When one thinks of Asian alcohols Japanese sake or fiery Chinese baijiu come to mind. Those who are unfamiliar with the region could be forgiven for overlooking the importance of beer in modern Asian culture, but as quality, distribution, and marketing improve, these Asian beers are increasingly coming to the world’s attention. From China’s Tsingtao to Laos’s Beerlao, Asian beers have been raising critics’ eyebrow as of late.
Even North Korea is getting in on the game with Taedonggang Beer. In 2000, North Korea purchased, dismantled, and shipped the entire defunct Usher’s Beer Brewery in Wiltshire, England. The factory was re-setup in the Pyongyang suburbs. Today, Taedonggang is recognized as one of the best Korean beers on the market, although anyone familiar with Taedonggang’s watery South Korean counterparts knows that doesn’t mean much.
Jon Herskovitz, writing for Reuters, notes that Taedonggang, while popular with foreigners, is not strong enough for the locals, who need to get a bigger bang for their buck:
Beer is not the drink of choice for most North Koreans, who prefer cheaper rice-based liquor that packs a big punch.
“They need to be able to drink more at the same price,” said Choi Soo-young, an expert on the North at the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
And yet, inspite of the lack of popular approval, Taedonggang has a special place in the hearts of many cadres:
Choi said the brewery is a favorite project of the ruling communist party, whose members can afford beer and will make sure the factory receives all the ingredients it needs even though the North cannot produce enough food to feeds it 22 million people.
North Korean defector Jong Su-ban, who came to the South in 2000, said impoverished farmers would scrounge for anything they could find to concoct their own home brews.
“We found corn flower and hops and made something that came out a weird milky color. At least it was fizzy like beer,” he said.
Don’t expect Taedonggang to be making an appearance at your local liquor store anytime soon. Although available at select locations in South Korea, Taedonggang has many hurdles to cross before making its way to overseas markets:
North Korea may have solved the riddle of making a robust beer but it has not completely solved the problem of bottling it.
The brewery has occasional trouble sealing bottles properly and the glass it uses is fragile.
The transport system in North Korea is also a mess, making it unlikely that the beer can become one of the few legitimate exports from a country shunned by the developed world for its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and a human rights record cited by the United States as one of the world’s worst.
Distributor Park said he had to print labels in the South and send bottles from China in order to package the beer for export.
I’ve had the opportunity to sample Taedonggang Beer on several occasions. I found it to be good, but not memorable. It was sweeter than I would have preferred, but all-around, quite drinkable and refreshing.
Above: A bottle of Taedonggang Beer and a box of North Korean-made ginseng cigerattes.
In a rather idealized report from a Pro-Pyongyang propaganda rag, Pyongyang residents discuss how they have made Taedonggang an important part of their daily routine. Writes Pyongyang Report:
Taedonggang Beer has caused a storm of sensation among Pyongyang people. Beer bars used to be only for a few beer enthusiasts because it couldn’t be said that Pyongyang Beer was much better than ordinary bottled beer people generally drink at home.
Kim Gwang Ho, 35, dropped at a Taedonggang Beer bar in Chollima Street with his fellow worker after work. They work at Pyongyang Gymnasium near the bar. They are engaged in the transportation and installation of sports equipment. It is their daily routine to go to a sauna to sweat and refresh themselves after work, and then go to a beer bar. “Taedonggang Beer has a unique taste, anyway. This beer is stronger than Pyongyang Beer. When I feel thirsty and I drink that beer, I feel…what can I say…cool and refreshed. Anyway, I can’t stop drinking another glass after a glass of that beer.”
Pyongyangites generally call beer a “soft drink”. This means that they don’t recognize beer as a liquor, though it is an alcoholic drink. But now, Taedonggang Beer has dispelled this concept. Taedonggang Beer has a special taste and a high alcohol content. Its alcohol content is 5.7%. If you drink it without restraining yourself, you will get quite high.
Kim, who had already got drunk, said, “I had never got drunk before, but today, I feel tipsy on a glass of this drink. Indeed, this alcohol is so strong.”
“It is because you have drunk so much, isn’t it? Look at the table. How many glasses are there on the table?” Paek, manager of the beer bar, said with a smile.
A glass of beer has a volume of about 500ml and costs 1won 50 jon. People can drink beer as much as they like. The quantity of beer consumed by the beer bar on Chollima Street in a day is over 1,000 liters.
Taedonggang beer bars are sure to be filled with Pyongyangites on hot summer days.