The 15th Seoul International Wines & Spirits Expo (SIWSE) has come and gone (a long time ago) and now that I’ve had a few months to reflect, I think I’m ready to share.
SIWSE, along with the Jarasum Makgeolli Festival, have become the two biggest sool-related events in the country. SIWSE has the added bonus of always being part of a booze and food smorgasbord of spring events happening in and around Seoul’s COEX. The best pairing was the Great Korean Beer Festival—craft beer, live music, and grilled meats—happening literally right out the door of the convention hall.
But the sool!
The first stop and the best find of the con was Duru Brewery (두루). They make three things: Samseon (삼선) Takju, Samseonju (cheongju), and a soju made from buckwheat. Never heard of these guys or seen their bottles elsewhere but I knew as soon as I had a taste that I’d be getting some to go. Small wonder they make delicious booze: they’re based in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do. There must be something in the water out there.
The next brewery was also new to me: Yangguhap Dongjujojang (양구합 동주조장). They make Cheongjunga (청준가), a takju (and I believe they have a cheongju too) that is brewed with Barrenwort (삼지구엽초). Their special ingredient is indigenous to Yanggu, Gangwon-do, and has the dubious property of increasing stamina. For a foreigner who has been in SK for any length of time, stamina is a red-flag word and one should steel oneself appropriately. Cheongjunga… well, lives up to its claim. It had a funk that tasted like the bottle had gone off and I want to believe it was poor temperature control rather than the Barrenwort. I didn’t get a bottle but I’ll give Cheongjunga another shot if the opportunity presents itself. Or when I feel my stamina flagging.
Ye-sul (예술) is a perennial fav so I was pleased to see them at the con. Even though I’ve tried everything they had to offer, I stopped in for free thimble and introduced some friends to their lovely and truly unique brews.
Sansu (산수) is a brewery that tries to appeal to everyone but, when they first came out, I think their brews were both on the extreme ends of the flavor spectrum. Homo Ludens (호모 루덴스) is for those that like it dry and tart, while Dongjeongchun (동정춘) is for those with a sweet tooth. However, the rep at SIWSE assured me that recipes had been tweaked to bring them a bit closer to the center. And I had to agree: they were much more pleasant than I remembered. Still, if your new to Sansu, try Dongjeongchun first unless you really like dry brews.
Joeunsul (좋은술) was definitely the biggest booth and the one sporting the most high-tech equipment. They had sool on tap for god’s sake! What’s more, they’ve shaken things up with a label redesign and, although Mr. Joeunsul swore up and down the recipes hadn’t changed, the Cheonbihyang (천비형) tasted completely different to me —but in a good way! Must revisit Joeunsul brews.
I’ve never not seen Soolawon (술아원) at one of these big events. For a long time their focus was their four types of cheongju, clearly marketed at a female audience and all incredibly sweet, almost like dessert wines. Then, they came out with 100% Handmade takju, which is a fine takju but maybe not of the caliber of some of the other premium offerings on the market. Regardless, the new tack makes them an interesting brewery to watch down the road.
The pithy Soolbit neun Jeongane (술빚 는 전가네) was the last stop of the convention. Brewer Jeon Kibo (전기보) runs a joomak in Pocheon where his customers can have a bite to eat while sampling Jeon’s homemade brews. His biggest seller is his brew made with black rice. I can’t say I was that into the one brew he let me try but it was definitely exciting to see someone making and selling their own stuff at a joomak. Hopefully we’ll see more brewers like Jeon take up the cause.
But for all my excitement every time SIWSE rolls around, this was a middling experience. The expo is providing diminishing returns but I can’t say what the cause is.
Certainly the market for craft beer is frothing and this was reflected in the huge space—nearly half the convention hall—provided for not only Korean breweries and foreign brewers trying to get a foothold in the Korean market but also for the sizeable space dedicated to homebrewing equipment. Also vying for primacy was wine. The first booths you saw as you entered from one side were wine exhibitors and every single one had a queue 10-people deep. A “fancy wine” section had even been cordoned off, only accessible for those flashing lanyard badges.
In between, you had the sool brewers: small mom-and-pop operations that were trying their damnedest to convince a skeptical Korean public that craft makgeolli and cheongju are good and the price tag is worth paying for. They weren’t even given floor space together but scattered here and there between poorly conceived spritzer cocktails and the country folk selling things made from mushrooms.
And where were the other industry stalwarts, like Midam, Miin, and Jaheehyang? Maybe SIWSE is charging too much for booth space for small brewers to make it worth their while. Or, perhaps they feel like they do fine with the phone and internet orders. Or, maybe they just didn’t feel up to it. Hard to say without being on the inside but I kind of fear that we’ll see fewer and fewer breweries present at SIWSE. And that’s about as sad as an empty makgeolli kettle.