Seoul's best beerhouses
Whether it’s guzzling boilermakers (beer mixed with whisky and tequila or vodka, if you’re curious) with your boss or chasing Korean fried chicken with Cass-brand amber nectar, beer is an integral part of life in Seoul.
But, ask for “saeng maekju” -- draft beer -- at most bars in town, and you’ll likely get only one thing: a light, fizzy liquid; for lager is truly South Korea’s brew of choice.
Thankfully, that’s not a choice imposed on us all -- for the real beer aficionados, there are taphouses around the city dispensing a full array of homegrown microbrews to thirsty Koreans and expats alike.
Whether you’re in search of a fruity hefeweizen or a pleasantly pungent ale, stop at one of these Seoul saloons for some sudsy satisfaction.
Hankering for a handcrafted brew? Itching for an authentic India Pale Ale? Look no further than Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro, the brainchild of microbrew enthusiast Dan Vroon.
“We had been waiting for a place like this so long, we just decided to make it ourselves,” says Vroon, an 11-year resident of Korea who opened the place in November with a group of friends.
A key member of his cadre is the brewer himself, Park Chul. He provides all the Craftworks beers from his own Kapa Brewery in the mountains of Gapyeong, Gyeonggi Province, just west of Seoul.
Park attributes the popularity of his beers to Gapyeong’s famous spring water.
“I am sure that quality water can make quality beer,” he says.
Locals agree. Since Craftworks’ opening party, the place has maintained a constant buzz around its tasty brews at low prices -- the weizen is only ₩4,000 a glass.
The taphouse hosts parties regularly, including the latest fete for the release of its new Jirisan “Moon Bear” IPA (₩6,000), the first commercially brewed IPA in Korea. No surprise that it’s currently Craftworks’ best-selling beer.
“(The IPA) is quite a leap in terms of flavors, particularly bitterness, from other beer brewed here in Korea,” says Homebrew Korea blogger Rob Titley.
It’s this emphasis on diversity and experimentation that makes Craftworks stand out from the pack of microbreweries here.
In addition to its IPA, Craftworks pulls the Geumgang Mountian Dark Ale, Namsan Pure Pilsner, Baekdusan Hefeweizen, Halla Mountain Golden Ale and Gwanaksan Kolsch -- all named for Korean landmarks. As for the coming months, Vroon says to look out for their oatmeal stout.
Myeongsan Bldg, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon 2-dong 651 (용산구 이태원 2동 명산빌딩 651); +82 (2) 794 2537
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Weekends 11 a.m.-3 a.m.
Getting there: Come out exit 2 of Noksapyeong Station. Walk until you hit the pedestrian underpass and go under. Take the left exit in the underpass. Cross the street to get to Noxa Lounge. Craftworks is a few doors down from Noxa.
Hongdae’s Castle Praha initially draws in visitors with an atmosphere best described as “dungeon chic.” The imposing stone-relief facade, cavernous beerhall and rough-hewn wooden tables will grab your attention first, but that’s before your pints arrive.
Open since 2003, the Castle was one of the first brewpubs in Seoul -- and one of the cheesiest -- but there’s a reason it has expanded to locations all over the city.
The house beers include a ruddy, sweet Granat lager, gently bitter pilsner and a dark, malty dunkel (₩5,500-₩7,000 per glass). Depending on the branch, other beers on tap include a fragrant imported Czech Jezek pilsner and a light, chamomile-infused weizen.
Extra street cred comes from the Czech Embassy, which holds events at the Czech cultural center on the third floor of the Hongdae flagship.
In April, lauded Korean poet Ko Un praised the quality of Czech beer as he celebrated the launch of the first anthology of Czech short stories to be published in the Korean language.
Brewmaster Kim Heesang began studying in 2007 under the tutelage of his Czech predecessor, Zdenek Fousek. Now Kim is responsible for churning up the suds shipped to locations around the city.
“All three of the house beers are very popular,” says PR manager Kim Hwajeong.
For those seeking more of a low-key, contemporary vibe, the main Hongdae branch opened a Bohemian Bistro on the second floor in 2007, which has since grown to include locations in expat-heavy Itaewon and tiny Garosugil.
While all locations theoretically pour the same quality brews, one could argue the Hongdae flagship has the best consistency and lowest prices.
Hongdae’s Castle Praha (main location), Castle Praha Building, 395-19 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 서교동 395-19 캐슬프라하 빌딩); +82 (2) 334 2121
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-midnight
Praha Bohemian Bistro in Sinsa-dong, 532-6 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 신사동 532-6); +82 (2) 542 2181
Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m., Sunday and holidays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Praha Bohemian Bistro in Itaewon, 737-37 Hannam-dong, Yonsan-gu (용산구 한남동 737-37); +82 (2) 3785-2180
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday and holidays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Getting there: For the most atmosphere and lowest prices, visit the flagship in Hongdae. Come out Hongik University Station at exit 9, walk straight until you get to Bobo Hotel (about 550 meters), and make a left. Castle Praha will be down the third alley on your right.
The branch with the most beautiful people is the Praha Bohemian Bistro off southern Seoul’s Garosugil, near Sinsa Station, exit 8. Come out of the subway, walk until you hit the KT Olleh store on your left. Take a stroll down the lovely Garosugil and make a left at the Kate Spade store. Praha will be down the alley on your right.
