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LifestyleFood and Drink
Tapping into the Jeju craft beer marketTapdong's Magpie is a sign that Jeju’s craft beer scene is catching up with the mainland after regulation changes
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승인 2016.01.07  14:53:20
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▲ Magpie Tapdong will soon be brewing its own beer here in Jeju. Photo by Veronica Spann

Craft beer is booming. There are now 10,000 craft breweries operating around the world with a net worth of $50 billion.

Despite more people drinking the stuff than ever before, however, we still can’t agree on what is, and isn’t, craft beer.

Although most agree that craft breweries are small-scale operations, size is relative: a small German craft brewery produces less than 500,000 liters annually; an American small brewery produces up to 1.8 million liters.

For aficionados, it is not only about size, but attitude, quality and flavor.

▲ Photo by Veronica Spann
▲ Photo by Veronica Spann

Around 90 percent of American craft brewers began as homebrewers after homebrewing laws were relaxed in 1978. These pioneers sought quality, flavor and collaboration.

It is no surprise that craft breweries are still associated with experimentation, creativity, discovery and community. This entrepreneurial spirit has contributed to the American explosion in craft breweries from just 44 in 1980, to 537 in 1991, and 4,144 by December 2015.

Over the last 12 months, a new brewery has opened every 12 hours in America, and there are another 1,755 in planning, says the Brewers Association.

In what could be telling for the future of Korea’s own beer industry, craft beer has steadily chipped away at the dominance of America’s big brewers such as Budweiser, Coors and Miller.

By volume, craft beers held 11 percent of the market in 2014 (up from 5 percent in 2010), which accounted for 19.3 percent of beer market sales ($19.6 Billion). Exports are also up 35.7 percent on 2013, with exports of $99.7 million in 2014.

Many of these American craft beers are finding their way to Korea, which stands fifth globally with $3.4 million in US imports. The growth of the Korean market has even caught the attention of global media with coverage by the BBC, Bloomberg Business, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Slate.com and many more local outlets.

Why the upshot in interest? Well, just like in America it was a change in regulations that sparked the Korean craft beer movement.

The first opportunities arose in 2011 when the minimum threshold for annual commercial beer production was lowered to 150,000 liters from 1 million liters.

▲ Photo by Veronica Spann

While this still represented a barrier to many, other changes allowed breweries to sell their beer to other businesses — contract brewing — for the first time, leading to the sale of craft beer in bars without brewing facilities.

The next big change was in late 2014 when the production capacity threshold was further lowered to 50,000 liters. This is when we see the real takeoff of the Korean craft beer movement, reports Slate.com, with some breweries doubling and tripling production.

Some breweries did even better than that, and Magpie Tapdong, the Jeju operation of Magpie Brewing Company, saw an astounding 15-fold increase in total production following the regulation changes, says co-owner Erik Moynihan.

Similar to the seeds of the American craft beer scene, Magpie’s roots are in homebrew parties hosted in Seoul kitchens. Demand for the group of friends’ beer quickly grew, and they soon moved into their own premises in Itaewon, Seoul.

▲ Photo by Veronica Spann

Moynihan said that the popularity of craft beer was so high now in Seoul that over 100 establishments were waiting for licenses to serve their own beer on tap.

It is understandable, therefore, that when contacted by the owners of Arario Museum to co-invest in a Jeju craft beer pub, the Magpie team jumped at the chance.

While the craft beer revolution was slower to gather speed on the island, it has definitely arrived.

Although expat-favorite Boris Brewery was driven out by high rents, and the brewing partnership plans of Brooklyn Brewery and Jeju province were shelved in March 2015, province-owned Jespi has been producing its range of Jeju-inspired pale ales, stouts and pilsners since 2013.

Other outlets selling craft beer include Craft Hans, Malt 9 and Wa Bar, all of which ship beer down from mainland breweries.

▲ Photo by Veronica Spann

The Jeju palate is developing rapidly, and Moynihan says that since opening in December 2014 with its range of up to eight beers on tap, business has grown steadily, and beyond expectations, each month.

“We’ve been very happy with our experience on Jeju, so much so that we plan to make the Jeju our home in 2016,” says Moynihan. “By the end of 2016, every drop of Magpie beer will be coming from Jeju island.”

Magpie will soon be producing an annual 1 million liters of beer in an old mandarin packing facility, ironically enough to have qualified under the old brewery rules that protected the big brewers. It is quite a journey for the little business that started in the kitchens of a few Seoul expats.

And Magpie isn’t the only brewery coming to the Jeju craft brew party. The tax office says that four additional brewery applications were made for 2016, meaning it could be the year of the drunken monkey for Jeju.

True to the craft brew ethos of collaboration, Moynihan is welcoming the additional entries into the Jeju craft beer community.

“As for competition,” he says, “we usually try to think of them as peers. There is usually a friendly nature between brewers, and the market is growing so quickly right now that I don’t think anyone is really stepping on each other’s toes.”

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