Wo gibt es hier Bier? E-Mart.
A man could grow dull drinking beer from Family Mart. Corona, Tsingtao, Carlsberg, Kirin. All in 330 ml cans. The foreign beer selection there is about as interesting as that pack of dduk you got for Chuseok. Most other convenience stores aren’t any different. You’re lucky if you find a tallboy Guinness with that ball inside.
Five years ago you’d have drunk that Guinness happily, maybe even remarked on how five years before that you couldn’t get Guinness in Korea.
But now there is something better, something so much better.
Something strange and wonderful has happened. E-Mart has become the place to buy good beer in Seoul. They have dozens and dozens of beers from all over the world. They stock no fewer than 31 beers from Germany alone, ranging from cheap tallboy pilsners to complex strong beers that rank among the best in the world.
A Groove tasting panel tried 10 E-Mart German beers recently, from a range of prices and styles. Tasters included Groove columnist Read Urban, a man with a palate and brewing experience; Chris Holland, a burly Canadian who prefers his beers to have some flavor, by god; Elizabeth Papile, Lady of Muay Thai; and Melissa Hubley, a champion swimmer who swears that a beer after a workout makes everything alright.
Here are some of the insights we gained during the tasting:
- No funky ingredients in these beers. Many of the beers we tasted proudly claim to be brewed by the “Reinheitsgebot,” or German Beer Purity Law of 1516. The law, now repealed, required beers to be made using only water, barley and hops. Even the 5,0 Original, one of the cheapest beers we tried, claims on its label to abide by the rule. It’s nice to drink something pure.
- A German wheat beer for less than the price of Cass? At 1,390 won, the Willianbräu Weizen 500ml we tried was cheaper than a 500ml can of Korean beer. Will another Hite D ever pass these lips?
- As we progressed in our tasting from simpler, cheaper beers to darker, more complex ones, the difference between the two became clear. The more expensive beers we tried were robust, complex, full of flavor – barely even the same drink as what we started with. One of the strong beers we tasted, the Schneider Weisse Meine Hopfweissen, started smooth and fruity, ramped up to an intense hoppiness, then faded into a syrupy sweetness. Just sipping it was an experience. In contrast, Papile described one of the earlier samples as “the Sprite of beers” – there just wasn’t much to it.
- It’s hard to think of words to describe beer. After we decided one beer tasted like dark cherries, Papile put a question to us: what would a child think if we told him that and then let him taste it? The first word that came to Urban’s mind when he tried one beer was “dandelion.” None of us had even tasted a dandelion, but somehow the word fit.
- E-Mart is doing something right. If they can bring such a variety of high-quality beers into Korea, what’s stopping all the other retail outlets in the country?