Ever heard the saying that countries get the leaders they deserve? Might not the same be true of a country's beers?
South Korea, long heralded as the Miracle on the Han River, today has the world's thirteenth largest economy. In 1962, its gross domestic product was US$2.7 billion. That figure stands at $1.5 trillion today. South Korean consumers are richer than they've ever been while their domestic brews remain just as bad as they've ever been.
Some blame it on punitively high costs which assess taxes based on original costs. Lee Dong-phil, President of the Korea Rural Economic Institute, maintains that Korean breweries are taxed 100 times more than German ones. In breweries' attempts to cut down on original costs, they are forced to use cheaper ingredients. Up until 2009, a brewery had to be equipped with almost 2,000 kiloliters of storage space in order to have any hope of getting a license from the government. The brewing field continues to be tilted to those with kegfulls of Korean won.
The Korean government has always been a buddy to the big boys. This is the land of the chaebols. Huge conglomerates employ most of the people and call most of the shots. The government keeps out newer smaller entrants by insisting they don't have the resources to monitor the safety and hygiene of their brews.
Most of us would see this as logic in reverse. Isn't it the smaller producer who is typically more dedicated to craftsmanship, wholesome ingredients, and integrity? What can I say? Koreans trust big established players - whether you're talking about a retail outlet, a kimbab stall, or beer.
Thus, the Korean brewing scene remains dominated by two giant brewers, Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewery. Both produce watery lagers largely bulked up with adjuncts like rice.
Well, what's new here? In the United States, a few huge breweries dominate the marketplace with watery lagers bulked up with adjuncts, too. In Japan, you have four giant breweries selling most of the brew. Ditto for Thailand, where four huge breweries carve up nearly all of the local market. And yet the United States, Japan, and Thailand all brew better beers than Korea. How can it be that an economic powerhouse full of citizenry who love to drink produces beers that are regarded as inferior to the stuff impoverished North Korea is bottling, at least according to a magazine article by The Economist?
While prohibitive taxes and governmental regulations certainly protect the status quo, they alone don't explain the shoddy state of the domestic Korean beer market. Foreign beer imports rose by 50% between 2008 and 2012. At Korea's ubiquitous eMart chain, it's possible to find a dozen or more imported beers at half decent prices. Whereas a bottle of Korea's "finest" might cost $1.50, an imported Leffe from Belgium or Suntory from Japan will run just a dollar more. High-income Korea has no trouble affording an extra dollar for a beer.
Korean beers have a poor worldwide reputation, earning the nation the unenviable titles of "Land of the Bland" and "Where beer tastes like cASS" [Cass is one of Korea's 'quality' brews]. In recent years, Korean brewers have stepped up the variety a small notch, introducing stouts and German-style brews which are still watery and subclass.
Can these pathetic brews all be written off to Korea's archaic tax regulations and unfriendly and uncompetitive brewing market? Is the sorry state of Korean brewing solely attributable to the Korean government and the two big brewers they're sleeping with?
In a truly uncompetitive market, governed by an oligopoly or duopoly, consumers would see both inferior products akin to the type Korean brewers offer and high prices. However, Korean beer is actually reasonably priced, more so than, say, poorer Thailand. Between 1970 and 2011, Korean food staples and bus fares increased by 50 times; beer, only seven times. In that period, Korea's GDP per capita rose about 12 times in real terms. Beer has effectively gotten cheaper for the average Korean.
Korean beer manufacturers shout they can produce better beer, but cite market research which shows the average consumer prefers the bland watery adjunct lagers already on the market.
So whose fault is it for lousy Korean brews? The brewers and their government mistress or the consumers? Let's examine the raw data. Koreans consume, per capita, 38.5 liters of beer annually, almost exactly half the amount consumed by Americans. When you look at the per capita consumption of alcohol though, the Koreans consume slightly more than the Americans - 8.9 liters vs 8.6 liters. This tells us that Koreans aren't teetotalers. They're just consuming most of their alcohol in forms other than beer.
The Guardian wrote an article how soju is now the most popular booze in the world, selling twice as much as any other. In 2013, 65 million 9-liter cases of soju were sold. Soju takes 97% of the spirits market in Korea. The drink has been around for over six centuries in Korea. You can be sure that many people who would've sipped beer in countries where soju is unknown sip soju or somaek (soju mixed with beer) in Korea.
Beer just doesn't matter as much. In such a high stress society, Koreans take to the bottle for the purposes of inebriation. Soju gets them to salvation faster. If a Korean wants something lighter in alcohol, a beer will do, but a 4.5% ABV industrial watery Korean lager is just as efficient at doing the job as a 4.5% ABV dry-hopped hand-crafted pilsner.
The Koreans didn't invent the phrase "a beer is a beer is a beer," but they might as well have. I've heard the phrase, via translation, more times in Korea than I ever heard it anywhere else. Korean spending habits on beers show the adage is alive and well.
Korea has proven it has the technological know how to mimic the best of advanced economies and turn that into solid export moneymakers. Just take a look at their electronics and automotive industries. More so than most nations, Koreans could craft some of the finest brews on the planet if they wanted to. They don't want to. The majority of Korean consumers are content with watery slop. They won't pay the extra buck or two for an import at eMart. ABV, not taste, is the top consideration. Therefore, why should the conglomerates invest in higher quality ingredients to provide better brews?
Not all hope is lost. When the two Koreas eventually re-unite, South Korea can build on the tasty North Korean beer infrastructure -- or choose to water it down.
I'd place my bets on the latter.