Asian beers don’t have a good name among American craft beer fans. From the watery sourness of Kirin lager to the fermented foot-funk of Hotachino Nest, craft beer lovers just don’t find what we want from Asia. But what happens when you travel to South Korea and Japan? Are there some gems waiting for the international beer traveler? Yes, count on it. But expect a few stinkers, too.
Here are a few craft beer places I found in South Korea and Japan. Be warned: Most allow indoor smoking. Some will find that a great throwback to the old days, while others will find it a great incentive to get in, get out and get to a shower and a laundry room.
TY Harbor Brewery (Tokyo)
Here’s a slice of American craft beer culture. David the Frenchman arranged our trip to TY Harbor Brewery. It’s a big airy space with a modern comfort food menu and suds that taste like they were brewed in Colorado. You can order sizes from small glasses to pitchers. The small glasses are great for trying the different flavors without feeling too full. I favor the imperial stout, but the IPA is also great. I’d like to see a bit more adventure rather than lagers and lighter ales – and with New Zealand on the right side of the International Date Line, TY Harbor Brewery should try some recipes with single-origin hops. As for food, I really liked the pork carnitas quesadilla.
Ant ‘n’ Bee (Tokyo)
Barge past the Ropongi District mayhem and find the staircase into the Ant ‘n’ Bee. Order some of the finest French fries you’ll ever taste – they’ll go well with any of the Japanese-brewed craft beer on tap. The staff is enthusiastic, clearly real beer lovers. One waitress had just returned from a visit to the Great American Beer Festival. Part of the fun was talking about the awesome American craft beer she discovered.
We sampled a cask-conditioned stout, an IPA, a strong ale and a harvest brew. The names? I took a photo of the menu to help remember these Japanese beers. The picture came out crappy, so I can barely read anything. Whether you like beer heavy on the hops or the malt, you’ll find what you want.
Modern Time Brewery (Jeju, South Korea)
We searched Jeju for more than an hour searching for Modern Time. What do we get out of it? A pallid, flaccid, weak, hefewiezenish brew with barely any hops … like Perrier filtered through a dirty jock strap.
Even my worst batch of homebrew packed more flavor (even the flavors of rotten lobster and burned electronics are better than nothing). This beer was good for making you burp, and for making beer lovers’ taste buds cry out in terror. You’ll find people online who praise Modern Time. Don’t ask me why.
UPDATE: Modern Time’s original owner chimed in – he hasn’t been brewer there since 2009 and he has a new craft beer venture called Boris Brewery. Check it out … and thank you, Boris, for the info!
Craftworks Tap House (Seoul, South Korea)
The expats behind Craftworks have made a tap house in the American craft beer mold. With it’s made-to-order craft beer and even bangers and mash on the menu, it’s a refuge beer lovers who needs a break from Korean food – all the banchan and bi bim bap. You’ll notice the brews don’t pack the wallop of American craft beer, though (aside from the Moon Bear IPA and its high dose of hops). Still, the Geumgang Mountain Dark Ale was flavorful. Overall, I’d like to see a bit more heft from its selection.
I also scored some nice souvenirs there – a t-shirt and mug bearing the Geumgang Mountain Dark Ale logo.
The Verdict on Asian Craft Beer
So there’s your overview of craft beer in Seoul, Jeju and Tokyo. I’m a little surprised that chefs haven’t figured out that beers with lots of hops link up nicely with spicy dishes from Korea. Japanese breweries are quite a bit more adventurous, with spiced, herbed and even fruity recipes. Overall, I give the Ant ‘n’ Bee the best rating for variety, with TY Harbor Brewery a strong second. Let me know if there’s something I missed. It’ll give me an excuse to go back!