Koreans know how to drink. Most restaurants are social affairs, with many doubling as bars as a night's drinking of beer, soju, makgeolli or whiskey-by-the-bottle progresses. In clubs you can be restricted to sitting with a table tab, though venues in larger cities offer more freedom to move about, especially Seoul, which has world-class club nights. Third-wave coffee culture is booming, though many cafes focus equally on desserts.
Tea is a staple and the term is also used to describe drinks brewed without tea leaves. The most common leaf tea is nokcha (green tea), grown on plantations in Jeju-do and Jeollanam-do. Black tea is harder to find. Nonleaf teas include the ubiquitous boricha (barley tea), daechucha (red-date tea), omijacha (five-flavour berry tea), yujacha (citron tea) and insamcha (ginseng tea).
Koreans have taken to coffee, or keopi, in a big way in recent decades. Aside from the ever-present vending machines which churn out an overly sweet three-in-one (coffee, cream and sugar) instant coffee mix (₩300), the number of gourmet coffee shops has multiplied by about 10 since 2006 – from Korean chains such as Angel-in-us Coffee and Hollys, to homegrown speciality roasters and slow-brewers, to foreign imports like Starbucks (with the world's fourth-highest concentration per capita). In Seoul, expect to pay from ₩4000 for coffee at a chain outlet to ₩10,000 for a speciality brew.
Every restaurant serves mul (water) or tea. Most serve alcohol, but not usually soft drinks. Some unusual Korean canned soft drinks, readily available from convenience stores, are grape juice with whole grapes inside and sikhye, rice punch containing rice grains.
Drinking, and drinking heavily, is the mainstay of Korean socialising, and an evening out can quickly turn into a blur of bar-hopping. The most common poison of choice is soju, the mere mention of which tends to elicit looks of dismay from foreigners who have overindulged before. The stuff is, to put it bluntly, ethanol mixed with water and flavouring. If you think that it goes down easy, remember it can also leave you with a killer hangover.
The cheaper varieties (sold in convenience stores for as little as ₩1500) have all the subtlety of really awful moonshine, while those distilled from grain (₩7000 and up) offer a far more delicate flavour. The cheap stuff has an alcohol content of 20% to 35%, while the good stuff goes up to 45%. The latter includes Andong soju and white soju, available in Gyeongsangbuk-do and Gyeongsangnam-do respectively.
Makgeolli is a traditional farmer’s brew made from unrefined, fermented rice wine. Much lower in alcohol content than soju, it has a cloudy appearance and a sweetish yogurt flavour. It has gained popularity and credibility in recent years with artisanal makgeolli bars in Seoul serving quality drops minus the dreaded aspartame found in many commercial varieties. In Seoul, Makgeolli Mamas & Papas (http://mmpkorea.wordpress.com) and Makgeolli Makers (www.facebook.com/makgeollimakers) are a community of makgeolli lovers and educators who run makgeolli-making courses. The cheaper sort served in bottles at convenience stores, bars and clubs is made for sharing, often with flavours such as berry to make it more palatable. It's traditional to slug down makgeolli with a side of pajeon (green-onion pancake) on rainy days.
Dongdongju is similar to makgeolli, with rice grains floating in it. Both are popular tipples in national parks, where it’s practically ritual to swig down a bowl or two after (or during) an arduous hike. They cost ₩1000 to ₩2500 in supermarkets, double that in restaurants and bars.
Sweeter on the palate are a host of traditional spirits, brewed or distilled from grains, fruits and roots. Bokbunjaju is made from wild raspberries, meoruju from wild fruit, maesilju from green plums and insamju from ginseng.
Beer, or maekju, is the least exciting of all Korean alcohol. Local brands, all lagers, are the rather bland Cass, Hite and OB. Interesting microbreweries have taken off, no longer just in Seoul but also in cities from Daegu to Jeju-si, and imported beers are increasingly available. Local beers cost ₩2000 to ₩6000 in a restaurant or bar. Koreans like to give names to pairing beer with other food and drink. The most famous combo in recent years is fried chicken with beer, known as chimek; but you'll also find clubs concocting a near-lethal poktanju of a shot of soju dropped into beer.
During an evening of drinking, Koreans usually order anju (bar snacks; obligatory in some bars), which traditionally meant kimchi, dotorimuk (acorn jelly) or dubu kimchi. Nowadays you’re more likely to get heaped plates of oil-soaked food – fried chicken, French fries or vegetable twigim (fritters). Chain bars that serve just beer and French fries have taken off in university areas. A hof, a term inspired by German beer halls, is any watering hole that serves primarily Korean beer, with the requisite plate of fried chicken and other anju.