The Korean beer market is changing with a surge in imported beers, featuring brews from Belgium, America and Germany among others, widening the options for consumers. But understanding beer styles such as Trappist ale, saison and imperial stout isn’t always easy. That would be why a cicerone, or a beer sommelier, steps in. A cicerone ensures beer is served the right way and that you have the right brew for your meal, whether it be Korean or Western cuisine.
Identifying problems with beer is a key component of cicerone qualification. Beer, especially unfiltered and unpasteurized beer, can be damaged by heat as it moves through the distribution chain. Values, taps and pipes have to be kept super-clean to avoid contamination that could spoil the brew. Glassware is also important in experiencing the flavor and bouquet of each beer style.
Troy Zitzelsberger, an American, is the first cicerone to work in Korea. The cicerone qualification is administered by the U.S.-based Craft Beer Institute and requires detailed knowledge of beer storage and service, modern beer styles, beer history and historical beers. Candidates are required to pass written and tasting exams, and to be able to solve beer service issues.
“I spent a month just traveling around visiting brewpubs and tasting as many beers as I could find,” Zitzelsberger said. “I had a four hour practical exam where I had to taste spiked beers, identify the problem and state whether I would serve it or not.”
He currently works at Reilly’s Taphouse in Itaewon, central Seoul, where he is responsible for the beer selection, food pairings and managing the beer equipment. Reilly’s Taphouse has 20 beers on tap and 30 bottled beers, including rare ales aged in oak barrels, an impressive collection considering that finding representative beer styles in Korea, especially Belgian ales, can be time consuming as the majority of beer importers are small operations with less than five staff and focus on a handful of pubs and restaurants.
Zitzelsberger is introducing what is starting to become popular in the U.S. — beer cocktails. One of them is his “Subtle Shark” made from bourbon and great white: a witbier from Lost Coast Brewery in the U.S.
Pub owners say most customers start out by trying beer cocktails out of sheer curiosity. Hwang Eun-jin, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul, did so and found that they are balanced without being too filling.
“There’s a touch of sweetness, but they don’t make me feel bloated like beer,” she said.
And balance is the key, according to Zitzelsberger. “The thing with beer cocktails is that you still want the beer to shine through. It’s about having the proper amounts. Otherwise the spirits can overwhelm everything,” he said.
Also, close collaboration between the chef and cicerone is key to developing a pairing that works by interplaying the flavors and textures between ingredients and the expressiveness of the beer.
“Intensity is important. You have to match the intensity of the food and beer,” says Zitzelsberger.
Mussels cooked in soju (rice-based distilled liquor) and gochujang (red chili pepper paste) sauce are paired with Craftworks Moonbear IPA. There’s an enormous kick added by the beer, and it’s more a contrast than complimentary pairing that will certainly wake you up on a Sunday afternoon.
Chris DeBord, the chef, uses beer in his cooking. His Atlantic cod fish ‘n’ chips is wrapped in a hefeweizen beer batter and pairs well with Belgian triple ale. The carbonated beer acts as a palate cleanser while the richness of the beer compliments the richer than average cod, which is meaty and textural.
Beer is traditionally a seasonal product with brews created to pair with seasonal dishes and the weather of each season. Reilly’s Taphouse is trying to reflect this with seasonal dinners and events. In November, they paired pumpkin and coconut foam soup with spiced moon bear ale at an autumn ales event. A homebrew festival is also planned for February with the Seoul Brew Club pairing beers with winter roasts.
Customers like Eric Thorpe, a PR executive in Seoul who has lived in Korea for 20 years, are welcoming the new trend.
“These days, I don’t go to Western style bars, which tend to have mass market beers. In Itaewon you can get more craft beers,” he said.
Korea hasn’t been one of the countries with “real beer,” according to Zitzelsberger. But now, people will come in and “try anything” to taste new styles and brands they haven’t seen before. “There are a lot of options out there now,” he said.
Zitzelsberger’s personal tip — be careful what you drink your beer in. “A triple should never be served in a tall thin glass,” he said. “It’s fine if you’ve got a lager, but for a more complex, high alcohol beer you need a sniffer glass or tulip so the beer can breathe and you get all those aromas.”