Another Praha Bohemian Bistro is in Itaewon, central Seoul. Come out exit 2 of Itaewon Station. Praha will be down the road a bit on your left, next to the IP Boutique Hotel.
Microbreweries basically didn’t exist in Korea before two pioneers came along. Oktoberfest and O’Kims both opened in 2002.
If you want to pit the two against each other, Oktoberfest wins for its continued popularity and growth.
Over the years, it’s had plenty of time to build up affection among Seoulites, including expat homebrewers who have held competitions within the brightly lit halls.
If Castle Praha’s schtick is dark and mysterious, Oktoberfest’s could best be described as cheerful -- you almost wish you had a soundtrack of oompah-oompahs instead of the ghetto rap heard on the beerhall’s stereo.
What you will encounter is a love of beer, sparked by founders Bang Ho-kwon and Michael Paik when they met in 1997 in Munich.
At one of the newer branches, in the Hongdae university district, barman Jeon Min-ki says the dark dunkel (₩4,800) and tart weissbier (₩3,500) are the best sellers. Homebrew Korea’s Titley says it’s the rich pilsner here that stands out.
For a real taste of Bavaria, you can also get a rare radler (₩4,800), the half-beer, half-Sprite concoction that one German friend called a taste of her teenage years. It’s not the most exciting lineup of beers -- in fact, it’s become standard for microbreweries here to pour a weizen, a dunkel and a pilsner -- but it’s a tried-and-true classic that’s become a Seoul institution for Koreans and expats alike.
Oktoberfest beer hall in Hongdae, 162-6 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 동교동162-6); +82 (2) 323 8081
Monday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sunday and holidays, 4 p.m.-midnight
Oktoberfest beer hall in Gangnam Station, 1317-31 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu (서초동 서초구 1317-31); +82 (2) 3481-8881
Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sundays and holidays, 4 p.m.-midnight
Getting there: Oktoberfest has five branches around Seoul. The easiest to find is the Hongdae branch. Take exit 9 from Hongik University Station, then follow the road until you come to Oktoberfest on your left.
The original location is in southern Seoul, near Gangnam Station. From exit 6, make your first left. Make your second left down a narrow alley between Sakanaya Japanese restaurant and a pharmacy. Oktoberfest will be on your right.
For an old-school, downtown vibe, visit the Jonggak Station location. From exit 1, take your second right (the alley with Nonghyup bank on the corner). It’ll be on your left, about 80 meters down.
The Mapo branch has the advantage of being near some of the best meat joints around town. From exit 3, veer to the right. Follow the street 150 meters until you hit Oktoberfest on your right.
For the Sinchon branch, come out exit 3 of Sinchon Station. Walk straight for about 150 meters, then bear right at the large intersection. Continue down the street (you should pass a 7-Eleven) until it ends. Oktoberfest will be on your right.
Down a tree-lined alley, the Queens Head might fool you into thinking you’ve been beamed into a proper English tavern, even if the menu claims the decor is inspired by “Irish and Chinese pubs” -- whatever that means.
Although the Queens Head is a newcomer to the youthful Hongdae neighborhood since its May 2010 opening, that doesn’t mean these are amateur beers. Brewmaster Jang Chun-shik has been churning out the cold ones for the past seven years in Suwon, about 30 kilometers south of Seoul.
Suwon is home to his original Queens Head brewpub, known for its rustic feel and almost exclusively Korean clientele -- a sign of demand for quality quaffs among the locals.
As for the Hongdae location, barman Yang Hyun-soo says both expat and Korean customers fill the nooks and crannies of this cozy, vintage-furnished drinkery.
Like Oktoberfest, the Queens Head serves up the standard three German-style brews, but the cream of the crop, Yang says, is the weizen, a sweet, smooth beer with a bright, golden hue.
Both the weizen and pilsner sell for ₩4,500, while the bittersweet dunkel goes for ₩5,000.
407-16 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu (마포구 서교동 407-16); +82 (70) 8954-6324
Getting there: Come out Sangsu Station, exit 1. Walk down the road to your right, toward Hongik University. Make a left (well before the university’s main gate) at the 7-Eleven. The Queens Head will be down an alley on your right -- keep an eye out for its easy-to-spot sign.
While they aren’t local microbreweries, these watering holes deserve the attention of beer lovers.
Big Rock Brewery: This southern Seoul offshoot of Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery has delicious Canadian craft beers on tap.
Virgin: One of the new, upscale additions to Itaewon, Virgin is a purveyor of hard-to-find Belgian bottles, including Duchesse de Bourgogne. Expect to shell out for the beer.
Tony’s Aussie Bar and Bistro: It’s tiny, but Tony’s has the cheapest draft Guinness in town at ₩6,000. Same goes for the Kilkenny.
Alley Kat joints: Park Chul runs another venture called Ka-Brew, credited with importing the delightfully bitter Canadian IPA Alley Kat. It’s available in various bars around Seoul, including Jacoby’s Burger (+82 (0) 2 3785 0433, in the Haebangchon neighborhood near Itaewon), 3 Alley Pub (Itaewon) and Beer O’Clock (Sinchon).