A Korean Beer Quest: Into the DMZ


This may sound cliché, but this is how it happened… One Sunday evening while I was touring a famous section of Seoul called Apgujeong; I stepped into an unassuming bar aptly named Rock and Roll Pub. There I sat drinking very reasonably priced Leffe Browns when I noticed another American. Being friendly as I am I went over and said hello. This quickly led to quite a drinking session for a Sunday night. The other American, who was named Adam, turned out to be quite the worldly character with an array of exciting stories from across the globe. But, one story particularly caught my attention. He told me that years ago when he was touring the DMZ between North and South Korea, there in a little shop he found North Korean beer. I was shocked and excited. Might I as well be able to try the forbidden brew? All I knew is that I needed to find out. I could only imagine Hogan’s reaction if I had to tell him I passed on this beer-related quest. The next day I booked my tour.

I was a little unnerved to discover my pickup was scheduled for 7:00AM knowing in all likelihood I would be at least slightly hung-over, but there was no way I was going to pass on the chance to explore the DMZ and maybe try some of North Korea’s finest. The guide arrives at my hotel; her name is Choi, and it turns out I am the only person on today’s tour, a private tour! Now I really can’t complain. After some general chit chat I decide to ask her the question really on my mind, “Will I be able to purchase North Korean beer on this tour.” Her response, “Can’t say I ever heard of that.” My heart sank, was Adam wrong?

We arrive and after watching a quick introductory film on the DMZ, which oddly gives the impression that the place is something akin to Disney Land, despite the 10 million landmines. We start off touring the 3rd infantry tunnel. This tunnel was secretly dug by the North Koreans to accommodate a potential sneak attack on Seoul, scary when you think about it. Hopefully one day these tensions ease and the tunnel can be used for something more worthwhile like beer running.

Outside the tunnel I notice a small gift shop; I start to wonder. However, as I walk through the door hope fades quickly. I immediately notice all the typical touristy wares: postcards, T-shirts, etc… One unique item was a small paperweight like object featuring a piece of barbed wire from the original DMZ. By this point I was sure even if there ever was North Korean brews sold in the DMZ they were long drank, it was time for me to just enjoy the day…

I called a last minute audible and decided to pickup some water before we left, so I headed over to the small fridge. My eyes lit up like Ponce de Leon discovering the fountain of youth; there it was… the prize, Taedonggang Maekju! I couldn’t believe it, there it sat unassumingly surrounded by bottled water and North Korean Soju. I immediately rejoiced and made the purchase. I didn’t however imbibe the beverage until I reunited with Hogan, so by this time it had become somewhat skunky, but was still rather refreshing; overall we both thought it would be a decent beer. But by this point it wasn’t about the taste it was about the journey.

Here is a great article from Reuters discussing the background of this beer in pretty good detail.