It is no secret that Koreans enjoy drinking. Many people associate Korean drinking culture with soju and, to a lesser degree, makgeolli (Korean rice wine) but beer is also quite popular. According to a 2011 article published in the Joongang Daily, Korea produced 1,961,221 kiloliters of beer and imported 58,993 tons. In 2012, the amount imported increased to 63,415 tons.

According to the same article, the relatively cheap price of domestic beer is because it is classified as an essential market product and is therefore highly regulated by the Korean government. However beer has apparently only had a short history in Korea.

It is hard to give a concrete first for anything in history because new information is always being discovered, but when it comes to the introduction of beer into Korea, undoubtedly some of the early visits by Western warships played a significant role.

In August 1875, a British warship visited the Gomun Island group (just south of Yeosu) and entertained several Korean officials aboard the vessel. To soothe the path to friendship, the Korean officials brought with them makgeolli which they gladly shared with their Western hosts. The British, though, found it to be quite sour.

Obliged to answer their Korean visitors’ hospitality in kind, the commander of the British warship ordered a keg of British pale ale to be brought forward and offered to his guests. The pale ale, not improved by the trip half-way around the world, was drunk impassively by the Koreans who gave “no signs of pleasure or disgust.”

In November 1882, a Korean delegation visited a steamship at Jemulpo (modern Incheon) and was treated to a dinner aboard the vessel. One witness at the dinner wrote:

“[They] enjoyed heartily our fare, and disposed of beefsteaks, mutton-chops, plum pudding, beer, claret, champagne and coffee with as much relish as any foreigner. Our only fear was that we should run short of mustard, which they took with everything.”

However, the taste for beer seems to have taken root and by 1884 beer was being regularly imported from Japan. According to one early British diplomat:

“From Japan the Koreans [have] brought over much beer, which, with kerosene and matches, are the products of Western civilization that first strike the native fancy.”(1) He also noted that it was a wise precaution for travelers – perhaps because of the uncertainty of finding good drinking water – to lash a couple of bottles of beer to their chair-litters when traveling between Jemulpo and Seoul.

Then again, another reason could have been to bribe their chair-bearers with the alcohol as it was quite common for them to get a short distance outside of the city and then refuse to go any further unless they received more money than had been initially settled on.

In 1885, a group of Englishmen traveling from Jemulpo followed his advice and carried with them three quarts of German beer. When they stopped at the half-way point, a small inn, they broke out the beer and shared it with some of the inn’s Korean customers. Apparently it was the Koreans’ first taste of German beer and all “expressed their high opinion of the liquor” with the exception of one man who “took but one mouthful and ejected it with an expression of extreme disgust.”

But beer wasn’t new to all Koreans — especially in Seoul. While most Westerners brought their own beer with them, it could be obtained at the first hotel in Seoul that catered to Westerners. According to one guest in October 1884, after a 30 minute wait, he “was brought four eggs nearly raw, four persimmons, a bottle of beer, and some tea” as appetizers.

By the late 19th century, stores and hotels throughout Seoul and the open ports sold beer — much of it brewed in China and Japan. But it still probably remained too expensive for the average Korean laborer to consume on a regular basis.

The Korean palace was also a large purchaser of beer. When a group of Westerners were invited to a picnic near the mountain fortress of Bukhan Mountain in Seoul, they were provided with beer, coffee, champagne, canned meats and German cigars by the Korean palace’s staff. In the next couple of decades, visitors to the palace were often served beer along with wines and liquors.

The largest Korean brewery, Oriental Brewery (often referred to as OB) was established in 1952 and currently controls about 55 percent of the domestic market. Its rival, Hite-Jinro, controls almost the remaining 45 percent. But there are other companies that are trying to make their way into the market with their own beers. One of these beers is Jespi.

Jespi (meaning “Jeju Spirit”) was developed by the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province Development Corporation. Brewed with barley grown on the island and the abundant supply of pure water for which the island is famed, it is expected to begin selling on Jeju Island in June 2013.

If you’re waiting for Jespi but would like to try a local brew, there is Boris Brewery in Gu (Old) Jeju or Modern Time in Shin (New) Jeju. — Ed.

 

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1) Percival Lowell, Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm (London, England: Truber and Company, 1885), p. 57.
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