It’s difficult to comprehend life North Korea from the outside looking in. It’s clear that the country is poor, the people are oppressed and their leader is crazy. It’s less clear what North Koreans do for fun (well, at least what people would generally acknowledge as fun).
Thanks to Stephen Evans, BBC’s Korea correspondent, we can at least know what North Korean fun tastes like in the form of beer from the state-sponsored Taedonggang Brewery. Apparently, it tastes like watery American macro lager.
“An OK beer, a bit bland to my palate more used to magnificent British bitter — a bit too much like ghastly, dishwater, mass-produced American beer, in my opinion,” Evans wrote in his tasting notes.
Evans sounds a little biased, but still. So much for the country’s flagship beer. North Korea has been trying to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of beer since it took control of Taedonggang Beer Factory in 2002. In August, North Korea held its first beer festival to show off how far it has come. There was food, a sampling of local brews and German-style beer girls carrying sizable mugs to each table. All that was missing was interesting beer.
Taedonggang, the brewery that was supposed to deliver on said interesting beer, is named for the river that runs through the capital city, Pyongyang. It’s brewed by the people behind a former British brewery, Ushers. Ushers had a 180-year history in Britain making ale before the brewery was taken apart and shipped to Pyongyang, where it was faithfully reconstructed in 2002.
The New York Times gave it a better review in 2008 than Evans did, saying the beer “is a full-bodied lager a little on the sweet side, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.”
That was eight years ago, though, and now Taedonggang has 14 years of brewing under its belt. Therefore it deemed it was time for a coming out party. The only problem is that North Korea’s notoriously trade-restricted country makes it extremely hard for any foreigner not on Kim Jong-un’s guest list to get a taste. There’s always the option of going in undercover a la The Interview, but Evans went with an easier method: Getting a bottle through China via the Chinese border city of Dandong.
There likely isn’t a large contingency of people outside of North Korea who are clamoring for a stein of Taedonggang. It’s nice to know beer is available to the people of North Korea, even if it is complete swill. Everyone, after all, needs a beer every so often. And from the reports coming out of the North (which have to be taken with a grain of salt), the people appear to be alright with the beer in general, and the first beer festival specifically.
“The Pyongyang beer festival shows our people’s lives filled with happiness and optimism,” the BBC reports a North Korean television producer as saying. “It’s a people’s paradise and a highly civilized socialist country, while smashing the U.S. and its heinous followers.”
So there’s that, despite it tasting like “watery American macro lager.” You know what they say, though, imitation is the highest form of flattery.