Last month North Korea held its first ever beer festival. Tourists from the West sat on the banks of the Taedong river and gulped back Taedong beer, named after the same river. Our Korea correspondent Steve Evans wasn’t invited so he decided to hold a beer festival of his own – in South Korea. But it took some organising.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to have a beer. The thirst is there. No matter what it takes, you’ve got to get a bottle. So I flew to Beijing and picked up three.
My thirst was whetted by the pictures from North Korea of people drinking pots of beer in Pyongyang, served just like in the Munich beer festival by waitresses who ferried fistfuls of mugs back and forth from the bar. They did not wear the Bavarian dirndl but they had clearly learned the efficient German way of carrying five or six mugs per trip.
The announcer on North Korean television was ecstatic about the event: “The Pyongyang beer festival shows our people’s lives filled with happiness and optimism… It’s a people’s paradise and a highly civilised socialist country, while smashing the US and its heinous followers.”
Politics aside, I needed to drink the drink – so I boarded a cheap flight to Beijing in my own version of the booze cruises where Brits cross the channel to get French wine.
Taedonggang beer is not widely drunk in China but my Chinese friends procured a small stash in Beijing and ordered more from Dandong, the town on the Chinese border with North Korea.
I brought the forbidden North Korean beer back and sampled it.
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Tasting notes: “An OK beer, a bit bland to my palate more used to magnificent British bitter – a bit too much like ghastly, dishwater, mass-produced American beer, in my opinion.”
And this despite the fact that North Korea’s main brewery is actually English. It’s the old Ushers brewery from Trowbridge in Wiltshire which North Korea shipped over– lock, stock and barrel. North Korea could have produced fine British ale but it chose to make pale, globalised lager. More fool them, say I.
(In defence of the brewers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I should say that other brews are available in the North, including a browner ale that is more acceptable to the British palate.)
A few years ago, a prestigious international magazine – The Economist – opined that North Korean beer was better than South Korean beer, prompting outrage in South Korea. It would be like saying that English wine is better than French.
This isn’t the first time I have drunk North Korean beer – earlier in the year, I tried it in North Korea itself. I went to a crowded bar in Pyongyang, which was magnificent in its roughness. It was crowded with men mostly, chucking it back from rough pots like jam jars which, I remember, had chipped edges that gave a sensual, rough texture on the lips as the cold beer passed. The men stood in circles, the best way to drink beer.
When I say it was a rough bar, I mean “rough” in the sense of working class, no frills. Only one man clearly resented a Westerner. He gave me the death stare every time I looked up. But that could happen in any good bar some time into the evening. “Strangers in town” is a common sentiment in pubs everywhere.
Here in Seoul, the bars are now becoming worryingly trendy. Beer is the thing to drink – stronger, more expensive craft beer. The industry has come on in leaps and bounds since it was stung by the criticism that the North Koreans did it better.
There is huge variety. One of the South Korean breweries produces a British-style bitter called Queen’s Ale which would give British beer a run for its money. The Korean company already exports Queen’s Ale to Australia and Hong Kong. They also want to export to Britain but have been told that calling it Queen’s Ale might infringe British rules about royal endorsement. And, one imagines, the Queen is not going to endorse a Korean brew.
In the froth at the bottom of my glass, I detect a tale of two economies. South Korean brewing is a vibrant industry. It has morphed and improved. One of the microbreweries here has actually called one of its beers Taedonggang, appropriating the North Korean name – and whisper this – in my opinion, it is better than the original.
North Korea’s Taedonggang, though, is a brand which any competent marketer could transform into a global sales phenomenon, such is the thirst for new and exotic beers. Trendies everywhere, their hair bunched in topknots, would sip and sniff Taedonggang’s brews delicately. They would discuss and opine about the aroma and hoppiness – if only Pyongyang exported it.
It is a symbol of unfulfilled potential. Just like the country itself.