Few beers get as much grief for tasting like piss as South Korean lagers, but somehow, flavorless domestic brews like Cass and Hite have dominated sales for decades, comprising about 95 percent of the market. Fortunately for those who are sick of this watery swill, South Korea is entering a much-heralded craft beer boom.
And at the forefront of this movement, sitting on the bar stools and driving the demand for this new crop of American-inspired beers, are Korean women.
Female-heavy crowds are the norm at Seoul's craft beer bars and brewpubs, ground zero for the burgeoning movement. "As customers, I would say women are definitely drivers," said Tiffany Needham, co-owner of Seoul's Magpie Brewing Company, which opened in 2012. "I remember six months into it, it was all Korean women in the bar, and it was like a switch has flipped," she recalled.
The story is similar at Reilly's Taphouse, Korea's first craft beer bar, where women make up about 65 percent of all customers, according to co-owner Troy Zitzelsberger. This holds true at newer joints as well. A bartender at the hip pop-up craft beer bar Namsan Chemistry estimated that 70 percent of customers during the three-month run were female.
The nearly instantaneous popularity of Namsan Chemistry—especially among women who gave it rave reviews in a matter of weeks—speaks to the trendiness of craft beer in Korea, and that prestige is almost certainly what hooked female customers in the first place.
Craft beer is to modern-day Korean women what Cosmos were to a legion of Carrie Bradshaw-wannabes in the 1990s: a drink of sophistication to be shared with your equally sophisticated girlfriends. So Korean craft beer culture has become as much about appearances as taste. At Reilly's, "If you have a beer and you put an orange or a watermelon on the side of it, something of that nature, then [women] tend to like that," says Zitzelsberger. "Makes a good selfie." A salesclerk at The Bottle Shop in Seoul told me many female customers will pick beers based on the label alone and are willing to spend more on "aesthetically pleasing" bottles.
Korean men haven't gotten as excited about pretty bottles or beautiful presentation as women have—because more often than not, men are drinking to get drunk, often to the point of passing out in the street. Harder liquors, like soju or whiskey, will do the trick quicker than beer alone, so there's less interest in trying out new flavors. "Men kind of prefer their neighborhood place or the place they've been going to for a long time," said Needham of male drinking habits. "They just want to go to their hof and drink the beer that they know, and I think women are a little more open-minded."
The trendiness of craft beer can only float higher prices for so long, so brewers have had to take on the role of educators to sustain sales. "If you do teach your customer about what's going into the product," continued Needham, "then they can start understanding the value of it and then they can pay $5 or $7 for a beer, instead of $3 for a Cass." The good news is that women are on board, even if it's taken a bit of time, and are quickly getting used to the more complex flavors. Seolhee Lee, one of Korea's only female brewers who currently works on the team at Magpie with Needham, remembers a time when women would order pale ales because it was the most popular style but would hate it. "Half of them said it was too bitter," she said. "Some asked us if they can get some honey so they can mix it." Increased education about and access to different styles of beer means that Lee isn't getting requests for honey for pale ales anymore, but it does seem that Korean women continue to prefer sweeter beers, like fruity wheat beers or chocolatey porters.
aKorean brewers, both big and small, have taken notice of these preferences because, at the end of the day, there's big money in beer, and women in their 20s are some of the most sought-after customers because they're drinking more than ever before. And when the Korean beer market is expected to be worth $1.6 billion in 2017, young women are the kind of high-rolling customer that no brewery can afford to lose.
Korean women have become accustomed to these flavors—more complex than any mass-produced, basic lager—and that taste-able difference, combined with the coolness of brewpubs, is what will keep this fad from imploding like honey butter chip hysteria. Besides, "Once you taste something different that you like and you prefer," explained Zitzelsberger, "it's hard to go back to what you used to drink." Especially when it's something as awful as Cass.