‘Kim Jong-Ale’: North Korea’s surprising microbrewery culture explored

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

In my Kim Jong-il suit at the Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar.

Wired.co.uk picked up my North Korean Craft Beer post and developed the story further. Check out this excellent article featuring Josh Thomas from my early April tour, as well as many of my pictures.

North Korean Craft Beer

On my March 30th- April 6th, 2013 trip I brought in Josh Thomas, a craft beer expert living and working as an expat in Hong Kong. This spring trip was customized for Josh’s Easter Holiday with a special itinerary designed around his passion, craft beer. After the trip I asked Josh to comment on his experiences with the North Korean brews he sampled, and the various venues we visited:

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Ms Yu enjoy draft beers at the bar of the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

You approached me to arrange a trip to DPRK with a focus on beer and nightlife. As a craft beer expert did the DPRK live up to your expectations?

It absolutely did! It actually far surpassed it. Like many things about North Korea, there wasn’t much information available about what the drinking culture was like there, but what I did know was that Koreans, North and South, love to socialize over alcohol and the rumor was that North Korean beer far surpassed the quality of South Korean beer. With the exception of a small number of American-style craft breweries in Seoul, this was 100% true! North Koreans do much more with much less and really seem to embrace the idea of experimenting with their brews. I fully believe that beer, being the one beverage found around the entire world, is a great unifier among all cultures. For me, as a home brewer and overall global beer nerd, I knew it would be one cultural aspect that I would share with the North Koreans. And it was true! Nothing was more special on this trip than the smiles shared over a beer, comparing and critiquing the beers, and talking about the differences between American beers and North Korean beers. There is no propaganda over beer, just real conversation, smiles, and drunken stumbles back to our respective rooms. And yes, North Koreans get hung over too.

We visited a lot of venues and drank a lot of beer on the trip, where were your favorites and why?

The best beers we sampled were found at the Paradise Microbrewery. Quite an interesting find in North Korea, it seems to operate as a highly independent brewing company, outside the confines of the state brewing Taedonggang Brewery. Unfortunately the brewer was not around when we visited, and the bartenders knew very little about beer and wouldn’t let us visit the back where the beer is made, but whoever made the beer seemed highly knowledgeable about beer. In my opinion the Paradise Pale Ale was the best beer of the trip!

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

Beers on tap at the Paradise Microbrewery bar.

Without a doubt the best venue was Yanggakdo Hotel. Not necessarily because they were my favorite beer we sampled, but because I was able to meet the brewer and even visit the microbrewery where they made the beers. It was a bit sad to see eight 25 gallon fomenters when there was no chance of them using more than one at a time due to the famine, but the smile on the young lady brewmasters face when I told her that I thought she had the best job in North Korea was the most heartwarming moment of the trip for me.

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Jordan Harbinger visit the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

Tell me about the craft beer served and the venues at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the Paradise Micro Brewery, and Taedonggang Brewery Bar.

Beer in Asia, recently imported American-style craft breweries aside, is largely based on American-German style pale lagers. These beers, like Tsing Tao in China, OB in South Korea, and Asahi in Japan are roughly similar to the American-German pale lagers like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Fine for a hot day when you need a cold beverage, but not something I’d choose first – I said I’m a beer nerd, not a beer snob, I will drink a Tsing Tao on occasion, as I live in Hong Kong! I’d much rather enjoy a Harpoon IPA or Mikkeller Hop Bomb Challenge given the choice!

