Californians love their microbreweries; my first taste of a serious beer was San Francisco’s Anchor Steam and San Diego has a thriving beer culture (Try Stone, Ballast Point, or Alesmith). In a fascinating travelogue at Wired.com.uk, Ian Steadman reports on the North Korean beer scene. Hong Kong-based Josh Thomas managed to visit three breweries in the country–the Paradise Microbrewery, the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery, and the Taedonggang National Brewery. In a transaction we didn’t know about, the regime apparently bought a British brewery in 2000 that used German equipment for £1.5m and had the whole thing shipped and rebuilt on the edges of the capital, Pyongyang; that’s the national brewery. But for the smaller breweries, necessity is the mother of invention. Thomas is worth quoting at length:
“Because electricity is in short supply in North Korea, the refrigeration required for lagers is simply impossible, so the majority of beers we drank were either ales or “steam beers”.
Steam beer is a style invented (ironically) in the United States — the only beer style to originate from the US — during the California Gold Rush. Based on German-style lagers, but fermented at ale temperatures, it was a popular drink created out of necessity in locations where refrigeration is impossible. It seems the North Koreans discovered this style by accident, and their beer is very similar to the American beer brand Anchor Steam. Darker, fuller-bodied, hoppier, and delicious, it was hands down better than South Korean beer.”
Now there is a reason to visit the country. Thomas’ trip was apparently organized by a tour operator we didn’t know: Beijing-based Joe Ferris. His website has terrific pictures photos and tales on it; we will come back to it in a future post.
There is not indication of the ownership of these small breweries, but the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery suggests they are spinoffs from other state businesses; this is just the kind of innovation that is so wonderfully irrepressible, another one of those small leading indicators of what North Korea could be. If only…