Beer Leader

Kim Jong-un’s desire for a Bavarian biergarten reflects a dynastic hankering for quality beer

July 22, 2013
July 22, 2013

Like father, like son in North Korea—at least when it comes to trying to provide a frosty stein of beer for the Party faithful. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s recent effort to get Germany’s Paulaner brewery to build a Bavarian brew pub in the North Korean capital may seem a bit odd. A high percentage of people in his country are starving, and few enjoy anything in the way of creature comforts.

But it turns out that North Koreans—at least well-connected ones—are crazy for beer, with palates developed under the reign of Kim’s father, Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il. The elder Kim, who died in 2011, was known for his love of the finest Hennessy cognac and concubines. Less known were his efforts to create a decent locally-made North Korean beer.

The quest began in 2000 when Kim caught wind that the Ushers brewery in Wiltshire, England had shut down after producing fine country ales for 180 years. The North Koreans struck a deal, dismantled the plant, shipped it to Pyongyang and painstakingly reassembled it. The Dear Leader was personally on hand in June 2002 to tour the recently launched Taedonggang Beer Factory, and even offered brewing advice on how to brew  it and keep it fresh.  “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 reported.

The beer, named for a river running through Pyongyang, is said to be slightly sweet  with a bitter aftertaste. By 2009, North Korea began airing a three-minute commercial on state television saying the beer, “the Pride of Pyongyang,” relieves stress and improves health and longevity. A sweaty but smiling working man holds aloft a mug of frothy Taedong River Beer as a voice intones, “It represents the new look of Pyongyang. It will be a familiar part of our lives.”

The ads didn’t run for long, and neither did Pyongyang’s efforts to export the beer to South Korea. It’s also not known how easily attainable, or affordable, the beer is for most Koreans, who are known to brew their own, but it does seem to be available in some hotels for cheap.

The elder Kim also played a personal role in convincing OAO Baltika Breweries, Russia’s largest beer company, to begin exporting its No. 5 Gold beer to North Korea in 2007.  Talks began back in 2001, when Kim visited Baltika’s St. Petersburg brewery. He sent engineers there the next year to study brewing methods.

Back in the present day, Paulaner spurned North Korea’s request to build a biergarten and brewery, saying it lacked the capacity because of other expansion efforts elsewhere. No word yet on where the younger Kim will look next for a decent pint.

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