Only a small number of Westerners have had the opportunity to visit North Korea. Even fewer have gotten an inside look at the Hermit Kingdom’s breweries.
In its quest to find the best brews in the world, the Scotland-based craft beer-of-the-month club Beer52 has earned its fair share of frequent flier miles. Co-founded by Fraser Doherty with friend James Brown, Beer52 boasts having visited 213 breweries across 49 countries, discovering 708 beers along the way.
“We never really expected our adventures in craft beer would ever take us to North Korea,” admits Doherty. Nevertheless, he leapt at the opportunity to visit the DPRK’s breweries and gain some insight into the drinking scene of the secretive dictatorship, where men receive vouchers entitling them to five liters of beer per month.
The idea to visit the North came during a trip to South Korea, when Doherty was curating a beer box for Beer52 that ultimately included offerings from South Korea’s Magpie, The Booth, Amazing, and Wild Wave. “Our friends at those breweries figured if we were going to do an edition about Korea, we'd be missing a big part of the story if we didn't also visit the North,” says Doherty.
Easier said than done, though. It took a year of planning and research to arrange a trip in which Doherty visited several breweries in the capital Pyongyang, and others in the cities of Pyongsong and Kaesong. Perhaps the best known of those breweries, Taedonggang, was a bizarre gift to the country's beer scene from previous leader Kim Jong-il. In 2000, the North Korean government purchased the defunct English brewery Ushers of Trowbridge for 1.5 million GBP, dismantled it, packed it into 30 shipping containers, and reassembled it in Pyongyang.
While mass-produced beers are available across North Korea, microbreweries have also flourished far and wide, largely thanks to the DPRK’s geopolitical position.
“Due to challenges of distribution owing to the country's bumpy roads and international sanctions on petrol, many places have taken up brewing on a small scale,” explains Doherty. “We discovered breweries in hotels, the supermarket, a bowling alley, and even a train station.”
Although brewing takes places in unexpected spots, there are plenty of good old-fashioned bars to drink it in. Dozens and dozens of “standing” beer bars, where patrons stand around small tables rather than sit, dot the streets of Pyongyang.
Among others, Doherty visited Moran Beer Bar, which showcases beers from the Ryongsong brewery, and Paradise Beer Bar, which brews on-site. “Most places had a certain aesthetic: pastel colors, gaudy light fittings, immaculately uniformed staff, and constant propaganda blaring from a television,” says Doherty. “By the end of the week, we'd heard top hit ‘We Will Go to Mount Paektu’ so many times that we knew the words to the chorus.”
Brewing may be widespread in North Korea, but its brewers face unique challenges. An unreliable power supply, for example, makes it difficult to cool beer, which has led North Koreans to develop versions of America's historic steam beer.
They were offended that a beer could contain 40g/L of hops, saying, 'That's not how you make beer!'”
Access to key ingredients can also be limited. “Due to international sanctions, brewers explained they have only one source of yeast—from the local technical institute—and one source of hops, reportedly from near Mount Paektu,” reveals Doherty, adding that North Korean beers typically feature a low hop content.
He notes that North Korea's brewers claim to channel “juche,” the national philosophy of self-reliance: “They seemed proud of creating a variety of different beers using all-DPRK ingredients.”
While lagers are most common, North Korean drinkers also consume dark beers and rice beers. Taedonggang recently launched a wheat beer, which the brewery’s director told a local news agency would boost North Koreans’ quality of life “by engraving the spirit of the great general [Kim Jong-un]” into the drink.
“The leading brands Taedonggang, Chukjon Kyunghyung, and Ryongsong served fresh are all more flavorful than the likes of Budweiser or Heineken—but don't age well,” says Doherty. Other international drinkers speak of them as full-bodied with hints of sweetness and a faint bitter aftertaste.
Thanks to a distrust of Western branding, North Korean beers are numbered rather than named. “At Taedonggang brewery, their seven beers were imaginatively named Beer Number 1, Beer Number 2, and so on,” says Doherty. His favorites included the No. 2—a high-ABV lager that the brewers claim “uses more technology,” without elaborating further—along with the No. 6, a dunkel style, and the No. 3, made with half rice and half barley.
“I wouldn't want to give the impression all the beers were great,” says Doherty, who tasted his share of off flavors and flat beer during his visit. Poor brewing hygiene, lack of knowledge, or problems with ingredients can all lead to a hit-and-miss quality he dubs “Maekju Roulette.” (“Maekju” is Korean for beer.)
Likewise, local brewers gave mixed reviews when Doherty served up some highly rated craft beers from UK producers Fierce, Left Handed Giant, Verdant, and Wylam. To North Korean tastes, New England IPAs and coffee porters are extreme flavors.
“They were amazed by the array of hop aromas and flavors in the beers we shared from the outside world,” he says. “But they were offended that a beer could contain 40g/L of hops, saying, 'That's not how you make beer!'”
Like all foreign visitors to the DPRK, Doherty was chaperoned for the entirety of his stay, but he still met everyday North Koreans who gave him yet another perspective on a country that is better known in the West for ballistic missile tests and starving its citizens than for its beer.
“We spent a few evenings drinking at places where the staff spoke enough English for us to exchange stories. We also rubbed shoulders with shoppers over a few pints of the house beer at the Kwangbok supermarket. They clinked glasses with us, offering the most North Korean of phrases: ‘Cheers, Comrade!’”