Choi Yun-lee, a 26-year-old office worker, likes drinking beer. When she does drink, usually two to three times a week, she makes it a point to try something different.
“When I go to a foreign restaurant, I have more opportunities to try foreign beer. I want to try everything, not just beers from one country,” she says.
People like Choi probably explain the increasing beer imports to a country that in 2010 gulped down 1.95 billion liters of the beverage.
According to data from Korean customs, imports of beer between 2009 and 2011 increased 64 percent in monetary terms to US$58.4 million last year. The market share of such imports increased from 2.05 percent in 2008 to 2.4 percent in 2010. Industry watchers estimate it reached 4 percent last year.
Local retailers have taken the cue. E-Mart, a local hypermart chain, expanded their selection of beers from 70 brands in 2010 to 200 this year to sell a wide range from countries like Brazil, France and Tibet. Jin Jang-min, a PR associate at E-Mart, says young consumers are driving the demand. “Soju is not so popular because it’s too strong,” she said, referring to the local rice-based liquor. “Young people like beer because it’s softer.”
Many foreign beers are now available on tap in pubs and bars as draft beer as well. A growing appreciation for draft beer has been driven by an increased sophistication in taste preferences, according to Gubae Kim, the marketing director of German beer importer Bestbuy and Beverage. “Koreans can now distinguish the taste difference of draft beer,” he said.
“We think the imported beer market will grow 10-15 percent this year,” Kim said. “There’s been an enlightenment, an increased awareness of beer.”
Beer production in Korea is mostly limited to large corporate-owned mass market brands. Regulations prohibit microbreweries from distributing their own beer unless they meet strict requirements such as a production capacity of 120,000 liters, which involves large capital investment.
Rob Titley, a consulting brewmaster and the founder of Homebrew Korea, says Korea’s beer market is skewed because of such regulations. It has “forced people to make their own or to pay high prices for imported beer,” he says.
For entrepreneurs like Sung Lee, the CEO of Brewmasters International, a business opportunity was blazingly clear. He was involved in operating brewpubs in New York. His “epiphany” came when he visited Korea in the summer of 2010. “I went dry for one month. I realized I wanted to change the beer culture,” he said.
Yet, getting people to understand beer styles still has its limits, according to Lee.
“I’m trying to bring in something different so different styles of beer are represented in the market,” he said. It has been a challenge as many pub proprietors are unfamiliar with beer styles. “Education is a challenge. Getting people to try the beer is the hardest thing.”
Others have tied their marketing to Korea’s growing interest in foreign cuisine and are honing in on neighborhoods with foreign populations and foreign restaurants like Itaewon and Sinsa-dong in central Seoul.
Espressamente Illy coffee shops will introduce Italian beer to three flagship stores this year. Their goal is to introduce the Italian culture of aperitivo, beer with canapes and cheese plates.
Cooking with beer, while common in American and European restaurant kitchens, is relatively new to Korea. Italian Chef Sebastiano Giangregorio of Exclusivo restaurant in southern Seoul in February created a menu using beer as an ingredient. The dishes included Sicilian “arancini” rice balls cooked in beer batter and beef tenderloin with Peroni beer demi-glace sauce. If the dishes prove popular, he plans to add them to his regular menu.
Beer prices are relatively high in Korea due to government taxation that adds 180 percent to the CIF (cost insurance freight) price of beer. Alberto Mondi, brand manager for Peroni Beer, says this is inevitably reflected in the marketing of foreign beers. “Because the taxes are so high, beer has to be marketed as a premium product. We do a lot of branding to ensure Peroni is sold in the right places,” he said.
Despite the high prices, demand is there. “Consumers are willing to pay more for new gastronomic experiences. They care less about price and more about quality,” says Mondi.
Importer Sung Lee has noticed a pattern as consumers move to foreign beers. He says, “Most Koreans start with sweeter, fruiter German beers then move onto ales such as IPA (Indian Pale Ale) and brown ales.” He hopes that lesser known beer styles such as Saison and Trappist ales will become popular.
If none of the tastes on the market satisfies or if the imports are too expensive for one’s pockets, there is always make-it-yourself beer.
Titley sells beer making equipment for local homebrewers via his Web site (www.homebrewkorea.com). Since 2008, he has managed an online beer forum and in 2010 launched the annual “Korea Homebrew Competition” in which Koreans and ex-pats enter homemade beers into a blind tasting competition to select the best brews. According to Titley, demand for quality beer is so high that two microbreweries are currently investing in larger capacity facilities to supply consumers and pubs.