the best, he’s not talking about different types of “Taedonggang No. 2” — he just means bottle by bottle.
That’s why draft beer, which comprised around 90% of the beer McFarland’s group sampled, tends to be better.
Draft beer, meanwhile, takes us away from the bottle and down to the bar.
One Country, Two (Drinking) Systems
Much has been made of North/South beer comparisons, from Dan Tudor’s catalytic critique of South Korea’s innovation-strangling beer industry, to Gordon Ramsay’s threat to hit Tudor for imperiling his lucrative “Cass” contract.
Tudor’s article criticized the industry’s “duopoly” and excessive red-tape, but North Korean “Taedonggang” got a casual mention. This caused quite the stir. Beer-execs grumbled, drinkers moaned; a few journalistic pitchforks were prepared.
There undoubtedly is (or was) “taste asymmetry,” but the difference in drinking customs is even more interesting. Seventy years of divergent political evolution have made themselves felt in Korea’s pubs as well as its parliaments.
Over email, Tudor reflects that “young South Koreans are becoming connoisseurs” while “(southern) soju is getting weaker.” Southern youngsters “are not so much drinking to get drunk any more, but rather drinking to get tipsy whilst having an experience.”
North Korea, he thinks, remains more traditional. “People up there drink the way the way older South Koreans drink: lots of soju, get hammered, bond with your colleagues,” Tudor said.
Yet while this probably continues to be true in rural areas, there’s change a-brewing in Pyongyang, change which may mean the tastes of young North and South Koreans end up converging.
McFarland and his colleague Simon Cockerell, General Manager at Koryo Tours, theorize that “the quantity and quality of beers has increased in the North … with a growing preference for different beers.”
Women, still rooted in very traditional roles in North Korea, are drinking “more widely,” though they still tend to “sip delicately rather than chugging.”
Gender-equalizing aside, beer “tends to be drunk by men, between 5-10 PM, standing up, with other men.” This emerging “bar culture,” whereby drinkers stand together in circles, also seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon.
In fact, this is one area of significant contrast — a surprise for tourists arriving in a North Korean pub is often the total absence of seating (South Korea still favors sit-down drinking).
Furthermore, Cockerell noted that “people don’t binge-drink beer … soju mostly serves that purpose.” Yet Cockerell also claims beer-drinking is gaining ground over soju. Though it’s not so much an “either/or” as a “both/and,” cultural paradigms do seem to be shifting away from blackout intoxication in favor of tipsy revelry.
Cockerell adds that beer is increasingly “a consumer product” which “tends to be for the middle-class.” Comparing it to western attitudes to wine would be a stretch, but only a small one. Beer isn’t quaffed so much as sipped these days in many Pyongyang bars.
Will it be exported en-masse anytime soon?
Finally, the question we’ve all been waiting for. In a disappointing word — no.
Though foreign interest remains high (and foreign imitations abound), North Korean beer faces significant hurdles before export.
“Maekju roulette” is the first. You’d need to standardize taste so there wasn’t so much variation bottle-by-bottle, while simultaneously ensuring the beer stays fresh through overseas transport. These would both involve greater brewing hygiene.
The second is glass. Current beer bottles are both limited in number and easily broken. Domestic consumption allows for the recycling of bottles (many of them imported “Tsingtao”), but export would require the North Koreans getting thousands more bottles which wouldn’t break in transport. This would likely require foreign investment which, for reasons below, is unlikely.
The third is bad PR, in two ways. First, though Pyongyang would love foreign investment, it also has a well-earned reputation for ripping off foreigners, so interested parties would be wary of paying cash for “exclusive” rights to export. In fact, they’d be wary of investing in North Korea full-stop.
Second, big companies would likely fear the backlash of publicly selling North Korean beer, whilst small companies would struggle to make a profit.
The final reason is the simplest: domestic demand for beer actually outstrips supply — they simply don’t have enough to sell. Yet ramping up production would require foreign investment; return to square one.
North Korea’s overseas restaurants stock Taedonggang but, sanctions-aside, they charge an arm and a leg (and 69 RMB in Beijing). Smuggled bottles sell at half that price. Young Pioneer Tours have a “DMZ Bar,” but it’s a long way to Yangshuo for a potentially-flat lager.
And while several South Korean brewers (and the odd hipster bar in London) would like to import DPRK beer, it remains unfeasible for the foreseeable future.
North Korean beer may be on many tongues, but for now at least it will make it to few taste buds. The beer-related social changes underway will remain hard to predict but fascinating to watch. And the Taedonggang, river and beer, will keep on flowing.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Uriminzokkiri
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