Beer lovers in Asia, rejoice! There is hope for the beer scene in this part of the world, and Seoul is a shining light. It’s not all pissy lager anymore (though, if I’m being honest, there are few things better than a can of Cass and some bbq sticks on the street, but I digress…).
Korea does have some crazy beer laws, which currently prohibit microbreweries from, well, existing. But some smart brewers have gotten it together by handing their recipes over to large-scale breweries to brew their beer for them. these microbrewers then sell their unique craft beers in small bars and pubs around Seoul (and other parts of South Korea).
Craftworks is one of the granddaddies of Seoul’s craft brewing scene. They brew at least seven different beers, as well as some seasonals, all of which are fresh and ripe with an American-style bent. The Jirisan Moon Bear IPA was the standout for me – tough to beat Centennial, Chinook and Cascade hops blended into a super fresh, hoppy IPA that does well against Seoul’s scorching summer weather.
I also enjoyed the super malty Halla Mountain Golden Ale and the Bukhansan Pale, which is a punchy APA with sour notes. Craftworks has three locations in Seoul – I visited their Namsan location, which though small has a distinctly American craft beer bar atmosphere and a nice little patio, and does American grub.
Magpie Brewing Company
In terms of amazing Asian atmosphere, Magpie wins hands down. Due to the odd time of day I had to research (afternoon), only Magpie’s Itaewon ‘brewshop’ was open. Not really a bottle shop, this is actually a mini-microbar in what is essentially a corner retail unit. The doors roll up and the teeny pub is open-air. This was especially incredible as there was a heavy downpour going on just as I arrived, so it felt a bit like drinking insanely good beer in someone’s garage in Korea. London’s hipsters have nothing on the shabby-chicness of this place.
Magpie’s beers were probably the best of those I sampled. They tasted unique and thoughtful, rather than like poor renditions of American beers (which is sometimes the case with expat brewing). I was lucky enough to sample their lavender ale, which happened to be seasonal at the time, and it was light and refreshing (not too much lavender) and built on a balanced mix of delectable hops and malts. The pale ale and Cascadian dark got a similar review. Magpie also have locations in Hongdae and Jeju, and the Itaewon location has a proper basement bar that opens in the evenings.
I went to The Booth mainly because it was around the corner from several other microbreweries on my crawl and also because it was open at a weird time of the afternoon when a lot of other stuff was closed. But I have to say I recommend it 100%. It’s this divey little pizza place that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in, say, Brooklyn. They serve pizza by the slice and their own house beer, Bill’s Pale Ale, which was fresh and tasty. They also had some unnamed ‘dark beer’ in bottles, which they made into a dark beer float by adding ice cream. If that sounds gross to you, you haven’t tried one!
I’ll be honest here and say that I didn’t love the atmosphere of Reilly’s. It’s a 1990s American-style sports bar (with a semi-nautical theme?) that happens to serve some decent beer, including a few house-named brews. I was glad I was there in the quiet of mid-afternoon, because I could imagine things might get a bit rowdy later at night.
That being said, the beer selection here was commendable and it turned out to be a good place to sample different brews from around Seoul and Korea. While I was here I sampled the house cream stout, which was fine, and, against my better judgement, the Jeju Tangerine IPA, which turned out better than I hoped (though not entirely quaffable). But the selection of non-Reilly’s beers was sizeable. I’d suggest going in the afternoon or on an off evening for some true sampling, because the location is good (steps from Itaewon station) and there is a big food menu if you have a hankering for something pubbish.
Some Seoul pubs and microbreweries that I really wanted to try but didn’t have time to get to on my most recent trip include: Lovibond, The Four Seasons, Big Rock Brewery, Pong Dang Craft Beer Co. and Little Ale. But fear not, I’ll be revisiting this great country in early 2015, so look out for part deux in this series on Korea’s craft beer scene.
In the meantime, if you’ve got a few days in the Korean capital, the following are a few craft beer bars in Seoul that I’d recommend. I’d also suggest checking out seoulhomebrew.com, which among other things maintains an up-to-date map of all the craft beer pubs in Korea.