Wait. That doesn't sound right. I ran my original first sentence, "Korea makes some awful beers," through a North Korean translator and that's what came out. Although I will say this. While not a great beer country, South Korea is a phenomenal drinking country. In addition to the copious amount of old drunk guys roaming the streets at all hours of the day, South Korea happens to be home to the best drinking partner on the face of the earth, my college/grad school roommate and all around life-partner Greg. Greg and his girlfriend Britney (who is a pretty solid drinker herself) hosted Liz and I this week in their pretty sweet Tongyeong, SK apartment. They're out there teaching for a year, prompting Liz and I to pack our bags and head out to Korea for our spring break.
New Haven, CT got a full two days worth of posts. I figure the country of South Korea deserves at least three. Today (because I'm still a little lagging, having just got back to the states last night) I'll write up a brief little introduction to what, in my limited observations, I found South Korean drinking culture to be like. Then tomorrow and the day after I will do my day by day drinking break-downs, culminating in the long awaited numbers total.
So, from what I could tell, Korean doods love to drink, although not beer specifically. So, why doesn't Korea have a lot of beer to speak of? Well, according to Greg, and backed up by none of my own independent research, it's awfully hard to get a license to produce beer in Korea. Essentially, in order to get a permit to make beer in South Korea, you have to meet certain production volume requirements, meaning you have to make and distribute a ton of beer. All this is to say that in order for the Korean government to grant you a license to make beer, you have to be a macrobrewery. Greg likened it to requirements for raising and selling beef in America, but I don't know anything about that so I'll let that statement stand unchallenged! So due to these regulations, microbreweries are more or less edged out of the Korean market. There are some in Seoul, I hear, but their distribution does not make it out to Tongyeong, a smaller (though still quite large) coastal town. At the bars and hofs we went to, there was generally a supply of imported beers like Guiness, New Castle, and Heineken, but if you think I'm paying the Korean equivalent of 8 dollars for any of those beers in a Korean bar when a perfectly cheap Korean beer is available, you're out of your gourd.
The Korean beers available essentially everywhere are Hite, Cass, Max, OB, and this beer called S that advertises itself as a beer containing fiber, making it "Good for the Young Generation." All of these beers are Korean takes on U.S. macrobrews, making them, to put it politely and avoid ruining diplomatic relations with South Korea, not so good. I'll review them as we get to them in the day by day break-downs. I just wanted to give this little precursor so you know why the Korean beer selection is so limited and don't start to think I'm drinking Hite so much because it's the Korean equivalent of Brooklyn Lager. It's not. There is no Korean equivalent of Brooklyn Lager.
So what do Koreans drink? Soju! Soju is a Korean sweet potato liquor that has half of the alcohol content and half the taste of vodka. It's about 40 proof (where most vodkas are around 80 proof) and when I say it's a liquor made out of sweet potatoes, I don't mean to suggest it tastes like sweet potatoes. It doesn't. I don't want to say it tastes like a watered-down, drinkable version of rubbing alcohol, but I don't really know how else to describe it. In the words of Jodie Foster in Contact, they should have sent a poet. The kicker though, as Greg stated, it's irresponsibly cheap. You can pick up a bottle of soju, yes a whole bottle, in any convenience store in Korea for about 1000 won, which is less than one U.S. dollar! Four U.S. dollars will get you about two full liters of this stuff! I don't know why or how this became the Korean drink of choice, but it is what it is!
My final two notes about Korean drinking culture: 1) There are no public drinking laws. This is pretty sweet for a variety of reasons. One, it allows you to see to middle aged men in business suits pounding soju in a bunch of places and at a bunch of times you wouldn't think you'd see that. Second, Korea is a beautiful place and being able to drink outside allows you to really enjoy this. Having a beer on top of a mountain overlooking a bunch of islands and the ocean is pretty awesome.
2) In Korea, you don't generally drink without eating. As such, there aren't too many bars that are bars in the American sense of the word, that is places where the sole purpose is just to get drinks. Most drinking occurs with meals and at Hofs (which we will get to later), bars that sort of make you get food with your alcohol. This isn't to say there aren't bars and that drinking doesn't take place outside of eating, but this appeared to be the exception rather than the rule. This needing to eat while drinking didn't appear to curb Korean drinking, rather it seemed to up Korean eating. Either way, this "eating while drinking/drinking at places that aren't really bars" informed a lot of our drinking out there and I wanted to just put up a little note about it first.
Again, I'm not trying to present myself as an authority on the matter or saying that this is really how it is out there. These are just my observations, as informed by Greg's longer experience in drinking on Korea. So that's your introduction to Korean drinking. I'll get back to you tomorrow with the start of the day by day break down, along with other drinking observations I remember. For now I will leave you with this, perhaps what will stick with me the longest from my trip to Korea, as this song will never, ever leave my head: