Beer is what unifies (almost) the whole world.
This was the theory behind my trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea. As an American, I thought that travel to the hermit kingdom would be impossible. Fortunately, this proved to be absolutely incorrect!
My story begins in college (university for you non-americans) where my minor study was Cold War History. I had always known that a trip to the DPRK would be a once in a lifetime trip, and while morally objectionable, I wanted to learn a bit more about what it might take. I also learned how to brew and appreciate quality beer. And no, Budweiser does not count as beer. I’m talking about real beer! Learn how to appreciate the good stuff, it will get you far in the world.
Luckly, when I was 24 years old, I moved to Hong Kong, a special economic region of the People’s Republic of China. Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that the DPRK is actually a quite popular spot for both Chinese and Hong Kong residents to travel to. While living in Hong Kong, I met Joe Ferris, a guide and partner at Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specialises in tours to North Korea, Iran, and other pariah states around the world. He offered that if I wanted to organise a group interested in going, he would help us create a custom itinerary of places “off the beaten track” in North Korea as well as accompany us as a western guide and fixer on the trip. He did offer me one major piece of advice however; find something that you as an American have in common with North Koreans. This turned out to be simpler than I had anticipated, as both Americans and North Koreans not only drink, but brew some of the most fantastic beer in the world. Yes. I said it. North Koreans make fantastic beer. I’ll go a bit more about why that is (and no, its not a random fluke) further along in this story.
I spent the next six months reading pretty much everything ever written about the DPRK. From white papers released by the state department, to the posts from other tourists and journalists who have accessed the country, I read it all. Please take note, do not go to North Korea without prior research. This is no average trip. While you will likely not agree with their viewpoint on the world or their recounting of the history of the Korean War, you are there as their guest and its your job to keep your mouth shut and ears open! I will say it again many times in this article, but again, please do your research before you fly into the country! Know the basics about what their Juche ideology is about, know what is pure propaganda on their part and what is generally truth, and know how to not offend. Eat what they give you to eat, and enjoy it! Its an adventure!
Joe Ferris ( http://americaninnorthkorea.com/ and http://www.youngpioneertours.com/ ) went about organising the trip based on my input and built an itinerary built around visiting all the major breweries in the country, as well as many of the popular tourists spots such as the DMZ (from the north side obviously) as well as the tombs of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Yes, you actually stand feet from these mens bodies as they lay inside crystal sarcophaguses. Its a trip.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been home brewing for years and have a substantial appreciation and love of beer. I know every step in the brewing process and can chat about it for hours. So, at this point you may be wondering: “Why would North Korea have beer? They barely have enough food to feed their population!”. The answer is simple, a drunk population is a population that is easier to control. But lets break that down a bit more!
1.) The government knows that a drunk population is good for control.
2.) Soju (rice liquor) which is popular in the south is too expensive to produce in quantities large enough for the vast population. Thats not to say that soju is not quite available in North Korea, but it is clearly for the officials, visitors, tourists, and military. The same could be said about some of the more high end beers we had in the DPRK, but the “normal” beer, Taedonggang 1 was readily available in all stores for average Koreans, and even from the bus windows you could see it readily being drank by Koreans in the street.
3.) Rice, which is commonly put into the beer of neighbouring countries, such as Hite and OB in South Korea, Tsing Tao in China, and Asahi and Sapporo of Japan to make extremely light American-style macro lager, similar to Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, is needed for food. Barley, on the other hand, is not a common food staple in Korea. They make all-barley beers, which are much higher quality than what is found in neighbouring countries. Darker, richer, and maltier, these are amazing beers.
4.) Refrigeration, required for lagers is simply impossible in North Korea. The electricity required for this just isn’t possible. As a result, North Koreans brew with lager yeast, but at ale temperatures. Ironically, this creates a beer style called “California Commons” or “Steam Ale”, the only beer style invented in the United States. German brewers who immigrated to the US in the 1880s moved west to hit the end of the Gold Rush and, unable to get ice to refrigerate their German lagers, were forced to brew at much warmer temperatures than the recipe called for. Today, this type of beer is best personified by the brand Anchor Steam. Yes, Anchor Steam tastes like North Korean Taedonggang 1 beer! Its damn tasty!
5.) All the bottles used for their beer are made in country! North Koreans are not known for their glass blowing abilities. The glass bottles are so breakable that if you look at them wrong, they will shatter. This isn’t a good thing.
6.) Because of the US embargo, asphalt is in short supply. Potholes rule the road. As a consequence, coupled with the easily broken beer bottles, it is almost impossible to ship beer around the country.
All these factors lead to a country with a brewery in the most creative locations, brewing some of the most creative styles of beer I’ve found almost anywhere in the world! The bowling alley had a brewery. The department store had a brewery. The hotel had a brewery. Trust me, the North Koreans do a LOT with very little.
As mentioned, we visited as many breweries in as many places as possible. We also visited numerous places on all 4 corners of the country. It is worth it here to mention that a trip to the DPRK isn’t all drinking and touring around. We all know about the human right situation in the DPRK and we all know that the chances of seeing, let along experiencing anything remotely similar to what the everyday life of a North Korean would be is ludicrous. You have two guides with you at all time, you are curated in every activity you wish to do, and you are not able to speak with anyone that is not pre approved. The vast majority of what you see is curated mayhem, organised to show you the best of an extremely bad situation in the country. But, after all, visitors to the US wouldn’t be toured around parts of my home town of Baltimore Maryland either. No matter what country you visit, that country wants you to see the best of it, rather than the worst.
For you worried about where your tourism dollars go, just remember that while undoubtably some of it goes into the pocket of the North Korean government, a big portion goes into food, drinks, flights, and hotel stays (although its worth noting that all of these are also owned by the government). And ultimately its about showing to a population that has had no access outside their own country, what the rest of the world looks like. Any small amount works!
Ultimately it is an amazing tour into the most closed off region of the world. You will meet some truly amazing people and learn that the North Koreans are basically the same as everyone else. They care about their children, they want them to go to school and learn the best they can. They don’t want anyone else telling them what to do. They like to drink. Finally, I'll say it once again PLEASE do your research before you go. They view the world very differently than the rest of us. Be aware of the country you are visiting and make an educated decision to go. It's not your average trip!
And please, try their beer. After all, they are just as Korean as their brothers and sisters in the South. And those guys love to drink!