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Adventures for All

Craft Beer Overview of Seoul, Jeju and Tokyo

craft beer

Beer lovers bond at the Ant ‘n’ Bee in Tokyo.

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.

craft beer

The Ty Harbor Brewery in Tokyo scored big for atmosphere.

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)

craft beer

The beer list at the Ant ‘n’ Bee

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!

15 Responses to Craft Beer Overview of Seoul, Jeju and Tokyo

  1. Boris de Mesones says:

    The reason Modern Time was praised is because the beer I brewed there was very good in the past, but I do not brew in Modern Time since 2009 but they still use my name and image.
    I own in Jeju a brewpub called Boris Brewery that won recently a bronze medal at the Australian AIWA international beer competition and a silver medal at the European Beer Star last November.
    Cheers !
    Boris

  2. Hello, Boris! Thanks for your comment … I really am disappointed that I didn’t hear about your new venture beyond Modern Time. We would’ve dropped in for certain – our loss! Good luck to you.

  3. William Miller says:

    Interesting comments about craft beer in Asia. I live in Seoul and have a set of my fingerprints on some of the beers at Craftworks… mainly the ones with hops in them. We’re having a Spring Beer Festival 2012 here shortly… this Saturday (21 April) in fact that promises to push the concept of American Craft Beer to the unwashed masses. We’ll be giving away homebrewed beers at local pub venues. These same pubs (most of them) will be offering discounts on beer as well. In fact, Sung Lee, the owner of an American Craft Beer importing business (Brewmasters International) will be offering his offerings of Anderson Valley, Lost Coast, and Rogue at discounts at participating pubs. It promises to be a great day if you’re in Seoul.

    Regarding Boris and his beers… I have heard great things about his Imperial IPA and would really like to visit sometime. If Boris is reading this, I met Chris and he tells me I have to try your beers before I leave Korea. Again, if reading this, I’d appreciate some information about your beers and how I might be able to get some information about local accommodations near your establishment.

    Cheers,
    Bill Miller

  4. Thanks for your comments, Bill. I may have to do another craft beer in Asia post based on what you and Boris have mentioned. I probably won’t be able to find time for a preview of your craft beer festival, but I’d be interested in writing about how it goes. If you want to send some thoughts about it and maybe a photo or two, I’d be happy to write something up! And I’ll include a link to your choice of pub.

  5. Boris says:

    Bill,
    We are based very close to City Council in Jeju Shi. Sang Mu Cheong cross road. The building is unique, easy to distinguish. Some taxi drivers will take you if you just say Boris Brewery.
    We have four beers on tap, two “normal” beers, a Pale Ale and a Pilsener and two IPAs. I sent both IPA’s to the World Cup next month. Both, the Black and the normal one have 6 different american citrusy and piny hops.
    There are plenty of hotels close to City Council.
    Cheers !

  6. William Miller says:

    Boris,

    Thanks for the reply. I really want to try your beers, as well as get to Chejudo after 12 years of living in Korea! I am a huge hop head and citrusy, piney hops are my favorite. In fact, I’m a huge Simcoe hop fan… and getting to love the dank hoppiness of Columbus in a Rye IPA I’ve been making.

    Do you have any hotels you could recommend? Also, do you think you’ll have chance to come to our Spring Beer Festival this Saturday in Seoul? It’s listed on Facebook (assuming you have a Facebook account) as “Spring Beer Festival 2012″.

    Cheers,
    Bill

  7. Dan Miller says:

    Hmm, I’ve been to Boris’s in Jeju and although the beer is lovely not a single person on the floor staff speaks a word of English, the menu is entirely in Korean and the food menu is basically just Korean ‘hof’ style snacks.

    A far cry from Craftworks in Seoul that makes amazing beer, goes out of it’s way to attract an international, varied crowd, has a multilingual menu, a range of great Western and Korean dished and a multilingual service staff.

    Boris brewery feels like a typical Korean hof despite the lovely beer offerings. I mean the owner is Spanish, shouldn’t some Spanish tapas be offered just to add some authenticity to the place?

  8. Well, I can’t be too harsh on Boris and his staff for bring a brewery in Korea where people speak Korean. I can imagine an all-Korean menu being tough to work with, though. Tell me more about the beers, though, since I didn’t get to go!

    Craftworks, on the other hand, is right near a U.S. military installation. It’ll cater to that crowd.

    Thanks for dropping in, Dan!

  9. Daniel Miller says:

    I think you have a good point about Craftworks being close to a US Base but the reason I was disappointed was that before I visited Korea I read quite a lot on-line about Boris and his famous brewery in many English language websites and newspaper reviews.

    Jeju being a major tourist resort island and now one of the Worlds’ New 7 Wonders of Nature I expected one of the very few foreigners to own a business on Jeju to at least try to cater to non-Korean customers. There are lots of visitors to Jeju that speak/read/write no Korean and Boris Brewery makes absolutely no attempt to cater to this group. Add to that over 300 English teachers on the island lots of whom are in their first year in Korea and are looking for a slice of home away from home with delicious beers which are a rarity in Korea.

    It just strikes me as incredibly strange that a Spaniard wouldn’t (in addition to Korean) even have an English (and of course Chinese for the huge number of Chinese tourists who come to Jeju) language menu.

    English is not widely spoken in Korea but for a foreign run place with a potential foreign audience in a major tourist location, wouldn’t it make sense to have the waiters speak at least basic server English? Perhaps run some promotions for foreign visitors, make at least a token effort?

    I think it’s the first place in Asia I’ve been to that has great beer but totally ignored the service side of the equation. In addition, with great beer should go great food………what did Boris’s offer? A plate of reheated sausages and standard Korean hof bar snacks.

    What a missed opportunity for a Spanish guy who could be serving up beautiful Spanish bar food from Barcelona or Madrid and cause a bit of a rumble in the Jeju tourism community. At the moment I’d only go there for the beer (which is exceptional), but I wouldn’t recommend it as a ‘tourist friendly’ location.

    You can find Craft Beer in Japan and China far away from American bases that always make an effort to cater to the non-native customers. I’m confused!

  10. Well, maybe your comments will give Boris something to consider. I have no problems with some good Spanish tapas myself, and they’d pair nicely with quality beers. The language problem might be harder to solve … If I were in a situation like Boris’, I might do a YouTube video – How to Order Craft Beer in Korean! But some English on the menu would be nice.

  11. Boris says:

    Lessons on How to Run a Brewpub in Korea.

    Thank you for your post about my beers, I am glad you liked them. Is always very nice to get good feedback.

    About the critics on how I run my business, I am sorry that you did not like it, but there are some details clients don’t know but should know if they want to understand why I do things my way.

    Clients always think that if we fulfil their desires, we would have a successful business. But this is not the reality, we have to fulfil the desires of the potential people who will keep our business afloat. Specially in a harsh business environment like Korea.

    Brewing business in Korea is not easy because of various factors I will summarise in two parts, the financial and the social.

    Financial:

    Since brewpubs were allowed in Korea, more than 200 have been built and almost all are bankrupt. I think there are 30 left and half of them will probably close next year. The reason is very simple, the Korean tax system favours big companies and squeezes small companies. The taxable base is based on our investment, cost and production levels, the more you produce, the less tax you pay (proportionally). Therefore there are big conglomerates in Korea that go into any business sector, they know they will wipe out competition.

    We are the brewpub in Corea who pays less tax (at least officially) because I am the owner. brewer, builder, malter, etc… Please, note that we are the only brewpub here that malts its own barley. Even though we pay a lot of tax.

    The conclusion is that it is not easy to risk with ideas that will not bring a return to my investment.

    The Social part:

    In Korea you can cater to local people or to foreigners, it is impossible to cater for both. Being in Jeju it would be a problem to cater for foreigners for several reasons. 400 foreigners in Jeju is nothing. They are spread all around the island. If you run a brewpub in any city, a minimum of 15.000 potential customers are needed. Many entrepreneurs would not even risk with such a number. Bars in Jeju that cater for foreigners change ownership every 10 to 12 months.

    Chinese tourist are now the main customers of Modern Time (the other brewpub in Jeju). They do not spend money on food (European/Korean style) and drink very little. They are of low disposable income and go in groups with a guide. Guides ask us for money if they bring their clients. What is the point in giving them money if our profit margin is so low ? I was asked once for 40 per cent of the bill, I am still laughing about that …

    You compared us with Craftworks in Itaewon. Craftworks is NOT a brewpub. They have different tax obligations. They sell craft beer from another brewpub in Korea. In Korea is forbidden for brewpubs to sell beer outside premises, they found a legal way to do it. But as a foreigner/owner, I cannot risk to do it in Jeju or somewhere else in the mainland.

    So, I cater for locals, I cater for the second stage of their nights out (in Korea there are three stages), I am probably the brewpub with the highest ROI in Korea (return on Investment). I am also a professional brewer and international judge, so I care about the quality of my beers, about sending my beers to competitions and about wining medals whilst my brewpub is making enough money to afford my competition expenses and the beer I drink. Last Beer World Cup in May the two beers I sent reached the final in their category, but no medal …. I have to keep trying.

    Another “interesting” suggestion we get to run our business “better” is to sell our pints for 3,000 Won instead of 5,000 and hire young ladies with short skirts as waitresses. We pay 2,000 Won tax for each pint we sell, we would be bankrupt in one month if we followed this idea. CheersBrew in Seoul bought Myozen in KangNam very cheaply (so less tax based on investment costs) and did this strategy, after 12 months they went bankrupt in a city with 14,000,000 citizens !! (the beer was not bad).

    By the way, our sausages are not reheated, they are cooked fresh with authentic Spanish virgin olive oil. It is so good that sometimes I drink it raw before a night out.

    If a beer connoisseur or beer passionate is coming to visit my place, I am very happy to share beers together. The rest are mere details :-)

    So, back to work.

    Cheers with my Summer IPA!!

    Boris

  12. Wow, that is one big reality check. I had a feeling that catering to the Korean clientele had to be the smarter move in Jeju. Thanks for continuing a great discussion, Boris!

  13. Andrew Warwick says:

    Touche, Boris.
    I am currently writing a feasibility analysis for a brewpub on the mainland. Any advice would be most welcome. Perhaps Justin could find a way for us to exchange email addresses.
    Best wishes
    Andrew

  14. Daniel Miller says:

    Dear Boris,

    In response to your lengthy explanation about why it’s very difficult to cater to both foreigners and locals. I do understand and sympathize with a lot of what you have said but having a menu with English on the back would cost you nothing but a few hours work and a trip to the print shop. It’s not about excluding one group or another, it about being inclusive. I can think of lots of businesses in Korea that successfully cater to both Koreans and foreigners. After all, foreigners are not a different species:)

    By all means cater to your core Korean clientele, but at least don’t exclude potential tourists and short term residents like English teachers who would expect to see a menu in English and have a high disposable income, go out a lot and then leave after a year or two.

    About the beers for sale. Yes, they are delicious but might I suggest that you train your wait staff to pour them properly. On the two occasions that I visited, the young man who poured our pitcher simply put a pitcher under the tap and walked away until it had poured. That probably explains why the beers were almost completely flat and listless (despite the obvious good taste underneath).

    In my younger days I worked in several real ale locations including a microbrew pub and that is NOT how beer should be poured, with a total lack of care and passion.

    Also, the pitcher of your stout has so much yeast sediment at the bottom (had not been properly filtered or the lines had not been properly cleaned) and that’s the sort of thing that can cause a very nasty hangover.

    If you really are selling freshly cooked (non-reheated) sausages cooked with authentic Spanish Olive Oil then I think our definitions of fresh must be on different planets. I’ve visited Spain on a dozen occasions since my early twenties including living there for 3 months and what me and my dining partners were served at your pub had absolutely nothing to do with authentic Spanish cooking (in my view).

    Now, you can blame Korean regulations, tax laws or the local clientele, but as a business owner who is correctly proud of his excellent beers and seeks to introduce an original and high quality product into a foreign market, should you not also strive to reach an equally high standard in terms of your service, accessibility to non-Koreans and presentation standards. I simply don’t believe that having these high standards would drive away Korean customers.

    Specifically, train your staff to pour beer in the way that you intended it to be served for competition (unless you only bother to take care with this for competition judges and not paying customers), introduce a multilingual menu and have at least one member of your waitstaff who can some basic English and deal with non-Koreans.

    I hope you will not take my direct criticism personally but rather take on board the feedback from a paying customer and also think about the message you are sending out to the world about foreign clientele in your business.

    All the best,

    Dan

  15. staffid says:

    Borris i cant wait to try some of your beer.

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