Yesterday I read an article on the Beeb’s site about North Korea making a TV advert about a product, not a person (as in the Kims) for once. The product was one I am intimately familiar with - Taedonggang beer. I would have posted about it yesterday but of course I was in China where Blogger continues to be blocked. So here I am on a stopover in Dubai. Time for a quick rehash of the wonderful tale of this now briefly famous beer.
Back in 2000, the Dear Leader, known to be fond of a tipple or 10 (he is allegedly Hennessey Cognac’s single biggest customer) decided the proletariat deserved a better brew. Having been long-term importers of China’s Five Star beer, Kim Jong Il wanted his Stalinist state to have its own standout beer.
He cast around for a brewery and in November, 2000, using a German agent, answered an advert and spent a reported £1.5 million purchasing the venerable Ushers brewery. The 175-year-old brewery located in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the west of England was dismantled and moved lock, stock and barrel 8,500 km east to the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang.
Strange but true – but then in 1976 in similar fashion Kim’s father Kim il Sung (still president despite being dead for 12 years) bought and imported a Swiss watch factory!
Back in 2000, Peter Ward, the director of Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging, the owner's of Ushers, said: "When they first approached us I thought they were South Koreans and I was a bit shocked when I discovered they were from the Communist North." Once he had got over the shock and was reassured that a) the North Koreans would pay and b) would be using the technology to ferment yeast not germs (the two practices being similar) the deal was done and 12 North Koreans headed to the brewery to help take it down and move it away to Asia.
State media at the time noted: “The respected and beloved general, who is always deeply interested in further improving the people's diet, took a benevolent action for constructing a modern brewery in Pyongyang.”
Thomas Hardy Brewing bought the Ushers plant after the brewery closed in early 2000. Ushers began brewing in 1824 and was best known for regional ales such as Best Bitter, Founders Ale and Mann's Brown Ale. The Ushers brands are now brewed under contract in Dorchester.
Suggesting the Dear Leader’s urgent thirst troops of the North Korean People's Guard were deployed in the construction project "for the purpose of completing a quality factory in the shortest possible period of time," according to the North Korean Central News Agency. “All combatants mobilized to the construction are carrying out the struggle of loyalty day and night with the fervent desire to make a report of loyalty to the respected and beloved general after excellently constructing the brewery,” the news agency reported at the time.
But installing this comparatively hi-tech facility was no easy task for this incapacitated state.
The wonderfully apocryphal story, told by more than one DPRK old hand though impossible to confirm like so much else in this nation, goes that after much jigsaw assembling of the factory, the first pint was poured to much excitement. The brown, none-too-fizzy liquid that poured forth came as rather a surprise. ‘That’s no lager,’ wondered the employees in unison as an incomprehensible award winning ale poured out of the taps. Germans were immediately called in to install state of the art stainless steel piping and out of the taps a few weeks later poured lovely crisp lager that would not have been frowned upon in even the most discerning Munich beer hall.
However, the story didn’t end there. Failing to pay their bills, a common DPRK trait, the factory ran into difficulty six months later needing extensive repairs, something the German engineers were not prepared to do. Cue the age old North Korean feat of reengineering – the end product being Taedonggang Beer – named after the River Taedong which flows through the centre of the capital and is unquestionably, despite the alleged tinkering, the country’s finest beer.
The Korea Workers' Party organ Rodong Daily said that year that with the 500,000 barrel a year brewery completed, Pyongyang citizens now enjoy this fine beer, and that "they are unanimous in speaking of its quality."
As of the middle of 2002, those rich enough could buy this brew, which comes in distinctive 650 ml green bottles with a logo of a bridge. But at 50 pence or so a bottle this and every other beer in the country are far too much for the average citizen who earns no more than a couple of dollars a day. Since launching, perhaps down to austerity measures, the alcohol content has dropped from 5.7% to 3.5% yet this straw-coloured drink makes for a delightfully crisp, refreshing, light brew when served cold – not a problem in winter when temperatures regularly hover around the -10 degrees Celsius mark.
Alongside this and only available at certain microbreweries and the ‘luxury’ Koryo Hotel is the dark Taedonggang ale with a voluptuous, rich caramel flavour.
Now, give the friendly folk at Koryo Tours a bell to go to the reclusive east Asian state soonest for a surreal pint.