A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 6/6/2013. Photo: Craftworks Taphouse and Bistro’s Jirisan Moon Bear IPA

By Kim Young-jin

There are endless ways to drink beer in Korea. One can pair it with anything from fried chicken to mung bean pancakes or even steamed pig’s feet. It’s enjoyed anywhere from gritty drinking tents to glitzy bars.

But while options for how and where to tilt a pint are endless — those for what to drink are scant, limited to a small number of mass-produced lagers. Add to that Korean beer’s lowly reputation abroad and the country is in a quandary over its suds.

There is hope, however, for those who appreciate a more substantial brew, thanks to a handful of importers and bar owners mostly around Itaewon, Seoul. These enthusiasts hope to diversify the market and popularize high-quality, handcrafted beer. Interest from Korean clientele suggests they are on to something.

Their effort comes despite steep regulations that effectively prevent the spread of small breweries and helps maintain the dominance of large companies, namely Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewery (OB).

Craftworks Taphouse and Bistro, located on the outskirts of Itaewon, is one of the pubs at the vanguard of the local craft beer movement. Its general manager, Dan Vroon, said that when it opened, the clientele was comprised of 80 percent foreigners and 20 percent Koreans. While the number of foreigners hasn’t dropped, Vroon said the ratio is now 60 percent Korean to 40 percent foreign customers.

The beers are made at Kapa Brewery in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi Province. Vroon described the drinks as “something different, freshly brewed, with no preservatives, and natural.” The Canadian added, “That’s the attraction. It goes well with the ‘well-being’ trend here.”

The attention to nuance is immediately noticeable not only by taste, but by sight. The deep orange of the Jirisan Moon Bear IPA (7,500 won per pint) hints at its hoppy and robust flavor. Reilly’s Taphouse and Brewing Co., which is on Itaewon’s main strip, presents local beers in addition to carefully-selected imports from locations such as the United States, Belgium and South Africa. Adding its own brews such as the Jeju Tangerine IPA (7,000 won), the bar offers nearly 35 beer varieties. These can be sampled in a “paddle,” which serves small portions of several beers.

On a recent Sunday night, the bar was lively and filled with a majority of Korean clients.

“Once they get an idea of what interesting beer is like, our Korean clientele just loves it,” said owner Jamie Cottin, who is from Canada and describes the interest in craft beer as a “boom.”

The Springs Tap House recently jumped into the fray, importing robust beers from Mission Springs Brewing Company in British Columbia, Canada to the pub in Gyeonglidan, near Itaewon.

Its brews include the Strongman Ale, a hearty brew with hints of melon, passion fruit and blackcurrant; as well as the Cherry Bomb Belgian Pale Ale (both 8,000 won), which is fermented in oak barrels. Some 700 customers flooded its opening last week.

Such bars, which also include Magpie in Itaewon, are often called “gastropubs” because they pair beers with eclectic, high-end foods. Hopscotch near Gangnam-gu Office Station is known for its harmonizing of food and beer.

Despite the success, hurdles are many for brewers, beginning with exorbitant taxes. Beer is classified as liquor and subjected to a liquor tax of 72 percent. This is in addition to customs, education and value-added taxes, which are applied on a compounded basis.

One importer said the taxes overshadow any possible benefits of recently implemented free trade agreements, including that with the United States, under which the customs tax will gradually be phased out. Many believe the fees favor industry giants.

The large companies “produce such low quality beers because they want to produce at low costs,” an importer said. “You think about how cheap Korean beer is but there is a price to be paid for that cheapness.”

The government also strictly limits what can go into beer, based on the centuries-old German Beer Purity Law. This makes it difficult to use popular flavoring ingredients such as fruits or coffee.

Still, as Koreans travel more, tastes appear to be changing. Another indicator of interest is the wider variety of imported beers at department stores such as Homeplus, which offers American microbrews such as Anderson Valley as well as European brews.

“Beer is seen as a commodity to be taxed, whereas alcoholic drinks such as makgeolli and soju are seen as cultural heritage to be protected,” said Vroon of Craftworks.

“If beer was afforded that same privilege, I think you would see a huge growth in the local craft beer market. Instead what you are seeing is explosive growth in the imported craft beer market.”

Brewers suggest that deregulation could be a boon for local economies, if farmers are taught to grow hops, a key ingredient in most beers, and malting technology is developed.

Vroon said the evolution would only benefit consumers.

“Local craft beer makers could never make enough beer to satisfy the market,” he said. “Sometimes you just want a cold OB or Hite, when you’re at a baseball game or having ‘samgyeopsal’ (grilled pork belly). The issue is about freshness, the nature of handmade products, and variety.”