I’d like you to take a moment to consider three beers. The first, an English-style bitter, balances high-quality malt flavors—toffee, toast, sweet nuts—with gently woody European hops. The second, a coffee stout, melds its caffeinated addition into notes of blackberry jam, toasted 12-grain bread and peanut shells so well it’s difficult to determine which aromas are coming from the beans and which are from the barley. The last beer, an American-style IPA, plays papaya- and tree bark-like hop character against notes of toasted crackers, sweet almond and mocha in a way you may never have experienced in an adjunct-free version of the style. All three of the beers would find a welcome place on bottle shop shelves in the U.K. or U.S., where such styles were born and perfected.
But these beers were not made in the U.K. or U.S. Far from it. They come from 더 핸드 앤 몰트, or The Hand and Malt Brewing Co., located in the Gyeonggi-do province, about half an hour from the Korean capital of Seoul.
Their far-flung flavors make more sense when you consider the brewery’s founder, Bryan Do, is an American expat, and that the brewhouse is helmed by Brandon Fenner, the former head brewer for Maui Brewing Co. and Magic Hat before that. Do says of Fenner, “He wanted to start a new adventure. Going from Maui to freezing cold Korea in the middle of January was probably a shock to the system.”
Local touches do sneak into the beers, of course. When we spoke, Do had just returned from a trip to Stone Brewing to craft a beer modeled after sujeonggwa, a traditional Korean dessert drink made with cinnamon, dried persimmons and ginger. The Hand and Malt’s Berliner weisse, K Weisse, was fermented with a strain of lactobacillus isolated and reproduced from a batch of kimchee cooked down the street. Even the labels on the brewery’s cans have the very texture of Korea—they’re made with hanji, or rice paper.
But these are bold flavors, especially in a market dominated by the adjunct lager duopoly of Hite and Cass. How are they being accepted by Korean beer drinkers? We chatted with Do to find out.
How did you decide to start a brewery in South Korea?
“Well, I started homebrewing in ’97—I’m a little bit older than I look—so I was just doing some homebrews and then stopped for a while, because it was really difficult in Korea to get the ingredients you need. Back then the internet and shipping wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. So I stopped for a while. I came back in 2011 from a stint in Singapore, where I was working for Microsoft, and saw that the homebrew market was just exploding. So I got back into it. While at Microsoft, I opened up a gastropub. The gastropub that I opened up was serving some of the local fare, but it was all going through one contract brewery. So the consistency was not there at all. I ended up saying, ‘I could probably do a better job,’ like many other homebrewers do. I decided to do it the proper way, though. I got a consultant to come and help me build it. We went on from there to have a 24-barrel brewhouse.”
“Luckily I got in the game right at the perfect time, because up until April 2014, the laws did not permit microbreweries to distribute outside of their own business permit-holding premises. So there’s two licenses you can get in Korea: a micro and a general. You’re segregated by how much volume you have—tank capacity. April 2014, that changed. I was probably the first microbrewery to take advantage of that.”
You mentioned homebrewing becoming more popular. What kinds of beer are Korea’s homebrewers making?
“Everything from mango habanero ales to imperial stouts. They’re really adventurous. I’d have to say it’s mostly American-style beers. America has become the mecca for the modern beer drinker. I know Koreans who don’t speak English very well listening to the Brewing Network. They’re asking me, ‘Hey, what are they saying?’ They’re listening to it for brewing tips and just to see what’s going on in the U.S.”
Do you draw a lot of influence from the American beer scene?
“I think a lot of our success came because I’m American. I’ve been reading, I’ve been listening. I decided a lot of the things I’m going to do, I’m going to follow what the Americans have done so far. So I kind of took that business model in Korea. Because I have the advantage of owning a gastropub, I kind of saw what the consumers wanted.”
“I continue to study the American craft scene. [Our brewery] has a lot of influence from American craft brewers, because starting from 2011, an importer called Brewmasters imported a line from Anderson Valley, Lost Coast and Rogue. You started seeing Indica IPA around everywhere. And Watermelon Wheat everywhere, and Great White everywhere. That kind of started the boom of getting American craft beer influence to Korea. After that, the floodgates opened. Importers started bringing in tons of different Americans.”
“With me and with all of the early adopters and influencers looking so much into American craft beer, I wanted to emulate what’s happening in the U.S. For example, I think two years ago session beers were huge, so I think, okay, I gotta make a session IPA. Barrel aging’s been around for a while, but Koreans haven’t caught onto it yet. So I started Korea’s first barrel-aging program. That was funny in itself. To have a new beer, you have to submit your recipe to the Korean equivalent of America’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the TTB. And then you have to submit your final product to Korea’s version of the Food and Drug Administration. There’s a lot of red tape that goes on in the background. You have to do this with every single beer. So we wanted to start a barrel-aging program, and they said no, you can’t use a barrel for a vessel. There’s too many contaminants in there, not only does the TTB have to come and check, the Korean FDA has to come and check. So I just bought a bottle of every single barrel-aged beer being imported to Korea and I just gave it to them and said, ‘Hey, all of these are barrel-aged. We’re using the same techniques; there’s nothing different. Let us do this.’ After I gave that to them, I think they kind of realized that this new wave of beers that are coming throughout the world is not going to stop.”
How popular are these flavorful American beers in Korea?
I’d say craft beer is only about 2.5 percent of the market share. There’s still a lot of growth left. It’s still very nascent, but growing really fast. In 2014, we were the top importer of American craft beer in Asia—all of Asia, including China, which is massive. It’s still very, very high in 2016.
Is there anything different about the craft beer drinker in Korea?
This is something that kind of wowed the audience [at a presentation I gave at the Craft Brewers Conference this year]: My target audience is all women. It started off almost nine to one. At my restaurant, it would be a good day if I saw three or four guys in there. It was insane. What was selling the most was Lost Coast Watermelon Wheat, and a lot of these fruitier, easier—I call them “gateway craft beers.”
“I think it’s just the psyche of women who are aged about late 20s or mid-30s—they’re a lot more adventurous in a lot of things they do. One example: Surfing’s getting really big in Korea. You go out there, and out of 10 surfers, nine of them are women. Also, they want to sit down and enjoy an alcoholic drink while they talk to each other. The guys in Korea who got into craft beer, they’ve all been brought in by our female customers. That’s the one thing I don’t take from the U.S.: target audience and who you want to market to.
What else are you doing differently?
“We’re doing cask ales. I have Korea’s biggest—and only—hop farm. They grew hops about 10 years ago for one of the duopolies, but the finances didn’t work out for them. It doesn’t make financial sense, but it’s more of a personal satisfaction thing. We did a harvest ale with wet hops that we grew. We harvested last year around 60 kilograms. This year we’re improving that tenfold.”
“We’re also the first microbrewery to can in Korea. We use a sticker that’s really cool, it took me a long time to figure it out, but that sticker is hanji, a traditional Korean rice paper. So when you touch it, it has a texture on it like rice paper. It took a long time to find the right water-proofing for it, but we wanted to have that local flavor. Everything on the label is in English, but there’s a big “Made in Korea” and you touch it and you know it’s hanji.”
What’s next for the Hand and Malt?
“We’re making a cider. Cider isn’t big here yet … the word ‘cider’ is actually associated with 7-Up or Sprite, so that’s going to be difficult to change. But we think it’s there.