Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Beer in North Korea

This seems like the perfect moment to post this little piece on North Korean beer.To mark the Dear Leader's passing in the only way I know: by talking about beer.

The piece below was written by Steve Ainger. A beer tourist so dedicated that he even made it to North Korea. You have to admire his enterprise. Or is that a word that shouldn't be used in conjunction with a Stalinist state?

Over to Steve . . . . .

It is said that North Korea - or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to give its full name, is developing quite a thirst for quality beer. Not least because the 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il likes nothing better than mixing up his consumption of Cognac (he's the world's biggest private buyer) with an ale or two. So he sent his representatives to Trowbridge in Wiltshire when the Ushers brewery was up for sale, and, Victor Kiam-style, they liked it so much they bought the company and transported it brick by brick to Pyongyang. The result is the Taedong brewery which produces a solid light 5% pilsner and a similar 5%er with really malty undertones. When you visit North Korea you don't really get much of a chance to see the bars - you have basically two options for draught beer anyway. The first is the Yanggakdo Hotel.

Yanggakdo Hotel

There are a couple of decent bars in this hotel, which is the main point of stay for tourists nowadays - situated on an island which you aren't at liberty to leave without your guides - even smoking a cigarette outside brings interest from the staff. But why would you want to leave with seven restaurants and four bars, a bowling alley, pool table and an on-site bookshop with one of the most extensive ranges of propaganda outside News International? Fans of Kim Jong Il's thoughts on the state of modern cinema, socialist prose, US cinema and the secret of a really good haircut would feel like a small child in Hamleys.

The revolving bar (they turn it on when you arrive after some persuasion due to the severe rationing of electricity in the country) has the two different Taedongs and another bottled beer which had an indiscernible label and was incredibly bitter. This is the one that gives you the hangovers that we'd read about in a couple of travelogs.

But its downstairs in the main bar where the draught beer doth flow - on day six at least. While there are all the trappings of a microbrewery - big copper vats scattered around the bar - I'm unsure if they actually brewed beer on the premises here - there was none available until our sixth day and then it had 'arrived that morning'. Still it looked fairly impressive. There were two beers available here - a pretty sour wheat beer and a relatively clean, hoppy lager with a floral bouquet. Both of these were very quaffable and quaff we did.

Koryo Hotel

The only other real option for draft beer in the city is the Koryo Hotel, the other stopover for people doing the 'tourist trail'. When we asked to be taken to a bar in town that our guides frequented, they merely took us to the other main westerners' hotel. This was a downstairs bar relatively pleasant with the aforementioned microbrewed lager and a really excellent dark lager, which went down a treat, and was particularly enjoyed by our driver (who, from his manner and his driving, we suspected rather liked a drink).

A pint or bottle of beer in each place will set you back just 2 Euros, good value in these thrifty times. The North Koreans are embracing the idea of beer to such an extent that a specially recorded advert graced DPRK television - but only once, back in 2009.

In fairness to the Head of distribution for Heineken, he seems to have managed to get presence for his brand in this most closed of countries and you can pick up a bottle in any of the bars in your hotel or in the odd restaurant in town that foreigners are allowed in. But for the rare few who get to visit this Communist Disneyland, a Taedong or two will go down very well and, until the revolution, you'll be part of a select club.


Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Is that microbrewery the one which had Ushers’ old kit sent to it?

Ron Pattinson said...

Adrian, not sure. Could be.

Rod said...

No, surely not - Usher's old brewhouse would have been far bigger than a pub microbrewery.
Wouldn't it?

Jim said...

No the Koryo and Yanggakdo hotel microbreweries date from at least 2001. The British brewery is used to produce a different beer.