We spent 30 days in South Korea eating delicious food, drinking beer (in various degrees of deliciousness), enjoying sights and visiting markets. And at the end of that month, we visited two beer festivals in Seoul, because one is apparently not enough. Not when you’re a Korean, because they tend to go all out. Why half ass everything when you can make it intense? Spicy food? Let’s make it so spicy you’ll sweat bullets. Cherry blossom viewing? Let’s make a huge riverside party out of that! Same with beer festivals – why have one when you can have two happening at the same time (and drink beer for a week)?

We’re talking about The Great Korean Beer Festival and The Beer Week Seoul, two major beer fests that ran for several days in two different locations in Seoul. At first glance, they both seem similar – free entrance, local and imported beer, food, live music. But they were more different than one’d expect.

beer in korea

Festival for the city people

The Great Korean Beer Festival (or GKBF for short) took place in Gangnam, near Coex shopping mall. It ran for 10 days straight with changing line-ups. As we mentioned, there was no entrance fee, which helped attract those who were just merely passing by after a workday. Besides, all the booths only accepted cards, which made our lives infinitely easier – no carrying around wads of cash, no counting out coupons. You could, however, buy some coupon sets, but those included some breweries that we were not interested in, so we went straight to beer tasting. Oh, and they served beer in approx. 300 ml glasses. Why bother with small samplers, right?

We soon understood that the GKBF was an event for city people. It was fun, engaging, completely unpretentious – a great gateway for those who are new to beer. But beer geeks could also find something interesting, since many brewers had special beers prepared for the festival. We loved the atmosphere and the venue. Doing an open air festival might seem tricky, but it worked out well – it wasn’t too crowded, but it wasn’t empty, too.

The people working at the beer booths were amazing. After spending some time in Korea you come to expect that, but they were super amped up and it made the experience even better. You can chat them up, joke around, come back for a second round – everything’s easy breezy and fun. Sure, it was more on the pop side of the beer world, but we had some truly great brews, especially from Hop Mori Brewing. They brought very special beers, which we loved. And the one that was the most disappointing was Jejusien Brewery. Jeju, a semi tropical island of Korea, you see, is famous for their oranges. And the beer promised oranges. Don’t get us wrong – we got the oranges. Literally, a piece of orange in the beer. Unfortunately, the fruit did almost nothing to improve the brew, which was murky and pasty. We couldn’t figure out why people would queue for that beer – for oranges alone? Anyway, despite that we had a great time in GKBF. We loved the welcoming feeling to it, the sincerity and unpretentiousness…

beer in korea

Festival for the geeks

…speaking of which, the atmosphere in The Beer Week Seoul (TBWS), hosted by The Booth, was less ‘everyone’s invited’ and more ‘if you’re hip, you’re in’. We’re exaggerating, of course, but the festival, which took place in Common Ground, a trendy container district, attracted very different people, including a lot more foreigners. The inner yard felt a bit crowded, especially as the evening went on and more people came in, but that didn’t detract from overall fun.

In TBWS the entrance was free, too, but the beer went by tokens which cost 5500-6500 won (approx. 5–6 euros). Korean beer cost less, while imported was more expensive. But it was definitely worth the extra won, since they brought in some very nice brews, including some from one of our favorites, To Øl.

What we loved in TBWS were these little cards presenting each beer — name, brewery, style, ABV, key flavor notes. Even those who are new to the beer game could easily find something to choose based on their preferences. People working the taps were friendly and nice (which is the norm in Korea, we were really spoiled), but since they were not from breweries themselves, we kinda missed the zeal, the efforts to get as many people as possible to try their beer. Overall TBWS felt a lot more hipstery and geeky, which is nice, but still had the vibe of a small city festival. The music was much more indie and low-key than in Gangnam and it was easy to forget it’s even there.

We’re glad we had the chance to visit both festivals – one was more open, the other more intimate – and that created a nice balance. It’s nice to see Korean craft beer scene growing and booming, especially among the ladies. Yup, wherever we went in Korea, pubs were always full of women. Maybe they’re more susceptible to new trends, maybe they’re more willing to try out new flavors, instead of just downing one soju bottle after another… Whatever the reason, it’s very nice!