Where to Drink in Seoul, South Korea

Destinations by | Nov 2016 | Issue #118
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

In Seoul, it seems like you can’t walk a block without the words “craft beer,” in English and Korean, glaring out at you from a window or doorframe. Flavorful, hoppier beers—especially IPAs—are becoming the trendy thing to drink in the capital of this nation of very heavy drinkers. (According to a 2014 study by market research firm Euromonitor, South Koreans drink four times more than Americans.) This is especially true of women, many of whom, tired of the traditional Korean manner of soju-fueled binge drinking, are leading the better beer movement.

It wasn’t always thus. Though beer has long been popular here, it was a thin, fizzy, watery variety, brewed by two local conglomerates—Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewery Co. (OB)—which were protected by laws that limited breweries to that who could produce more than 1 million liters per year.

The leading brands—Hite, OB, and Cass—are mostly brewed with rice instead of malt, and they are cheap; a half liter mug at the bar still only costs between $2.50 and $3.50. A bottle at the corner store is $1.25. The mainstream beers also taste like nothing much at all. “It’s the worst popular beer there is,” says Jason McRaven, an expat from Chicago. “I only drink it if it’s my only option.”

Luckily, other options are now available. In 2011, the production brewing threshold was lowered to 150,000 liters per year, and in 2014 it was again slashed to 50,000. But that’s still too much for many small producers, who therefore package almost all their beer in kegs.

This May at the Great Korean Beer Festival, thousands packed into the grounds at Seoul’s Coex Mall to drink beer from 14 craft breweries, and give their opinions on beer, mainstream and otherwise. “I don’t like Korean beer. It doesn’t taste like beer,” says Hwang Sojung, 33, referring to mass-produced brands like Hite, OB, and Cass. “This is real beer,” she says, holding up a cup of local IPA.

Korea’s first craft beer bar was Oktoberfest. The Korean-style brewpub opened in 2002, with a brewmaster trained in Munich. It now has six branches around the city.

But the craft brewing explosion really began in 2010 when Craftworks opened its doors in Gyeongnidan, a rapidly gentrifying, foreigner-heavy neighborhood in central Seoul. From there, beer bars and brewpubs began to multiply—first in Gyeongnidan, then in the party neighborhoods of Hongdae, Itaewon, and Gangnam, and then everywhere.

Today, there are brewhouses all along Gyeongnidan’s “craft beer alley,” and in the summers, drinkers take their beers from the bars and bottle shops out into the street to congregate.
Magpie Brewing Co. is one of Gyeongnidan’s most famous residents. From the hip, industrial taproom, windows crank open on nice days to overlook the patio, where drinkers enjoy beers like the smoky Black Rock Porter and the creamy Country Folk Farmhouse Pale Ale at picnic tables underneath strings of lights.

Down the street, Made in Pongdang has a great upstairs corner for people-watching and drinking beer brewed in-house. Their Mosaic Bomb IPA is one of the most sought-after hoppy beers in Korea—fruity, well-balanced, lively, with a murky color and a creamy head.

The best-known beer-focused restaurant in Gyeongnidan is Craftworks. Apart from its nine original beers—try the Jirisan Moon Bear IPA—the pub serves up big brunches, salads, and snack foods. The Asian nachos feature pulled pork, crushed peanuts, red onions, and hot green chili peppers over thick tortilla chips. A few streets away, The Bottle Shop serves as a neighborhood hub for beer culture, with 120 bottled beers for sale, most of which are imported from Belgium and the US.

In the adjacent neighborhood of Haebangchon (HBC), the Hidden Cellar is a hybrid bottle shop and bar in a secluded basement location that sells five beers on draft and 100 more in bottles and cans. When Game of Thrones is on, fans here watch it on the big screen and play their own correlating drinking game.

On the third floor at a busy pedestrian intersection in Hongdae, Seoul’s premiere party neighborhood, Keg B is a great spot for people-watching. Its nine taps include Marihana, a bitter, slightly smoky, and distinctive Session IPA from Coedo Breweries in Japan, and Mingle, a murky and slightly limey wheat beer from Brew One in Seoul.

Hidden nearby down a long, ivy-terraced entrance, the Queens Head gives off a medieval European inn vibe with its dark wood molding and fireplace. The theme continues on the menu, which includes pasta, mussels, and a three beer taplist of German styles: Dunkel, Weizen, and Pilsner.

Built into an ornate replica of a medieval Czech castle, the Castle Praha exterior makes about as much sense here in Hongdae as a Korean palace would in central Prague. The range of beers on tap includes a fruity, creamy, well-balanced Märzen, which pairs well with Central European-inspired foods like sausages, goulashes, and a pancake-thin chicken schnitzel covered in a crispy batter, served with a garlicy tomato dipping sauce.

In nearby Sinchon, Neighborhood Taphouse serves brews from Busan’s Galmegi Brewing Co. at a sleek bar with subway-tiled walls and a minimalist aesthetic. Pair a housemade sausage pizza with Galmegi’s Lemon-Lime Gose in the warmer months, or, on chilly winter nights, its dark and smoky Campfire Amber Ale.

Near the city’s theater district, in the central Seoul neighborhood of Jongno, The Table serves nine of its own beers in an expansive, underground bar that looks like something from Star Trek: The Musical. Pull up a stool at the giant, high-top table and try the full-bodied and slightly sweet Honey Brown, or the Nugget Ale, a bitter Red Ale with a thick, creamy head.

In a nondescript back alley near the Ibis Hotel, Brew 3.14π and Brew 3.15π sit across from each other and specialize in pizza and fried chicken, respectively. Come for South Korean brews like Hand and Malt Brewing’s Slow IPA, a low-ABV beer with Citra and Falconers Flight hops, or Whasoo Brewing’s 7 percent Princeps Vanilla Stout.

Across the Han River in the Garuso Street district, 30 imported European beers flow from taps at Mikkeller Bar Seoul, a space decorated by the brewery’s signature illustrations with some Korean influences.

And at the western edge of the city, Dog & Pig Craft Brew Pub is a two-story pub with a second location just across the street, where gleaming fermentation tanks sitting just inside large windows churn out flagships like a Red Ale and a dark lager. Also brewing beer on-site is Hidden Track, in the city’s northeast. A high-ceilinged basement bar with an industrial motif, it serves American- and British-influenced brews, like an easy-drinking English Bitter and a slightly smoky American Porter.