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Sight Sipping in Seoul

By February 27, 2014Beer Travel
Hiking beer. Light and local.
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Time is relative. Never is this statement more true than when you are traveling internationally. Crossing multiple time zones in quick succession can skew your perception of the way time passes.

Beer traveling to Seoul, Korea
And so it was that I arrived in Seoul’s Incheon Airport 30 hours after I left Los Angeles despite a relatively quick 13 hour flight. I had crossed the international date line and jumped forward to the future.

I was officially out of my element. Disoriented in a culture with their own system of symbols and customs. My welcoming interface at 6:30 am in the morning was a heated toilet seat with a bidet control panel that featured 12 functions each represented by a geometric symbol and no words…I picked square.

My had intentionally planned my abnormally long 14 hour layover so that I could day trip into Seoul and of course try to find some local beer. I had done some research on Korean craft beer and based on some cursory Google results had determined that Itaewon was the place I needed to go to start my search for local craft beer.

Determining how to get to Itaewon proved to be more difficult than I would have thought. While most signs had English translations in the airport the train was mostly labeled in Korean. Through a combination of clumsy questions and good natured locals I was able to get pointed towards my first destination, Craftworks Taphouse and Bistro.
Interior of Craftworks Taphouse and Bistro in Seoul

I first heard about this place from Good Beer Hunting’s post on his 48 hours in Korea and further research revealed it to be a key  instigator in the Seoul craft beer movement. Tucked back in a twisting alley I found the welcoming word a welcoming sign that read “Taphouse”

I arrived around noon to find the place mostly empty other than the bar tender and few patrons finishing up lunch. This was more of night spot where evening were often standing room only and Friday’s filled up as soon as the work whistle has blown.

I already knew that the co-founder, Dan Vroon, was going to be out of town as I had tried messaging him before my arrival, but my bartender also offered up the fact that he was out on his yearly ten day vacation to Thailand that involves a unique mix fasting and yoga. Not your typical craft beer vendor.

Vroon is a Canadian who had a simple idea, provide locally made but American inspired beer to a population of Koreans that are starting to demand more choice. In fact Craftworks features there own line of house beers produced by Ka-Brew Korean brewery as well as taps of American beers from Ballast Point to Anderson Valley.
Craftwork's signature stout

When I finished my Seorak Oatmeal Stout I didn’t quite know what to do next couple of hours. The only other place I had researched was a micro brewery a couple blocks down but it didn’t open for another three hours. My bartender, a visitor in her own right, recommended I check out he North Seoul Tower for a view of the city. “Just go outside, look to right and walk to the tall building off in the distance” is what I translated from her smooth French accent. Fair enough, I had time.

Half way up the hike to the tower I realized this was going to be a bit more than a leisurely walk. The tower stands 1,574 ft above sea level and there were several points in the hike that I wished I had bought a hiking beer. I was relieved to find a convenience store located at the bottom of the final stretch up at the tower base. I squeezed through a pack of tourists to grab what looked to be the lowest common denominator beer of local distinction, Cass. When in Rome…

It took me about an hour to climb the mountain side yet I felt like it was only ten minutes. My sense of time was distorted already, but the flow of which is also sped up and slowed down by the quality of activity. Exploring new places can cause time to zoom by while mindlessly drifting through the norm can make it appear to crawl.

Panroramic view of Seoul, Korea during my solo beer travels
The tower proved to be a great recommendation and for such a stern looking structure it was quite a whimsical place. The guard rails were lined with thousands of padlocks as a result of a Korean sitcom’s love totem, the benches were bent inwards to aid those shy souls into breaking the ice, and the colorful and tastefully colorful graffiti adorned all of the tower’s supports beams while vendors hawked beverages that were playfully be arranged and rearranged to make eye catching patterns on the ground.
Whimsical features at Seoul's North Tower

Hiking beer. Light and local.
I cracked the Cass as a small reward for my efforts and took a seat to take in this magnificent view of the city. It seemed to go forever and unlike many of the American metropoli I have visited there seemed to be high rises dotting the landscape everywhere, not just huddled into one clear downtown area.

With an hour to go until Magpie Brewing was set to open I started my decent down the mountain. While calmly navigating the streets of a city I had no business feeling comfortable in I befriended some fellow travelers and directed them back to the main Itaewon district. It turns out a friend of theirs owned a bar in one of the many back alleys off main street and I joined them for a beer while I waited seek out my ultimate destination: a local Korean craft brewery.
Post hike beer.

When I arrived at Magpie Brewery I was still trying to figure out exactly how far ahead of the U.S. I was in terms of time. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. How ever was I going to effectively tweet my experiences if everyone was asleep. It took an open WiFi connection and a Pale Ale to finally figure it out. It’s funny how a beer can be a grounding experience when you are surrounded by the unfamiliar. This was something I knew and gave me common ground with my fellow bar patrons.

Magpie is what I had been searching for…a small nano brewing operation. It had only two beers on tap  Pale Ale and a Porter. Both were excellent and could be put against any American version and hold it’s own. I could see the giant kettles on the kitchen stove top as I drank my beer. Through some casual conversation with the bartender I learned that the brewery has been open for less than two years and has a sister location across the alley in the basement where the beer bar lies.
Exterior shot of Magpie Brewing CoAmazing Pale Ale at Magpie Brewing CoInterior shot of Magpie Brewing Co

I took advantage of the WiFi and posted some pictures from the days activities, but was running short on time. I had to meet my sister for the final leg of our journey to the Philippines and didn’t want to show up late, yet I still had some beer business to attend to.

On my way to Magpie I noticed a bottle shop just 100 feet from the brewery. The Bottle Shop caught my eye initially because of the Rogue and Duvel beers displayed in the window. I wanted to check out the selection but also needed a walking beer for my journey back to the airport.
Interior view of Nicky's Bottle Shop

I was greeted by Nicky, the owner, who informed me that there were no open container laws in Seoul and after a short conversation about craft beer in Korea recommended a Maredsous Brune ale by Duvel. He popped the top and gave me plastic cup for my roadie.
A walking beer for my trip back to the airport.

By now I had a pretty good buzz and was confidently navigating myself around the city. Considering I had only been there half a day and was a little nervous setting out I now found myself wishing I had more time to explore this vast city. What was foreign was now welcoming and exciting. Time had equalized and I felt back on a “normal” schedule.

Four destinations down and four beers in I was getting a good sense of Korea’s craft beer scene. It was young but passionate and growing. After so much monotany in beer selection they simply started demand variety much like the emergence of craft beer in the states.

The big beer companies have responded with some new lines but it is craft beer and craft beer lovers that are answering the call. Similar to how I was starting to cope with my time change it seemed that Korea was coming to terms with it’s beer selection. In the end it wasn’t a surprise, it was just a matter of time

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