“One unexpected side effect of opening [The Magpie Brewery] here,” explained Magpie Brewing Co. co-owner Erik Moynihan, “is that if we were just in Seoul, we are a Seoul brewery. But because we are in Jeju we are almost like a national brewery. Our customers are from Daejeon, they are from Daegu, they are from all of these cities all around the country and they all know Magpie beer well.”
Just over one year ago, Magpie opened its brewery in the Hoechon Dong area of Jeju Island. This was the natural next step for a company that was then in its fifth year of operation. It gave them the freedom to brew exactly what, and as much as, they wanted.
Not soon after the opening of the brewery, Mike Romeo joined the team as the head brewer.
“There were a few things that caught my attention,” explained Mike, when asked about why he wanted to work at Magpie. “From everything I was able to find, Magpie was focused on doing things the right way. They focused on making quality beer and not just doing the same thing everyone else is doing."
And what success this strategy has led to. In the year since opening the brewery, they have added an extra line of fermenters (with plans for more soon), essentially allowing them to double the amount of beer they are able to produce and send to locations throughout Korea.
For Mike, who has spent time working at Left Hand Brewing in Colorado as well as another island-based brewing company called Fanø Bryghus in Denmark, the advantages of being based on Jeju are many.
▲ Photo courtesy Magpie Brewing Co.
“The number of local ingredients available on Jeju and specifically ingredients that aren’t known for being used in beer. There are quite a lot. It’s been very fun to be able to play around with some of that stuff. We have been able to use some interesting ingredients like magnolia buds, Jeju tangerines, Jeju Szechuan peppercorns is also a great one.”
This spirit of experimentation has lead to some great beers being produced by the team using both ingredients from Jeju and throughout Korea. Mike points to the beer they recently made for their one year anniversary, a raspberry Berliner weisse, as one that particularly stands out.
“That was a challenge to figure out how to make that beer with that amount of raspberries. We felt like a sour would be a really good combination but we didn’t want to do our normal sour which is a gose, we wanted to do something slightly different and ended up choosing a Berliner weisse. We thought that that would allow the raspberries to really stand out.”
However, Mike was keen to ensure that they are doing things the right way, not just adding ingredients for the sake of it.
“I love using unusual ingredients but first and foremost it is a beer and it needs to taste like a beer. Whatever we use needs to be the right ingredients for the right beer. And sometimes that’s a long process.”
And as for this process? After choosing an ingredient they want to use, Mike and Erik explained that they will then make an extract of the flavor, before adding it to beers to see if anything works. They then make small batches for experimentation before finally committing to the final product.
▲ Photo courtesy Magpie Brewing Co.
Mike said, “everything starts with an idea. Some ingredients are easy. Some ingredients just fall into place and you know what it’s going to taste like. But some are much more complex so we do small scale testing on a lot of the more unusual ingredients to just see how they interact in beer.”
The amount of time this takes varies depending on the beer.
“There are some recipes that we have developed over a week. And some that we have developed over months, and some that we are still working on. It very much depends on the ingredient and the beer.”
Buying fresh ingredients produced in Korea is important to the brewery. Erik explained that “We are keen on using local ingredients. You can buy raspberry extracts from huge international places but for us it is kinda important to use something that came from a farm that you could visit.”
It is this attitude of thinking locally that perhaps explains why they have been embraced by the local community so much. The area the brewery is based in is a tiny rural village about 20 minutes outside of Jeju City.
This is quite a move away from the crowds of Seoul that they were used to and the possibility of a culture clash was surely high. However, Erik explains that since they arrived the villagers have been nothing but welcoming and have even taken to the beer.
▲ Photo courtesy Magpie Brewing Co.
“We went in before we opened the brewery and had a big party and invited everyone from the village to come in. It was funny because we bought makgeolli and soju and we bought all of the stuff that you think old people are gonna want to drink. But they were like, no, we want pizza and beer.”
It isn’t just the older residents of Hoechon Dong that have taken to the beer though. Magpie Beers are now available in around 30/40 restaurants, bars, and cafes throughout Jeju and a significantly higher number of places on mainland Korea.
However, while more Magpie beer is sent to Seoul than served on Jeju, the branch of Magpie in Tapdong, Jeju City, is set to start selling more beer than their Itaewon location.
In fact, even in the eight months that Mike has been living on Jeju, he has noticed a pretty big difference. “You can definitely tell that more people are aware of Magpie which is nice.”
And what about the selection of beers available on Jeju in general? As a former resident of Colorado, a state with 200 plus breweries, Mike is used to having a pretty big selection. However, he thinks that things are certainly looking positive for both Jeju and Korea.
“There are a lot of breweries opening up in the future. We have Jeju Brewing Company coming soon and there are a few other breweries already on Jeju. There are others opening up in Korea all the time. I think that while the selection may seem limited now that is absolutely going to change and I’m excited with the direction.”
With these changes, plus the fact that craft beer is expected to increase its share of the Korean beer market in the next few years, Magpie are keen to continue making further plans. They point to potential new locations, upcoming collaborations, as well as increasing the amount of beer produced.
However, most exciting for beer fans are their plans for future beers. Mike explained that fans of German styles are in for a treat this fall.
“We are doing two new beers. A Dortmunder export lager which will be interesting, I don’t think I’ve seen any in Korea […] And the other is a smoked pumpkin beer that we are going to be doing for Halloween, a smoked pumpkin doppelbock.”
Everything is certainly pointing towards positive times for beer fans both on Jeju and throughout Korea.
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