North Korea’s strange brew

At 30,000 ft the first taste is not promising. In fact, it is so bad that the Canadian sitting next door to me winces on slugging back the first North Korean beer of his life and grimaces, “That’s bad, that’s awful.” But then this is Pyongyang Beer, not what I am after, with its nasty chemical taste.

I am surprised that the air hostesses serve such western delights as 7 Up and Lurpak butter on board Air Koryo flight JS223 heading from Beijing to Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I am off to the world’s most secretive state in search of a strange amber nectar-brewing tale that could only emanate from this strangest of nations.

Back in 2000, the Dear Leader, known to be fond of a tipple or 10 (he is allegedly Hennessey Brandy’s single biggest customer) decided the proletariat deserved a better brew. Having been long-term importers of China’s Five Star beer, Kim Jong Il wanted his Stalinist state to have its own standout beer.

He cast around for a brewery and in November, 2000, using a German agent, answered an advert and spent a reported £1.5 million purchasing the venerable Ushers brewery. The 175-year-old brewery located in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the west of England was dismantled and moved lock, stock and barrel 8,500 km to the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang. Strange but true – but then in 1976 in similar fashion Kim’s father Kim il Sung (still president despite being dead for 12 years) bought and imported a Swiss watch factory!

Back in 2000, Peter Ward, the director of Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging, the owner of Ushers, said: “When they first approached us I thought they were South Koreans and I was a bit shocked when I discovered they were from the Communist North.”

Once he had got over the shock and was reassured that a) the North Koreans would pay and b) would be using the technology to ferment yeast not germs (the two practices being similar) the deal was done and 12 North Koreans headed to the brewery to help take it down and move it away to Asia.

State media at the time noted: “The respected and beloved general, who is always deeply interested in further improving the people’s diet, took a benevolent action for constructing a modern brewery in Pyongyang.”

Thomas Hardy Brewing bought the Ushers plant after the brewery closed in early 2000. Ushers began brewing in 1824 and was best known for regional ales such as Best Bitter, Founders Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale. The Ushers brands are now brewed under contract in Dorchester.

Keen to put some distance between itself and a state named by ther United States as part of the Axis of Evil , Thomas Hardy declined to comment on its technology transfer for this article as it grappled with 41 redundancies announced this February at its Cheshire headquarters.

To speed things up troops of the North Korean People’s Guard were deployed in the construction project “for the purpose of completing a quality factory in the shortest possible period of time,” according to the North Korean Central News Agency.

“All combatants mobilised to the construction are carrying out the struggle of loyalty day and night with the fervent desire to make a report of loyalty to the respected and beloved general after excellently constructing the brewery,” the news agency reported at the time. But installing this comparatively hi-tech facility was no easy task for this incapacitated state.

The wonderfully apocryphal story, told by more than one DPRK old hand though impossible to confirm like so much else in this nation, goes that after much jigsaw assembling of the factory, the first pint was poured to much excitement.

The brown, none-too-fizzy liquid that poured forth came as rather a surprise. “That’s no lager,” said the employees in unison as an incomprehensible award winning ale poured out of the taps.

Germans were immediately called in to install state of the art stainless steel piping and out of the taps a few weeks later poured lovely crisp lager that would not have been frowned upon in even the most discerning Munich beer hall.

However, the story didn’t end there.

Failing to pay their bills, a common DPRK trait, the factory ran into difficulty six months later needing extensive repairs, something the German engineers were not prepared to do.

Cue the age old North Korean feat of reengineering – the end product being Taedonggang Beer – named after the River Taedong which flows through the centre of the capital and is unquestionably, despite the alleged tinkering, the country’s finest beer.

The Korea Workers’ Party organ Rodong Daily said that year that with the 500,000 barrels a year brewery completed, Pyongyang citizens now enjoy this fine beer, and that “they are unanimous in speaking of its quality.”

As of the middle of 2002, those rich enough could buy this brew, which comes in distinctive 650 ml green bottles with a logo of a bridge. But at 50 pence or so a bottle this and every other beer in the country is far too much for the average citizen who earns no more than a couple of dollars a day.

Since launching, perhaps down to austerity measures, the alcohol content as dropped from 5.7% to 3.5% yet this straw-coloured drink makes for a delightfully crisp, refreshing, light brew when served cold – not a problem in winter when temperatures regularly hover around the -10° Celsius mark.

Alongside this and only available at certain microbreweries and the ‘luxury’ Koryo Hotel is the dark Taedonggang ale with a voluptuous, rich caramel flavour. After much persuasion, our tour guide – who was with us virtually 24/7 – relents and takes us to the brewery on the penultimate day of our trip. Pyongyang being such a regimented place – you have to have a permit to live there – the city of two million people gives way to countryside swiftly with no sprawl unlike any other Asian city.

The beer factory is right on the periphery of the city on Munsu Street near the Mujin stream and stands out as a modern, clean structure unlike anything else around it – with its bright white tiled walls and steel structures, the last notable sign of urbanity before the countryside takes over.

Knowing how keen I have been to see it, our guide is hugely apologetic as he reenters the bus after conferring with guards outside the facility. He claims the brewery is not working today and we won’t be able to visit it.

It turns out it has not been working for the past three weeks, though there is no sign of shortage that evening as I drown my sorrows amid raucous karaoke.

Taking the train out of the country back to China the following day, having eaten raw food under the sombre gaze of Kim il Song and Kim Jong Il – their pictures hanging side by side at the head of the restaurant car – we reach the border city of Sinuiju.

While hunting down a toilet as our bags and papers are searched for an interminable period, I amazinglyt stumble across a microbrewery.

Four gleaming vats are at the back of a red walled bar at the top of the train station – the room fetid with the smell of burnt squid which a few elderly folk are happily chewing.

Poured out of a large teapot, comes a young, cloudy, wheaty, yeasty beer that takes a couple of minutes to settle – making me glance at my watch to make sure the train doesn’t head off leaving me stranded.

The not fully fermented taste might not be 100 per cent pleasant but makes for a fitting way to finish my North Korean tour – at a brewery of sorts.

This Article is from Beers of the World Issue 5, and more like it can be found here. 

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