Interestingly enough, economic sanctions in DPRK have lead to an entirely different tradition of brewing, not found elsewhere in Asia. Electrical shortages, causing unexpected and spontaneous power outages, mean that the refrigeration required for lagers is simply impossible. Budweiser-style, largely tasteless, lagers such as is popular in South Korea (OB and Hite) simply cannot be brewed. As a result, North Korean beer is ironically a “steam beer”, the only type of beer invented in the United States. A “steam beer” (better known in the United States from the brand Anchor Steam) is simply a lager brewed at Ale temperatures giving increased flavor, a pronounced bitterness, and a greater body. Crazier still was their affinity for stouts and porters in the DPRK, serving us elegant Coffee Porters and Chocolate Stouts. Their own discovery and version of a Pale Ale was astounding considering the lack of formal brewing training available to the budding brewmasters. Speaking with one of these brewmasters at the Yanggakdo Hotel, I encouraged her to try brewing an American-style India Pale Ale, if she was able to get the hops imported. If I learned anything from the North Koreans, however, is that they make do with what they have. I’d love to try her result!

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Tell me about your experiences in the more local venues?

Well I’m a bit of a cynic. Some of the local experiences I truly believe were local. Some of the experiences I think might have had some actors planted to stand between the tourists and the real locals. The diplomatic club and the clam bake in particular were great local experiences. It was amazing to see some Koreans finally ‘let their hair down’ so to speak, and stop being mascots for their country, and start being real people. Over the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel clam bake I got to know our bus driver, Mr Lee. It was over this meal, while he poured petrol over live clams, blowing out his bottle when it caught fire, and downing huge amounts of “Pyongyang Vodka”, a 40% alcohol form of Soju, that I really became friends with this quiet and unspoken man. He was unbelievably friendly and never stopped smiling and really seemed to love hanging out with us whenever he could. He, more than anyone else, became my true friend while in the country. What surprised me the most was that he quietly told me that he used to be a soldier in the North Korean People’s Army. Its hard to wrap your mind around, as an American, this short, quiet, and friendly man was once a soldier in the army we seem to most fear in the west.

What was your favorite experience of the trip that was not related to drinking?

Undoubtedly the petrol clambake. Part of traveling around the world for me is trying local foods. North Korea, in the midst of a famine, doesn’t necessarily have “local” foods that they would be comfortable offering to foreigners without being embarrassed. Much of our food was simply iconic Korean foods such as kimchee, banchans, and prawn pancakes. The petrol clambake, however, was fully North Korean. Like much I saw in North Korea, they used unconventional means to solve problems by themselves. No charcoal or wood to bake clams? No problem. Just douse them in gasoline! Most people would think they clams would come out tasting of fuel, but I’m happy to announce that they were actually delicious. Fresh, clean, and tasting of nothing but clam!

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

Nampo Hot Spring Hotel petrol clam bake.

Would you go back? Suggest others to travel there?

I certainly would! Actually, I think the second trip would only be more fun than the first. Like anyone on their first trip to North Korea I was quite a bit scared going in. However, the nerves quickly dissipate when you meet your amazing guides and realize that you’re going to be just fine, but I can only imagine that a more relaxed mood going in will only enhance my second trip. I would highly advise anyone who can should organize their own trip and choose their own itinerary. To get the most out of a trip to North Korea, find an interest of your own that you can mirror in the North Koreans. They’re not the Taliban and they enjoy having a good time with any number of western things. If you’re a surfer, organize a surfing trip in North Korea. If you’re a chef, organize a local food tour. If you’re a cinema fanatic, get yourself into the Pyongyang International Film Festival! The options are literally endless and by organizing a tour that matches your own interests, you will get a greater insight into the culture and country.

American on the DMZ North Korea

Josh Thomas and a commander on the North Korea DMZ.

Paradise Bar and Microbrewery

For my April 2013 trip I’m bringing in a group of beer aficionados; top of their request list is for a visit to the Pyongyang Paradise Bar and Microbrewery.

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

The beer is cheap and tasty, if sometimes off color, and the facility is atmospheric and relaxing. Just don’t expect to hang with locals here; this may be a haunt for the North Korean elite but only expect to get a quick glimpse as they make their way to one of the brewery’s private rooms.

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

Pyongyang Paradise Department Store

The bar and brewery is located on the top floor of the foreign currency Paradise Department Store. A visit here to check out the goods and stock up on some beer snacks before going up to drink is often possible. Above our North Korean guide Ms. Han walks the aisles.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III