1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How UK, Germany helped North Korea make a beer

July 12, 2022

North Korea is raising a glass to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the pouring of the first pint of its flagship Taedonggang beer — although the accolades have failed to acknowledge its distinctly capitalist roots.

A retired physician drinks a glass of draft beer at the Taedonggang Beer shop with his friends in Pyongyang, North Korea
North Koreans are proud of their national beer without knowing about its foreign heritageImage: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo/picture alliance

With a "crisp and clean finish," Taedonggang lager is extremely popular in the beer gardens of Pyongyang in the summer months — even though drinkers have no idea that its distinctive flavor is a legacy of its foreign heritage.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency published a story recently in which it feted the Taedgonggang brewery's two decades of creating beer in Pyongyang, emphasizing that the factory was "built under the care of Chairman Kim Jong Il," the leader of the nation when construction commenced in 2000.

Apparently, the portly dictator "initiated the construction of the new factory producing beer of the best quality for the people." He also selected the site for the factory, KCNA reported, and "showed deep care for its construction."

'Flavor and quality'

Kim Jong Il's son and heir, Kim Jong Un, has followed the brewery's progress, visiting the site several times to "encourage its officials and workers to further improve the flavor and quality of beer and thus exalt the honor of the factory as the one popular among the people," according to state media.

The brewery produces 70,000 kiloliters of beer a year, utilizing water from the natural springs in the Milim district and barley and hops grown in the North. The factory's beer has an alcohol content of 5.7%, which is unusually high for a beer produced in East Asia but also an indication of its heritage.

Bottles of North Korea's Taedonggang beer lined up at a factory in Pyongyang
North Korea's Taedonggang beer has a taste closer to an English aleImage: Kyodo/MAXPPP/picture alliance/dpa

In 2000, relations between North Korea and the rest of the world were in a far more positive state and, relatively well financed at the time, the government in Pyongyang decided it wanted a brewery. With virtually no domestic knowhow, it decided the simplest way of achieving that aim would be to purchase a foreign beer-making facility.

Through connections in Germany, North Korea asked business broker Uwe Oehms to secure a suitable brewery. After scouring Europe for a suitable plant, Oehms discovered that a plant that had been operated by British brewers Ushers in the town of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, had recently been closed down and the equipment was being sold off.

"It all came as a bit of a surprise when we heard that it was being sold to North Korea," said Gary Todd, who had been the head brewer until the plant was closed down and was asked to assist in the sale.

"One day, these North Korean government officials and some brewers arrived, although it was very clear that they know nothing about brewing," Todd told DW. "There were also some Russian engineers involved and, because of all the languages, it was a very complicated process."

Teaching brewing skills

It was quickly apparent that Todd would need to walk the inexperienced North Korean brewers through every step in the process required to turn the raw materials into beer. That crash-course in brewing took five months, during which the brewery and all its fixtures and fittings were being taken down around them, carefully packaged up and prepared for shipping to North Korea.

"They were very impressed with the Ushers set-up and seemed excited that they were going to be able to move it all to North Korea and set it all up again," he said. "But they wanted absolutely everything in the building. They wanted all the plastic cups from the drinks vending machines because they said they couldn't get them back home.

Different types of Taedonggang beer are displayed in a refrigerator at the Taedonggang Brewery in Pyongyang
Sanctions on North Korea now mean that it is virtually impossible to purchase Taedonggang beer outside the countryImage: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo/picture alliance

"They wanted the toilet seats — I remember one walking around with a toilet seat around his neck — and the bolts in the floor," he added. "They took the tiles off the wall one-by-one and took them all away."

Towards the end of the project, the North Koreans caught Todd by surprise.

"They told management that they wanted me to go to North Korea to set everything up and start the brewing processes, but it would have been a two-year commitment, at least, and I had a young family at the time and I didn't want to go."

Still, he did get to enjoy a bottle of Taedonggang beer some years later when a journalist who had visited the plant in Pyongyang brought him a souvenir of the trip.

"It was very good — far better than I had expected — and I was impressed," he said. "It was crisp and with a good clean finish."

North Koreans are also proud of their national beer.

"I remember being surprised at how 'deep' the taste was, at least in comparison to Japanese beers," said Chung Hyon Suk, a North Korean resident of Japan who has made regular trips back to her homeland in the past.

Riverside beer gardens

"There were a lot of beer gardens alongside the Taedonggang River in central Pyongyang and people would go there after work in the summer months to relax and meet their friends," she told DW. "My friends told me that it was their favorite thing to do when it was hot and it was really popular with younger people and women."

Sadly, she said, international sanctions on North Korea now mean that it is virtually impossible to purchase Taedonggang beer outside the country, while the closure of the border with China due to the coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder to find the beer abroad.

"I remember it being darker in color than Japanese beer and with a taste that was closer to an English ale," she said.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea