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Beer Reviews

Taedonggang No. 2 Lager, 5.5% ABV | 대동강맥주

 

This is no ordinary beer. The sight of it would either elicit fascination and surprise or confusion with beer folks - I hate to use the cliche, but it really is an iykyk beer, some might even call it a unicorn, grail or whale. Regardless, I'm going to go over all of it - because it took me the better of a year to find it.

This is Taedonggang Beer, named after the Taedong River which runs through the city of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

It's not the only beer that is made in and by North Korea - the brewery that makes it is state owned, which should be of no surprise to anyone - but it is the most popular and common, as well as is the face of North Korean brewing within and outside of North Korea. And it is beer of quite a bit of importance to South Korea as well - it would not be an exaggeration to say that it was the catalyst for the boom in South Korea's craft beer scene.

 

Inside Pyongyang. (Image Source: Atlas Obscura)

So You Want To Make Good Beer? Easy, Buy A Brewery In The UK For £1.5 Million And Bring It Over, Remember To Take The Toilet Seats

But going back to Taedonggang, it might surprise many folks to find out that North Korea even has beer making capabilities. And how the state achieved it is a rather amusing story. It all began in 2000 when Kim Jong Il had decided that the state needed to up its beer game - there were several breweries before such as Pohak and Pyongyang Beer, but these were deemed to be of subpar quality - and so the leader of the state did what any reasonable person would do - he went and bought a brewery for £1.5 million.

With the help of German second-hand brewery brokers Uwe Oehms, a 175-year-old UK brewery was found to be a suitable candidate - it was Ushers of Trowbridge which was established in Wiltshire, southwest of London, which had recently shuttered. The historic brewery had been doing fairly well as a regional brewer that also made Miller brand beer, Steinlager, and Amstel, but given its poor stewardship, had found it hard to maintain profitability. Ushers was even once part of the Grand Metropolitan group, which would eventually merge with Guinness to form what is today Diageo, the spirits giant.

 

Ushers of Trowbridge, today in east Pyongyang.

 

Months after the brewery was put up for sale, the vintage looking bricked-walled brewery's head brewer Gary Todd was told a buyer had been found but that Uwe could not say who. Soon after, several North Korean officials would show up to the shuttered brewery to inspect the facility - safe to say it would come as quite a shock to Todd that the officials were from North Korea and would ask that the entire brewery be disassembled and shipped over to Pyongyang, and then be reassembled identically. It's as if they wanted to copy the brewery in Wiltshire, UK, and then paste the exact same brewery in Pyongyang, North Korea.

And that is what they did.

The extent to which they did so is also rather amusing - they would ask Russian engineers to disassemble the brewery brick by brick, and would go so far as to even bring over the plastic cups in the brewery's vending machine, every individual floor tile, and even the toilet seats were taken. The months long operation would eventually have the Trowbridge locals give their local brewery's new owner the nickname of Kim Jong Ale. The North Koreans seriousness about keeping everything as is went so far as to preserve the brewery's architectural layout which was designed with a separation between the brewhouse and the packaging plant due to a city road that ran across the brewery - the North Koreans would mirror that exactly in Pyongyang, except without the road running through the brewery.

 

Taedonggang Brewery in Pyongyang. (Image Source: Koryo Tour)

 

The only thing the North Koreans couldn't have was Todd himself, who opted not to follow them to Pyongyang, and thus had to spend months going over the entire practice of brewing beer with the Ushers facility, which at the time was considered quite modernised, which was in large part its allure to the North Koreans.

“They were a nice bunch of guys, but you couldn’t have a laugh or a joke with them. You couldn’t talk to them without one of their government officials.” says Todd, who did not believe it would be possible to execute such an ambitious albeit amusing plan.

After all the disassembling was done, the brewery was packed up into containers which first had to be vetted by the UK government which feared that the North Koreans couldn't possibly simply want to buy a brewery just to make better beer, and might perhaps harbour nuclear ambitions with the equipment. After it was deemed indeed the case that it was just a brewery after all, the parts were shipped to east Pyongyang, where the Russian engineers would reassemble the brewery on a cabbage field.

 

He seems to like Taedonggang's beers.

Taedonggang Up And Running

By 2002, the state-owned Taedonggang brewery was up and running. It might be of interest to note that the brewery is ISO 9001, ISO 22000 and HACCP certified. The brewery uses North Korean barley and rice from the southern Hwanghae Province, and hops from the northern Ryanggang Province, with water coming from the Taedonggang underground tributaries, thus all ingredients coming entirely from North Korea itself. 

The brewery produces 7 flagship beers, which would simply be identified from 1 to 7. Taedonggang 1 through 5 would be lagers of varying proportions of rice and malt, with 1 being all malt, and 5 being all rice. Taedonggang 6 and 7 would be Schwarzbiers, with 6 having more malt than 7. Only Taedonggang No. 1 and No. 2 (No. 2 is most common) that is exported out of North Korea, with the remainder only available should you find yourself in Pyongyang, where the locals are given vouchers that entitle them to up to 5 litres of the beer every month.

