Craft beer got Seoul
South Korean beer used to be a running joke, until the power couple behind The Booth decided to change everything
Saturday 16 December 2023
This article is from
Beers of the World
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Founded in 2013, The Booth quickly became the poster child for not only South Korean craft brewing, but also for the international prospects of Asian craft more generally. Today, the Seoul-based brewery has fully lived up to that early promise, brewing on three continents, without compromising on the basement micro-brewing ethos which made it so compelling when we first met the team back in 2018.
The Booth is the brainchild of Heeyoon Kim, an Oriental medicine doctor, Daniel Tudor, a writer for the Economist and financial analyst Sunghoo Yang. Having left their jobs, the trio set out to pursue a shared love of craft beer under their mantra, ‘follow your fun’.
The brewery’s Kyunglidan pub is in the neighbourhood of Kyoungridan, a stone’s throw from the rather more frenetic Itaewon district. This proximity still draws plenty of revelers to The Booth and Magpie Brewing a couple of doors down, but Kyoungridan’s slightly more chilled vibe also provides a welcome respite.
This is where we meet Heeyoon and Sunghoo, sharing one of the pub’s gigantic American-style pizzas and deliciously fresh pints of possibly one of the murkiest New England IPAs we’ve ever seen.
The Booth’s history begins as a love story. On their honeymoon, Heeyoon and Sunghoo took a craft beer road trip across the United States, ending at the Mikkeller bar in San Francisco. Inspired to email founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, they asked if they could import his beers to Korea.
From there, a partnership blossomed, and they went on to open the successful Mikkeller bar in Seoul. Ultimately though, their dream was to create their own brand, so along with Daniel, they joined the then fresh-faced Korean brewing scene. Part of their drive to make great beers in Korea came from a now-famous Economist article that Daniel wrote in 2012.
In the damning piece titled ‘Fiery food, boring beer’ Daniel concluded that the duopoly in South Korean brewing had resulted in such tasteless macro lagers that even North Korea’s Taedonggang was better. This, as it turns out, was just the kind of fighting talk needed to spur The Booth’s founders into action, collaborating with Mikkeller on a beer cheekily called ‘Tae(dong)gang’ Pale Ale. Daniel went on to visit North Korea to study how capitalism was beginning to develop and even flourish in the underground economy. He shared what he learned through a best-selling book on the topic, North Korea Confidential.
Having started out exclusively contract brewing its beers, The Booth eventually opened a facility of its own in Pangyo, near Seoul. Head brewer, Jinsu Lee, was given a free hand by the owners, who were more concerned with making great beer than micro-managing.
“When we started working here, the founders said to me as a brewer ‘just make great beer’,” Jinsu says. “Unlike a production brewery, they weren’t concerned about which ingredients the brewer chose or what quantities they used in their recipes, so long as the product would be the best it could be.”
With pubs throughout Seoul and an ever-expanding export business – serviced by contract brewing partners around the world, to ensure the beer is always at its freshest when it reaches the drinker – The Booth has maintained much of its early momentum. It hosts the largest craft beer festival in the country, The Beer Week Seoul (TBWS), attracting tens of thousands of drinkers for a celebration of the best of both local and international beers.
Collaborations with coffee roasters, movies, community groups and apparel brands have helped it to spread its message beyond the core craft beer demographic.
“One of the strengths of our company,” Namkyung Lee from their marketing team says, “is that we are focussed on making really good beer, but also finding interesting ways to introduce it to people who’re just discovering craft beer.” They hope these collaborations make craft beer more accessible.
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