An American Drinker in North Korea?

North-Korean-BeerWired recently had an article on the apparently vibrant craft brew culture of North Korea. Wired magazine interviewed Josh Thomas a creative technologist in the advertising business recent toured North Korea from March 30th to April 6th, visiting several North Korean breweries along the way.

Brewing in North Korea has an interesting history.  The state-run Taedonggang Brewing Company ,which creates North Korea’s most known beers, includes four brands collectively known as Taedonggang Beer.  In the year 2000 the North Korean government decided that they wanted to buy a brewery and did just that.  They bought and then closed, but kept intact, Ushers of Trowbridge brewery. They disassembled it, transported it, and reassembled the brewery in North Korea.

The interview is a fascinating look into a culture barely known inside the United States and is largely demonized for their government’s saber-rattling and unflappable thirst for complete control of the vox populi.  Josh Thomas’ interview shows a people who have dismissed the light lager beers most popular in the United States and instead embraced strong ales and steam beers.

Thomas explains:

Obviously we tried many different beers in the country, ranging from steam beers, to oatmeal stouts, to chocolate porters and pale ales, so its hard to generalise, but I’d have to say the average beer is a steam beer. The only real difference between the steam beers I had in the DPRK and the steam beers in the US was that they seem to have a hard time cleaning their tanks, I assume because of the difficulty of getting certain chemicals into the country because of the trade embargo. Certain steam beers tasted a bit of tanks that needed to be cleaned, and imparted a bit more metallic taste as a consequence. However, all in all, they were delicious beers.

The whole interview is interesting but if you want a taste outside the article Josh’s blog on being in North Korea is a fantastic.  If you just want to know more about the beer his entry on North Korean beer is where you want to go.  Josh’s take on drinking with locals outside the feeling of forced jingoistic loyalty is amazing.  While that hometown bar might feel strange when visiting at holidays you never have to worry that the “locals” are paid actors paid to compliment the state:

Well I’m a bit of a cynic. Some of the local experiences I truly believe were local. Some of the experiences I think might have had some actors planted to stand between the tourists and the real locals. The diplomatic club and the clam bake in particular were great local experiences. It was amazing to see some Koreans finally ‘let their hair down’ so to speak, and stop being mascots for their country, and start being real people. Over the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel clam bake I got to know our bus driver, Mr Lee. It was over this meal, while he poured petrol over live clams, blowing out his bottle when it caught fire, and downing huge amounts of “Pyongyang Vodka”, a 40% alcohol form of Soju, that I really became friends with this quiet and unspoken man. He was unbelievably friendly and never stopped smiling and really seemed to love hanging out with us whenever he could. He, more than anyone else, became my true friend while in the country. What surprised me the most was that he quietly told me that he used to be a soldier in the North Korean People’s Army. Its hard to wrap your mind around, as an American, this short, quiet, and friendly man was once a soldier in the army we seem to most fear in the west.

Read the article/blog for a riveting and illuminating look into the world of North Korea.