 

The Pyongyang Koryo restaurant in Shanghai is one of the few places you can pick up some Taedonggang Lager. (Image Source: Vox)

How I Got A Bottle Of Taedonggang Lager Without Going To North Korea

Now you might be wondering how I got my hands on the Taedonggang No. 2 Lager, and I'll tell you that I did not go to North Korea myself to get it - I might be a fan of beers, but that would be a stretch. After quite extensive digging, I had found that the the Taedonggang No. 2 is the most commonly exported (aside from the No. 1) of North Korean beers, but only to highly specific locations outside North Korea. While there are a number of locations that are rumoured to have it, or may at one point or another carry it, there are ultimately only two reliable spots to get it - the first is around the South Korean - North Korean border, at the tourist store on the South Korean side, which is accessible via a tourist tour to see the border.

 

Dining at the state-run restaurant is quite the experience. (Image Source: Vox)

  

The second place to get it is in the city of Shanghai, China, where the North Korean state runs a restaurant called the Pyongyang Koryo Restaurant, that serves as a sort of food diplomacy, where guests can dine and try North Korean cuisine, watch performances and of course, try North Korean beer - the restaurant is operated by a fully North Korean staff, which makes the entire dining quite an experience in and of itself (albeit some have commented that the restaurant does charge some premium prices). Whilst North Korea used to run the Pyongyang Koryo restaurant as a chain, with outlets even in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Hanoi, Vietnam, as well as multiple chains in Shanghai, it seems that even the North Koreans were hurt by Covid, and so shuttered the restaurants, with only the one single outlet remaining in Shanghai.

A Little Bit Of A Nudge In The Right Direction For South Korea's Craft Beer Scene

Now what's this got to do with South Korea's craft beer scene? 

 

(Image Source: The Korea Times, The Economist)

 

For the longest time, and even till this day, South Korea's beer market has been dominated by two giants - Oriental Brewery (OB) and HiteJinro. Up until the 2010's, the two macro breweries pretty much controlled 90% of the beer market in South Korea. Like many other Asian countries that erected stiff taxes and high minimum output requirements initially as a way to protect their local native alcohol economy against foreign alcohol (think makgeolli and soju in South Korea), the laws eventually became obstructive to the emergence of local craft beer brewers. 

However, with the 2002 FIFA World Cup to be jointly held in South Korea and Japan, there was impetus to allow more vibrancy in the local craft brewing scene - though brewers were still disallowed from distributing their brews outside of their pubs. Aspiring craft brewers would trudge along, many of whom would contract brew their beers, or find other ways of attempting to make a sustainable business out of their passion - nothing material really happens for the next decade. Eventually in 2012, the article "Fiery Food, Boring Beer" by British journalist Daniel Tudor hits, claiming that even North Korea with its Taedonggang beer was better than what was available in South Korea - and, you can just imagine the debate that stirred (for the record, numerous folks from all over Asia have claimed that Taedonggang is likely the best lager in Asia). Of course, the article wasn't the only thing, but it did stir sufficient public discourse that got folks thinking in the right direction - today, craft brewers in South Korea abound!

 

The craft beer scene in South Korea today is one of vibrance. (Image Source: CK Travels)

 

It's been a wild story from how a shuttered down Wiltshire brewery gets transplanted over to Pyongyang, mirrored identically, with even the toilet seats brought over, to how I even managed to track down this beer (which I've spared the precise details, although I have hopefully left some critical steps pointing one in the right direction, should you want to try Taedonggang's lager yourself), and finally how the Taedonggang beer helped nudge South Korea's craft beer scene to the vibrance that it enjoys today.

In terms of specs, the Taedonggang No. 2 is made with 30% rice and 70% barley malt.

Let's give it a go!

Taedonggang No. 2 Lager, 5.5% ABV | 대동강맥주 - Review

 

Tasting Notes

Colour: Light Gold

Aroma: Really malty and honeyed rounded aromas. There’s a distinct rustic rice quality to it too - unwashed rice, somewhat nutty. Over time it grows to be more along the lines of rice pudding or glutinous rice.

Taste: Really mellow, rich and rounded texture - still really buttery and malty. Quite creamy in fact with a light carbonation. Honey, wheat, and then more of that rustic rice flavours. There’s a slight savouriness to it, like a single drop of teriyaki sauce.

Finish: Pretty clean and silky still. The rice notes become more apparent here again - unwashed rice, slightly nutty, and then more of those stickier and sweeter, chewy rice pudding and glutinous rice. Lingering notes of wheat. 

 

My Thoughts

Quite frankly this was a stand out lager - incredibly rich and malty, really rounded aromas and taste that had a very nice silky and buttery texture. There was a really distinct rice vibe to it all throughout in the form of nutty unwashed rice as well as sweeter, more chewy glutinous rice or rice pudding. It wasn’t dense but had a good depth to it, whilst still being refreshing. It’s really cohesive in its profile and while not crisp on the finish, it finished off gently and mellowed, in a creamy fashion.

I think where this pulls out ahead of other lagers is just how rounded and rich it is - consistently as well - with a good amount of complexity, a really silky and malty texture. It’s nothing groundbreaking but it is incredibly well made. Quite impressive really - it really is a very stellar lager.

  

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot