MUNCHIES' China correspondent Jamie Fullerton recently spent a week in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, gaining a rare glimpse at the hermit kingdom's food culture. This is the final dispatch in a three-part series. Catch up with part 1 and part 2.
Pyongyang, the capital of hyper-isolated and totalitarian North Korea, might not sound like the obvious location for a beer-sodden knees-up with the jolly boys. Although we're not quite at a stage where Pyongyangers are regularly getting massively pissed up and vomiting down their Mao suits, in recent years beer halls have become established, popular spots in the city, where locals can unwind after a hard day of work and repeatedly bowing to portraits of the Kim dynasty leaders.
The seven varieties of beer from the Taedonggang brewery are the tipples on offer at such places, with the rising popularity of the Pyongyang-made brews fuelling the launch of the city's first ever beer festival last August. Production of Taedonggang began after the North Korean government bought and imported an entire brewery, Ushers of Trowbridge, in 2000. Now there are around five large Pyongyang beer halls serving it.
Last month I visited one of them, Mansugyo Beer Bar, maintaining the slim hope of lucking out and stumbling into a welcoming Pyongyang stag party until it became clear that the bar was not that kind of establishment. Sparsely decorated, lick-the-floor clean and with no music (the latter aspect perhaps being the one thing the pub had in common with J D Wetherspoon's décor and brand concept), the venue is a touch more minimalist than your average Red Lion.
A few propaganda posters on the terrace brightened the place up, though.
As is the case at most of the beer halls in the city, customers stand at tables as they knock back pints that sell for the equivalent of about 50 cents US. The brews are named and numbered from One to Seven. The most conventional, lager-style offerings are on the lower end of the scale with more extreme tipples such as chocolate- and coffee-flavoured beers assigned the highest numbers.
Most people in the bar plumped for the conservative options. One (as in the beer named One) was an enjoyably crisp, golden, medium-strength lager-esque drink, while Two was a slightly lighter version that is also bottled and sold in many other places around the city. They were both pretty tasty.
I gave the chocolate and coffee styles a whirl, but their mildly unpleasant bitterness gave an indication of why I was the only person in the bar doing so. They're not tongue-troublingly bad, but Six and Seven are clearly just making up the numbers.
My visit was at 5:30 PM on a Wednesday afternoon. The atmosphere was polite and subdued with the day's first post-work drinkers, most of them male, providing a lightly bubbling soundtrack of glass clinks and murmurs. Pyongyang is where North Korea's most privileged citizens live, and while the presence of the beer halls there is a result of the emergence of a wealthier middle class in the city, the relative low cost of the drink means that they are not refuges of the absolute elite. The liquor soju remains the most popular booze in the country, but draft beer is becoming more common and accessible.
"Beer is a bit middle-class in North Korea, but you never know who's going to end up drinking at these places," said Simon Cockerell, general manager of UK-owned North Korea tour company Koryo Tours, the firm I travelled to Pyongyang with. "I once went to a similar beer bar in the city and ended up talking to a table of very loud female gynecologists."
I was told that the good-natured raising of voices is one of the few overt signs of drunkenness I was likely to encounter at a Pyongyang beer hall. The drinkers I was sharing the place with barely threatened to register even that; they seemed to be there for a couple of civilised rounds after work.
"It's a conservative society," said Cockerell. "These bars aren't open late. You see people who are more 'sleepy' drunk rather than passed-out drunk. That tends to be in parks, when people have had a soju-heavy picnic.
"In these bars, people just get a little bit rowdy sometimes; you never see anyone getting carried out and I've never seen a punch-up over a spilled pint or anything like that. They're not open all day, so there's not, like, an old guy perched at the end of the bar who's been there every day for 40 years."
With most able young men in North Korea conscripted to the army, the beer halls' clientele tends to not be particularly young. "You do see the occasional young couple on a date here, though," said Cockerell. "They're called 'donju dates' —donju means new money people, the 'masters of money.' It's a North Korean word that's now also being used in South Korea, too."
Sadly, there were no donju dates taking place during my fleeting trip to Mansugyo Beer Bar. Still, I'd happily take a lady for a pint of Two there, should the ban on foreigners freely roaming in North Korea be lifted in my lifetime. I liked it there; the bar offers a rare chance on Pyongyang's rigid tours for outsiders to see the city's locals relaxing, or at least appearing to. Sort a big drop-down screen for Super Sunday and they'll be laughing.
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