Tuesday, 29 June 2010

World Cup Beer Sweepstake: North Korea

The only things I knew about the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea have been ingrained in me by the singing, foul-mouthed puppets from Team America. That and they have never won the World Cup. Drawing them for the World Cup Beer Sweepstake was going to be a challenge…
The first thing to do was obvious: google ‘North Korean beer’. All the results point to one beer: Taedonggang. The beer has an interesting background. In 2000, Kim Jong-il decided that his nation needed a brewery. He seems to be the type of guy who gets what he wants and hearing that Ushers in Trowbridge no longer needed their brewing kit he offered to buy it from them. Cue panic that the leader was planning mash tun bombs and FV missiles. Eventually, via a German broker and £1.5million later, a team from North Korea came to Trowbridge and dismantled the plant, shipping it home and setting it up. In 2002, 18 months later, they were brewing beer.

The beer is around 50p a bottle but in a country which has suffered, and is still suffering, severe famine, it’s an expensive luxury aimed at the highest end of the market. This was reinforced in 2009 when the brewery launched a TV commercial – a rare move in a communist country. This one is two-and-a-half minutes long and has been shown three times in total on North Korean TV, spreading the brightly-coloured message that Taedonggang relieves stress, improves health and encourages longevity. Sounds good (or at least interesting) – but how could I find it?

North Korea isn’t famous for its exports (nuclear weapons aside), so that immediately made things harder. The backup plan of an Ushers beer was as non-existent as the now-extinct brewery – it was, therefore, more likely that I’d actually get Taedonggang than Ushers. I emailed a North Korean importer but they didn’t reply. I called a few Korean restaurants in London but they had no idea what I was asking for (how does one pronounce Taedonggang for it to be understandable by a Korean?). I asked people on RateBeer. I checked flights but none go direct and it’s complicated and expensive (and not a realistic option, let’s be honest). I even asked if anyone knew of any North Korean homebrewers. The tone of my search was exemplified by this response to an email I sent a guy who runs a website for Koreans in England: “There are some North Koreans in the Kingston/New Malden area but I've never met any.He’s never met any?!

But in this was a big clue...

New Malden is the most densely populated area for Koreans outside of Korea, with many restaurants, markets and the main warehouse for (South) Korean imports to the UK. If I was going to find Taedonggang anywhere, it would be in New Malden, surely?

On the train I prepare myself for Korea Town - like China Town in Soho but a bit different. The station itself is unremarkable but as it’s in Zone 4 I figure they can’t be too outrageous with signage. Immediately looking around I see few non-Caucasians. It’s fine, they are tourists like me, I think to myself as I pass through the ticket barrier. I leave the station and hit the main street: not much to the right, signs of a town to the left. I’m taking small steps, trying to take it all in, anticipating an explosion of culture. Immediately opposite there’s something I’m not expecting: Tesco. Curiously I cross the street and check it out; I expect a parallel version of the normal filled with Korean products. I walk around, I look at the food, I check to see what newspapers they have and then I check the beer aisle: nothing to suggest I’m anywhere other than a template Tesco. It’s disappointing. Back outside I look back across the road and see Bar Malden, a wannabee wine bar, a little further down there’s a Waitrose, looking up there’s ugly block buildings. It’s at this point I realise that New Malden is not Korea Town, it is, in fact, just a London suburb.

But I’m neither disheartened nor put off: I’m on a beer mission. Passing more familiar shops I finally spot what I was hoping for: a Korean flag hanging outside a Korean shop. Inside was a brave new world for me: colour, cryptic fonts on unusual products, aisles of food. I spot the fridge straight away and calmly dash towards it. They have beer but it’s only Hite, the South Korean brew. I scrutinise everything, looking closely. I pull out every drink in the fridge, turning it to try and spot signs of its Northern origins, but it’s impossible. I give up with the fridge but carry on looking around, fascinated, wishing I knew what everything was. There’s sweet stuff, savoury stuff, fresh fruit and vegetables, a fridge filled with plastic pots of tofu and kimchi, an aisle of snacks, an aisle of cans and cleaning products. And all of it is Korean. South Korean.

I also notice something else: I’ve developed a Korean shadow. A shady looking chap – short, eyes lowered, old baseball cap, bad trainers – is following me around or standing in front of me. In the space of three minutes I’ve apologised five times for passing in front of him or behind. He hasn’t picked anything up to buy, he’s just staring at me and following me. I decide to leave.

Opposite, just up from a Greggs, is another Korean store, this one is like a market. They have a meat counter, fresh foods, freezers, aisles of snacks and food and a fridge filled with everything – literally – except Taedonggang. Back outside I walk the length of the High Street, passing a couple of Korean restaurants. Hungry for at least some cultural experience, I turn back and go into Hamgipak, a restaurant I’d read good things about online.

It’s tiny inside, five or six tables, like benches, squashed in. I sit at a table for two, beside me a group of well-spoken English people sit eating mountains of BBQ and dumplings which looks and smells amazing. I’m given a menu and despite the English translations I have literally no idea what anything is. I go for C1 because it seems to tick a number of familiar boxes: pork, kimchi, ground bean curd. When I ask for this the waitress stops and looks up from her pad.

“Have you had this before?” she asks in good, accented English.

“No.” I say. “Why’s that?”

“It’s just not everybody like it.” I’m a little lost for words. It’s pork, kimchi and bean curd, what could be so strange about it?

“What is it?”

“It’s a thick casserole with pork. Not everybody like it.” She repeats before staring up at me with a caring mother look. But now my interest is piqued – I have to order it.

“It’s fine, I’ll go with that.” She disappears back into the busy kitchen which is being run by little, old Korean women in bright white Nike trainers.

I wait at my table wondering what the hell I’ve ordered, thinking that maybe I should’ve gone for something from the BBQ, maybe should’ve gone for something that doesn’t come with a warning. I decide that anything that comes with a warning from the restaurant you order it from is a good thing.

When it arrives I wish I hadn’t ordered it. I’m expecting a deep brown casserole in a thick savoury sauce but I’m handed a molten black pot, literally boiling in front of me, which looks like a blitzed up brain that has curdled under the heat. A heaviness sets itself in my stomach. I start on the four pots of side dishes: kimchi, a seaweedy-thing, some beansprouts and a cold potato dish. They are all great (familiar, at least) but they are all only filling inevitable time before I eat the still-bubbling pink, lumpy mush. Before I do so I look around again and see all the delicious looking BBQ and the other bowls of great looking food on the table next to me and then I look back at mine and can feel sweat bursting through my brow (the heat from this bowl could melt an igloo in seconds).

I stir it and it doesn’t get more appetising. I take some sticky rice and pinch some pork between the ends of the metal chopsticks. It doesn’t smell of much. I place it in my mouth and hope for the best. It’s hot, it’s deeply savoury, it’s comfortingly soft in the mouth and… it’s actually okay. Not really describable in terms of flavour, though. Soon enough I’m halfway through the monster-sized portion. It’s a hard thing to love being so hot, oddly textured and non-descript, but I don’t hate it. I finish it all, almost as a sign of defiance, and exhale deeply. I’m sweating heavier now, hot to the core with this Korean stodge. I pay (£8.50 for the food and a green tea – it’s a BYO policy which I wish I’d known before as I’d have taken a beer) and leave. The breeze outside hits me and sends a chill through to my core. Korean food, at least on this display, can best be described as ‘intense’. But if I ever find myself in New Malden again I’d definitely go back for more, I just won’t order whatever C1 is.

Waddling heavily now I need to at least attempt to complete my Taedonggang search. I go back into the first shop and walk up and down for ages, desperately hoping for something to jump out at me but it doesn’t. I take a can of Hite from the fridge along with something entirely unknown (it has no English on it at all except for a tiny-fonted website), I also grab a couple of bags of crisps, including one which are banana-flavoured (I couldn’t resist).

As I’m paying my heart starts thumping: I have to ask them for Taedonggang. I can't just flake out and not ask. But I have no idea if mentioning North Korea is big taboo. Just as I hand over the cash I blurt: “Do you have Taedonggang?” They stare back blankly. “North Korean beer.” I say. Two staff look at each other and say something I don’t understand then look at me again. “North Korean beer – Taedonggang?” I repeat as if it’s going to help. “Beer from North Korea,” I rephrase.

“No.” He says. “No North Korea.” It's said with blunt force. On that I leave, surrounded by a group of staring Koreans.

I grab a bag of Maltesers from the station to eat on the train, mainly with the aim of getting the lingering taste of C1 from my mouth. Mission Taedonggang failed. New Malden held the slimmest of hopes but it was unsuccessful. My only hope is that someone has brought a bottle back and it’s hidden in their garage somewhere. I’m not giving up just yet though, and there’s still time, but it’s not looking promising. To make it even worse, North Korea are out of the World Cup, although with a policy of only reporting good news in their media, I’m not sure how they’ll let everyone back home know. Maybe they could offer everyone a Taedonggang to soften the blow?


I have now drunk the two cans I brought from the Korean shop. Hite is a generic, pale lager, lacking everything usually associated with flavour, but there is a sense that it’d work wonderfully with fried foods. Just a sense though.

The other can was a different beast. I had absolutely no idea what it was as I poured it out. I certainly didn’t get what I expected... There’s a smoothie company called Love Juice. I immaturely laugh whenever I see their shops. This one could legitimately be called Love Juice. It poured a milky off-white, thick and to cries of ‘eww’ and ‘oh my god, what is this?’ It smells like milk stout, which is good, but it tastes like spoilt milk and booze, which is not good. There’s a tang to it, a wine quality, but it’s creamy and slightly rough-textured. Further investigations show that this is a rice wine. But it’s not very nice wine.


  1. you drank love juice - hahahah ;op

    sounds like you had a fun day non the less, i wish we had somewhere interesting like that round here.

  2. Hmm. Perhaps, I've been landed with S. Korea and was also planning a trip to New Malden. But you beat me to it. If they only had the std Hite (rather than Hite Prime or Hite Stout) sounds like I might be wasting my time.

  3. Mark, that's one for the book of heroic failures.

  4. My wife's Korean, so this resonated with me. The early days of my marriage were filled with many challenging and interesting culinary experience. I've found over the years that Korean food is like crack, though: once you get a taste for it, it's all you really want to eat. Kimchi in particular is incredibly addictive. The food on offer in South Korea itself (been there twice) is truly amazing. One of the best countries for food I've ever been to.

    South Korean beer (OB, Hite etc) is pretty awful. Most Koreans I know drink soju or scotch anyway. I've been trying to grow to like soju for 13 years now and it still tastes like cheap vodka/paint thinner to me: awful stuff. My father-in-law guzzles it like it's water, that man is a machine.

    I think that's makoli you had in the second can.

    Lastly, mentioning North Korea is slightly touchy with your average group of South Koreans, but nothing like bringing up Japan. Probably not a good idea to bring either into the conversation...

  5. I don't know if this is dedication to beer or just insanity, but well done anyway!

  6. MusicRab - they may have had others around so I'd still go there if you can, plus you'll get to eat some decent food.

    David, thanks for your comment. I can imagine the food is very addictive - it's just knowing what to go for! If it was makoli then I'll know never to order makoli again :)

    thanks Jonathan, I don't know either but I at least had to try in the name of the game!