Magpie Brewing Co. got its start in a tiny alley in Kyungridan, now Korea’s best craft beer area, about five years ago. I asked Magpie co-founder Erik Moynihan what was in that area before Magpie moved in and set off a chain reaction of hipness. “Nothing,” Moynihan said, “There was nothing.”
Measured in years, it wasn’t so long ago, but measured against the typical lifecycle of Seoul’s trends, it’s been an eternity since Magpie’s three co-founders came up with the idea of making craft beer together. At a party about five years ago, Moynihan and two friends, Tiffany Needham and Jason Lindley, were sharing homebrew and had a thought: why not pitch in together and buy a big, hundred-gallon brew kettle?
“There’s never been too much beer,” Moynihan said. “No one has ever said, ‘Ah! There’s too much beer! What are we going to do with it!?’”
The project was never meant to be a business, but the three brew buddies were soon flooded with requests for their beer. Nearing the end of what we now know as the Dark Ages for beer in Korea, it became obvious that there was growing support for a craft beer enlightenment. Jason Lindley knew Park Chul from brewing company Ka-Brew and eventually arranged to have some beers brewed for Magpie in their facility. It was contract brewing arrangements like the one with Ka-Brew that helped launch the Korean craft beer industry.
Just five years ago, the same small alley in Kyungridan is now home to Magpie, The Bottle Shop, The Booth, Beer for Geeks and Heaven for a G. Erik Moynihan had been living in this now-gentrified area since 2008. “We were always walking back and forth between [Kyungridan and HBC] and we always cut through that alley. And so we said, ‘Man, this would be a great spot for a bar.’”
In fact, Moynihan originally wanted the space currently occupied by restaurant The Baker’s Table, which was then a clothing store selling clothing targeted for ajummas. He was turned down, so he opened up the now-iconic Magpie Brew Shop just behind it. For the first six months, Magpie was just a brew kitchen. By the time they were ready to open their doors to the public, the current Kyungridan landscape was starting to take shape. “While we were in there [before we opened the pub] there were a few little sparks of things happening… Maybe within a few months it went from ‘Oh, there’s a lot of people on the street!’ to just a mass of people.”
It’s no news that the beer business in Korea is complicated and these complications will inform a growing brewing company as popular as Magpie as to what direction to head in. Although Magpie looks, smells and tastes just like a brewpub, they still do not have the space to brew on-site, a technical requirement for true brewpubs. Since opening its first location, Magpie has opened pubs in Hongdae and Jeju and continued to brew their beers with the outside help of large-scale breweries like Ka-Brew (and others).
Despite the popularity of the three pubs, Magpie’s plan isn’t to start a franchise, a la The Booth. Rather, the partners want to focus on being a self-sustaining brewing company, which means opening a large-scale brewery of its own. It’s no small investment and requires a lot of space. Magpie has settled on Jeju as the location for their brewery and the site is very close to completion. This is excellent news for Magpie fans. Today, Magpie’s Pale Ale, Porter, and other beers can be found in dozens of locations, but when their brewery starts production that might increase quite a bit.
Currently, there’s nowhere else but Magpie pubs to enjoy their full lineup of beers. The Pale Ale and Porter are the easiest to find elsewhere; but many Magpie fans crave their delicious gose, called The Ghost; their Belgian Golden Ale, The Sinner; their Belgian IPA, The Saint; and others. Some of my all-time favorite Korean beers include The Saint along with seasonal/limited A Bird in the Hand RyePA and The Last Train Baltic Porter. Magpie hopes to introduce some cool new beers once the brewery gets ramped up to full speed.
Magpie isn’t the only Korean craft beer company opening a new brewery. The Booth just opened a small one in Pangyo. Platinum had moved production to China, but will open a brewery in Korea soon. Craftworks, Korea’s craft grandaddy, is planning on opening a major production facility in Sokcho sometime in 2016.
But Magpie isn’t worried about competition. Erik Moynihan believes that the market has lots of room for growth and that most players in the craft beer scene are very cooperative. Magpie has collaborated with The Hand & Malt and Galmegi; and has brewed at Ka-Brew, 7Brau, Weizenhaus, and The Table.
Although Magpie is greatly responsible for revitalizing a once-crumbling alley in Kyungridan, they are facing the threat of steeply rising rent. That’s nothing new for Korean businesses who often get punished for doing well. Still, Moynihan believes that Magpie will work something out and will continue to serve fantastic beer in their original location, as well as many new ones.
Rob Shelley writes about craft beer and keeps a Korean Beer Directory and Upcoming Events page at www.CraftBeerAsia.com/Korea.
Hours: Brewshop Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 3-10pm
Basement Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 5pm-1am
Location/Route: Noksapyoungro 54gil 7 (Yongsangu Itaewon2dong 704)
Near Overpass between HBC and Kyundridan, turn in at The Baker’s Table.
Cost: Beers range from 5,000-8,000won