The Korean just returned from another trip to Korea, and he is ready to make a bold prediction: good beer from Korea is just around the bend.
If the Korean were asked to pick the most significant change in Korea in the past five years, he has an easy winner: coffee. In the last five years, Korea's coffee went from the range of terrible-to-average, to the range of average-to-pretty-darn-good. To be sure, coffee in Korea is still on the expensive side, easily topping KRW 5,000 for a cup of good drip coffee. But five years ago, good coffee was simply unavailable in Korea, regardless of the price. Starbucks was the only option for a decent cup of coffee, and for many, Starbucks stretches the definition of "a decent cup of coffee."
Not so today. Coffee in Korea, and especially in Seoul, compares favorably to any large American city associated with good coffee. The Korean would dare say that coffee in Seoul is head and shoulders better than coffee in Washington D.C., where he lives. The coffee quality improved outside of Seoul as well. The Korean was able to get a solid cup of espresso near his grandmother's small town, where, just 20 years ago, the Korean Grandmother lived in a house without indoor plumbing. This progress was so remarkable that the Korean came up with a hypothesis connecting liberal education and the progress of coffee.
Korea's beer is ready to make a similar leap. If Korea's coffee was terrible-to-average five years ago, Korea's beer was abominable-to-tolerable just a year ago. The state of beer in Korea was so awful that the Economist took note: "brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South."
But that is about to change. As the Economist noted, a large part of the problem was the governmental regulations that enabled the duopoly of Hite-Jinro and OB in Korean beer market. Together, the two companies hold more than 96% of Korea's market share for beer. However, responding to the Economist article, Korea's National Assembly will soon pass a series of legislation that will slash down those regulations so that microbrewers in Korea will face lower taxes to import the ingredients for beer and distribute the final product. Currently, a brewer must have a minimal capacity to produce 120,000 litres of beer in order to apply for a wholesale license. The new law will halve the minimum required capacity. Also, brewers currently face 72% tax; for microbrewers only, the tax will be lowered to 30%.
Korean people's taste for beer is ready for the change as well. Five years ago, even the imported bottled beer selection was limited to Budweiser, Miller and Heineken, save a few hip bars. Now, regular grocery stores in Korea carry Warsteiner and Hoegaarden. In trendy parts of Seoul, it is not difficult to find a selection of craft beer that would make the hipster bars of Lower East Side green with envy. The logical next step is good local brews, and there are several Korean microbrewers ready for the challenge, such as 7brau and Kapa Brewery. The infrastructure of establishing more microbreweries and distributing different kinds of beer--such as wholesale of brewing equipments--is also taking root as we speak.
So, the prediction: in five years, the beer scene in Korea will be nothing like the one we see today. It will have a diverse selection of interesting beers, brewed in Korea. The revolution is well on its way; when it is completed, you will hardly remember that Korea once was a beer wasteland.
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