Ask most people what their favorite beverage happens to be, and chances are they will answer one of the following: coffee, tea, soda, or beer. The last item on the list is of particular note, since beer happens to be the third most consumed beverage on the planet (after water and tea), the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage… and possibly the oldest beverage to be enjoyed by adults today. In Korea, the beer market, dominated by such power players such as Jinro (makers of Hite, Hite Dry Finish, Max, Stylish, and Stout) and Oriental Brewing Company (makers of Cass, OB Gold, and Cafri). The possess an almost monopoly on brews poured at establishments around the peninsula. However this is beginning to change.
The driving force behind the changing beer culture in Korea, stems from a growing international influence. As more Korean companies conduct business abroad, employees (both domestic and foreign) mingle and share beverages they love. These expanded tastes are also imported to Korea when foreigners take up roots for work. In the past few years, an increasing number of expat bars have cropped up on the scene serving custom brews. Furthermore, a large number of “Western Bars,” serving bottled imports continues to expand across Korea, exposing more and more to the different tastes and flavors from around the globe.
However, the biggest and best change to Korea’s beer drinking culture is just arriving and it will catch on like wildfire: the self-service bars. It’s an idea that originated back in 2006 in England and has been gaining traction across Europe and the United States. The premise is simple, rather than having patrons wait on staff to bring them their adult beverage of choice, the customer is given free reign of the establishment to grab their own any time they desire. At then end of the night, just simply settle up with what you consumed.
One of players in this endeavor is 맥주광 (maekju gwang). A name that instantly draws people to it. Inside, customers are warmly greeted at the door and allowed to choose whatever seat they desire. Most are bench style and face the large wall of refrigerated bottled beverages. Starting on the left are the Korean standards, such as Cass and Hite for low prices. As one walks to the right, the imports start appearing: Budweiser, San Miguel, Honey Brown, Guinness… and the list goes on.
The fact that there’s no wait staff means that prices are lower than most other “Western Bars,” a feature that makes these establishments well-liked. In fact, because the staff on-hand is kept to a minimum, many self-service bars do not have a large menu (or one at all). This allows patrons to live “the dream” and bring in their own food from outside sources – something many have often longed to do. Ice clod glasses are also stocked in every fridge, so if you’d rather drink out of a glass, you can enjoy your beer that way as well.
While this kind of establishment may not fit in everywhere, in Korea, it works. In many places around the world where I’ve traveled, many customers try to cut out before settling the tab at the end of the night. This isn’t the case at these establishments for two reasons. First, in Korea, there’s a high value placed on personal responsibility. Owning up to what you drank at the end of the night is part of that. Second, everyone truly values the freedom and luxury of the establishment, so no one wants to see it vanish. This attitude adds to the draw of these bars, since everyone present is ready to have a good time and revel in the company of others. The end result: a relaxed and fun environment for all.
If you’re in the mood for your favorite beer, check out these rising stars on the beer scene. Their numbers may be few, but they are rising.