East Asia's craft beer revolution: the ultimate guide to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China
There’s something brewing in the Orient, something that will make beer drinkers positively hoppy with glee. It’s a craft beer revolution, and one long overdue in a corner of the world known largely for samey, light lagers.
From Seoul to Hong Kong, here is our ultimate guide to beer sampling and suds-sipping your way through East Asia.
Leading the charge of East Asian craft beer, Japan has been brewing great suds for some time now. Even its major label lagers have served as the gold standard for Asian brews - who doesn’t love a delicious, dry Sapporo over a platter of sushi? So it’s no surprise that Japan has been a forerunner on the Asian craft beer scene since the mid-90s, when laws prohibiting small-scale breweries were abolished and craft brewing began in earnest.
The king of all craft beer bars is Tokyo’s Popeye, which stocks mostly Japanese craft brews on its 70 (70!) taps. Admittedly, just getting through these will probably take up most of your time in Japan, but should you wish to venture further afield, you can’t go wrong in Osaka. Is it any surprise that Japan’s (arguably) most food-obsessed city would also at some point become a suds destination as well? The place to start here is Beer Belly (minoh-beer.jp), a home bar of the Osaka-based Minoh brewery with around 15 taps, most pouring house brews. Craft Beer Bar Marciero (facebook.com/craftbeerbar.marciero) down the road is about as micro as a bar can get, but still manages to cram in eight revolving taps of local and regional beers. In Kyoto, Beer Komachi (facebook.com/beerkomachi) serves up local brews down a hidden pedestrian alleyway, while Bungalow (bungalow.jp) literally rolls up its garage doors, transforming into an open-air street bar.
Oh China. Its 3% lagers have always gone well with its sweltering summers and deliciously oily dishes, but really, a beer nerd cannot live on brews whose most notable elements are the formaldehyde labelling. That the craft beer revolution in China has been so successful in such a short time shouldn’t be a surprise - like most other things in this quickly developing nation. Still, there is something intoxicatingly incongruous about supping a 7% Scotch dark ale in a converted hutong alleyway that makes China’s craft beer scene among the more compelling in East Asia.
Unsurprisingly, many of the best small breweries have expat brewmasters and are based in Beijing, the leader of the pack being Great Leap Brewing, with breweries like Slow Boat Brewery (slowboatbrewery.com) and Tipsy Face on their heels. A bit further afield are the Beer Nest (thebeernest.com) in Chengdu and Master Gao (twitter.com/MasterGaoCraft) from Nanjing. If you can only hit up one place, head to Beijing’s NBeer Pub (First Floor, Huguo Xintiandi, 85 Huhuosi Dajie, Xicheng; +86 10 8328 8823), which we admittedly love because of its bar made out of Lonely Planet books, but mostly for the sizable Chinese craft beer selection that’s among the most diverse in China.
It is surprising that Korea ranks as highly as it does, given the country’s crazy beer laws. Breweries here are required to meet a basic brewing limit, which essentially means that small-batch brewers are banned from selling beers they brew themselves. Microbreweries basically can’t exist. As a workaround, small new breweries have contracted one of the large-scale breweries to brew their beer, and then they sell it in their own taprooms around Seoul. A testament to the dedication of Seoul’s brewers and beer lovers, and a solution that works well for the meantime, though it means you’ll never happen into an actual microbrewery here. Still, the quality of the beer is outstanding, especially given the circumstances. Plus, Seoul’s extremely diverse expatriate population as well as the expendable income levels of locals mean that the beer being brewed here is both exciting and unique.
Itaewon has become Seoul’s destination beer neighbourhood. Craftworks Taphouse is a good place to start, offering seven regular brews, including the delicious Jirisan ‘Moon Bear’ IPA. Down the road, Magpie Brewing Co. (magpiebrewing.com) has a delightful little open-air taproom with house brews, including a well-formed pale ale and, most interestingly, a summer lavender beer that far exceeded expectations. Seoul Homebrew (seoulhomebrew.com) has a handy up-to-date map of the city’s craft beer bars.
The fledgling craft beer scene in Taiwan shows great potential. Until a few years ago, the beer scene was dominated by the country’s very drinkable, but largely uninteresting (not to mention blandly named) Taiwan Beer. There still aren’t many small breweries, owing to the fact that until 2002, small-scale brewing was basically banned in Taiwan. All that’s changed, and following swiftly are several Taipei-based breweries creating the beginnings of a true craft beer scene in Taiwan. Though discerning beer lovers will find many of the microbrews here still unsophisticated, there is promise and the use of interesting ingredients, such as red dates and honey at Le Blé d’Or (lebledor.com.tw), are most exciting. We love the vibe and brews at Jolly Brewery + Restaurant and beer-loving travellers have most recently recommended Redpoint Brewing Company (redpointbrewing.com) whose beers are available at the super chill Beer & Cheese Social House (facebook.com/beerandcheese) in Taipei.
As Asia’s diverse world city, it seems like Hong Kong should top this list, but it doesn’t. Smaller batch brewing seems to be a difficulty in Hong Kong, where space is at a premium and landlords often raise rent prices, meaning businesses are never sure of their locations. A few things are afoot in Hong Kong, including the American-style craft ales being brewed at Tipping Point Brewing Co. (tpbc.beer), which has an atmospheric taproom in Central. Another excellent place for sampling is The Globe, a pub with a huge imported beer list, though their stocks of local brews seem to run out quickly. There is also a growing homebrewing culture in Hong Kong, and the excellent HK Brewcraft (hkbrewcraft.com) not only stocks home brewing supplies, but also has a big selection of bottled and tap beers for the true nerds.
Would you believe that even the Hermit Kingdom is getting in on the brewing action? Starting when Kim Yong-il demanded a state brewery for North Korea and subsequently purchased the entirety of the then-bankrupt British brewery Ushers of Trowbridge (packing up the entire kit and shipping it off to Pyongyang), the North Korean government has been experimenting with beer. The beer produced by the former Ushers kit, Taedonggang, is now among the more popular domestic brews and includes seven different not very uniquely named brews, Beer No. 1, Beer No. 2 and so on. The North Koreans have also messed around with some archaic brewing styles, including the ‘steam brewing’ technique, which produces lager at warmer ale temperatures. Several hotels around Pyongyang now operate in-house microbreweries, which can be visited on Uri Tours' (uritours.com) dedicated beer tour of North Korea.