PYONGYANG (Reuters) - After a hard day of contributing to the cult of personality around Asia’s only communist dynasty and vexing the world with a nuclear arms programme, there is no better way for a North Korean cadre to relax than with a cold beer.
The impoverished state best known for its communist propaganda and saber rattling has quietly been brewing one of the highest-quality beers on the peninsula for several years.
But due to the North’s poor infrastructure, limited trading links and minimal skills in the capitalist world, its Taedonggang beer will likely remain a little known product.
North Korea’s quest to produce decent beer began in earnest in 2000 when it started talks with Britain’s Ushers brewery about acquiring its Trowbridge, Wiltshire plant that had ceased operations.
The North Koreans took apart the brewery that had been producing country ales for about 180 years, shipped it piece by piece to Pyongyang and reassembled it under the banner of its Taedonggang Beer Factory.
By April 2002, it was up and running. In June 2002, the North’s leader Kim Jong-il, known for his fondness of expensive brandy and wines, went on a brewery tour.
“Watching good quality beer coming out in an uninterrupted flow for a long while, he noted with great pleasure that it has now become possible to supply more fresh beer to people in all seasons,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said.
Taedonggang beer, named for a river that runs through Pyongyang, is a full-bodied lager a little on the sweet side, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
A few critics who have sampled it in Pyongyang say it is a highly respectable, but not award winning, brew. Available in Seoul until last year, foreigners say the beer is infinitely superior to the mass-marketed beers in South Korea.
At a Pyongyang hotel for foreigners where goods are overpriced across the board, a 640 ml bottle of Taedonggang sells for half a euro ($0.75). On tap, the beer is a golden to burnt orange in color with a clean, white foam.
Taedonggang is one of several brews in North Korea and it has quickly become the top brand, according to foreigners living in the reclusive country.
Park Myung-jin, of distributor Vintage Korea which used to sell the beer in the South, said the North’s leader Kim wanted a showpiece brewery.
“They used the best quality material without thinking of the production cost,” Park said. He stopped selling the beer in the South in 2007 due largely to a sudden price hike.
The North taps into overseas markets for ingredients, Park said. It has abundant supplies of fresh water because its hobbled factories do not produce enough to cause pollution problems.
Beer is not the drink of choice for most North Koreans, who prefer cheaper rice-based liquor that packs a big punch.
“They need to be able to drink more at the same price,” said Choi Soo-young, an expert on the North at the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
Choi said the brewery is a favorite project of the ruling communist party, whose members can afford beer and will make sure the factory receives all the ingredients it needs even though the North cannot produce enough food to feeds it 22 million people.
North Korean defector Jong Su-ban, who came to the South in 2000, said impoverished farmers would scrounge for anything they could find to concoct their own home brews.
“We found corn flower and hops and made something that came out a weird milky color. At least it was fizzy like beer,” he said.
But do not expect to see Taedonggang or any North Korean beer invading overseas markets any time soon.
North Korea may have solved the riddle of making a robust beer but it has not completely solved the problem of bottling it.
The brewery has occasional trouble sealing bottles properly and the glass it uses is fragile.
The transport system in North Korea is also a mess, making it unlikely that the beer can become one of the few legitimate exports from a country shunned by the developed world for its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and a human rights record cited by the United States as one of the world’s worst.
Distributor Park said he had to print labels in the South and send bottles from China in order to package the beer for export.
Even though he no longer sells the beer, he is still a fan.
“The taste is superb,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lee Jiyeon; Editing by Keiron Henderson and Megan Goldin