Occasionally at the end of a long day, I like to have a nice beer with my dinner. I wouldn't call myself a beer snob by any measure, but nothing makes my taste buds cringe more than those last few sips of warm beer at the bottom of the glass. I've considered the obvious solution- to drink faster- but I find that it undermines my desire to just have a relaxing drink.
Luckily a friend showed me this treasure at the Garten Hof in Yeoju (my current city of residence in South Korea). Rather than letting your beer get cold while you sip, the Garten Hof serves draft beers in special glasses designed to fit the custom made refrigerated beer holders at your table. Whether you’re a gulper or a sipper, the liquid in your glass stays cold. No more of that tepid, stomach churning backwash going to waste at the bottom of your glass.
While enjoying our refreshing cold beers, my friend and I couldn't help but note the irony that South Korea makes notoriously terrible beer. Korea’s top sellers, Hite, Cass, OB, etc., would be right at home on a shelf with Natty Light and Milwaukee's Best. Usually light and flavorless, no amount of chill will rescue them from mediocrity. One evening I stumbled upon a Korean news segment with the headline “Why does Korean beer taste bad”?
Lately there has been a lot of stir from Korean beer companies about an article in the Economist, which in addition to discussing the legal and economic hurdles of brewing in South Korea, claimed that North Korea makes better beer. North Korea, despite its lack of general economic prosperity and basic human rights, actually seems to have something of an emerging microbrewing industry.THe
While the international community balks at South Korea's beers, it's my understanding (and experience) that Koreans prefer these feather light lagers. Some international brands such as Budweiser and Hoegaarden are produced locally in Korea, and have a slightly different, i.e. lighter, taste. While foreigners are accustomed to heavier ales and more complex flavors, these qualities don't always mix well with spicy Korean cuisine, which is important since Koreans always have at least a snack with their drinks. But more importantly, these qualities aren't necessary for enjoying Korea's drink of choice: soju.
Soju not only creates stiff competition for foreign liquors and wines attempting to enter the Korean market, but also shapes the consumption of beer and drinking culture, as beer is usually consumed with soju. Made from rice and other starches, soju, has long been a cheap and effective staple. And I mean really cheap. The most popular brand sells for about $1.50 a bottle, and that's a lot for your money with its 20% alcohol content. Higher end, though still inexpensive soju brands go as high as 45% alcohol content. Another option is makkeoli, an inexpensive Korean rice wine, but it's not readily available at most bars and hofs.
However, considering Korea has a rich economy where $6 coffees have become norm, one has to wonder if more sophisticated tastes will ever overtake the domestic liquor and beer market. Cheap prices can't always make up for unhappy taste buds and digestive agony. At best, soju's taste can be described as cheap watered down vodka. Drinkers often mix it with beer in a cocktail called "so-maek" (maekju is Korean for beer). Truthfully, I'm not always sure which one people are attempting to mask, the beer or the soju? Korean beer does little to stimulate the palate, while soju is known to induce severe, regret filled, life questioning hangovers.
So why continue to drink soju? Well if there are two things Koreans hold dear it's national pride and tradition. Dating back to the 13th century, soju has a long history and is practically a part of the national identity. There are many customs for drinking soju that are tied to Korea's hierarchical culture. 10mag.com offers a great concise history of soju, noting that it was once viewed as medicine (a Korean friend actually tried to convince me recently that a little soju is still in fact "good for you"...I just smiled and nodded my head in a vaguely agreeable direction).
The cheap soju we're familiar with today, often made with potatoes or other starches instead of rice, hit the market in the aftermath of the Korean War. No doubt it was good medicine for the hardships Koreans had to over come. And even as Korea's economy has grown and strengthened rapidly in the past few decades, the price is still hard to beat.
Not only a symbol of cheap and efficient drinking, soju also encompasses the collective values that are a large part of Korean society and culture. Soju is affordable and accessible to all, and in a normally status obsessed country, I actually don't think Koreans would say it's just a poor man's drink. It's a part of Korea's identity as an efficient and highly adaptable country. Koreans are also quick to note that, due to its affordability, it is the one of the top selling diluted liquors in the world. This fact is shocking to many westerners, but we also tend to forget that Asia is a huge market , with many great products unknown to us unenlightened folk.
Korea also is a society that thrives on heavy drinking. It’s common for friends and co-workers, particularly males, to go out and drink as much as possible. Expensive liquor doesn't bode well with a culture of drinking to get drunk quickly. If Koreans do order foreign liquors such as vodka, rum, etc., they often buy them as part of bottle sets served with food, rather than individual cocktails. There is a tumblr account called Blackout Korea dedicated to the common sight of Korean males passed out on the street after a night of drinking.
As a disclaimer: I think Blackout Korea demonstrates how common of an occurrence it is, but I don’t condone the site's tone of condescension and public shaming. I believe Americans are far worse when it comes to inappropriate public displays of drunkenness, and I think it’s a huge credit to Korean society that these over-imbibed patrons are mostly left unharmed to sleep it off (though I do hope there are people who make sure these sleeping beauties have a pulse before leaving them).
But in short: when beer is a just a vessel or complement to a staple of cheap diluted liquor, and the point is to drink as much of it as possible, there isn't much of a need to perfect your hop to water ratio. While a sprinkling of foreign run craft beer houses and imported wine stores in Seoul show an emerging market for fine drinking, I don’t think the status derived from these beverages will ever over take tradition. While the international community's distaste for Korean beer may make headlines, there don't seem to be enough domestic incentives to try and over come the hurdles to brewing in South Korea. Even as bar and hof menus slowly fill up with cocktail lists and wider foreign beer selections, those green soju bottles still crowd tables, hallmarks of a night out with friends and coworkers.
Helpful cultural details: A hof in Korea is a type of drinking establishment. I wouldn't call it a bar since hofs usually only serve beer and soju. (though hofs with larger selections of liquor and beer are becoming more common). Hofs also offer large anju menus. Anju is best described as a "meal with your drink". Koreans find it shocking that foreigners will often drink without simultaneously eating food. Korean patrons are usually required to order anju if they wish to order beer/liquor. This is regardless of any meal consumed prior to drinking. I've stopped trying to explain to waiters that I'm not hungry because I just consumed a cow's entire hind quarters at the barbecue restaurant down the street for dinner. Luckily, after years of dealing with waygookin (that's Korean for foreigners), I think waiters all over Korea have given up on trying to get us to order food.