Is trend or taste driving the South Korean beer bubble?
The second week of July, members of the Facebook group Seoul Brew Club started posting photos of Stone IPA and Ruination 2.0 to their community page. In this way, the group of homebrewers and beer enthusiasts living in Korea heralded the long-awaited arrival of Stone beers to the small but thirsty market 6000 miles from Escondido.
American Brew Club member Bill Miller says when he moved to Seoul in 2006, it was a "wasteland for craft beer," impelling him to take up home brewing. In recent years that's changed, "We sure have been seeing a lot of San Diego's finest ales here lately. And as a huge supporter of those beers, I couldn't be happier." He cites St. Archer as a current favorite.
Nick Lee, owner of Seoul's first craft-beer market, The Bottle Shop, says San Diego beer labels started showing up in 2013 and have increased in number since. Local breweries sending bottles, cans, and kegs that way include Ballast Point, Karl Strauss, Modern Times, Green Flash, Mission Brewing, and Twisted Manzanita.
"The hardest part about doing the international distribution," says a rep from Twisted Manzanita, "is finding someone who's willing to bring in products and jump through the hoops you need to jump through to get into the country."
He wouldn't mention which distributor they use but added that it took a little investment to determine what demand was for Twisted Manzanita's particular beers over there, and that the brand's Prospect Pale Ale and Chaotic Double IPA have proven most popular.
Most of the other breweries distribute through Global Craft, which is affiliated with Nagano Trading, an American-owned company that's successfully established a thriving market for American craft beer in Japan.
However, there are concerns Korea's craft beer demand won't last. Miller suggests the trendiness of local culture could leave beer behind and move on to the next thing. Lee also thinks they may be experiencing a bubble. But for both, the chief concern is price. Lee points out the Korean government slaps a 130% tax on imported beer, meaning a 12-ounce bottle costs the consumer the equivalent of 6 dollars — or more than $35 for a six-pack. For this reason, Miller speculates, "Sales aren't as robust as they should be."
Another key concern is the freshness of beer that must make the long journey. That's the issue for Dan Vroon, CEO of Craftworks, the tap house and brewing company sometimes credited with bringing craft beer to Seoul.
"As a brewer of craft beers in South Korea, I believe that beer should be fresh and local, not shipped warm from So-Cal!" he writes via email. "That said, I have been enjoying far too many Swami IPAs lately from Pizza Port."
Update: In response to Dan Vroon's concerns that craft beer is being shipped warm, the president of Global Craft Korea, Christopher T. Roberts, states: "All beer imported and distributed by Global Craft Korea is shipped cold."