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Samhae Soju

(Jongno, Seoul, South Korea)

The saga that is Samhae Soju actually began months ago when I found an article listing Kim Taek Song as the 8th ranked intangible resource of Korea.  The day came, so The Editor and I traveled an hour by train, followed the GPS to the location and stood outside the unassuming little building at the top of Bukchon Hanok Village’s hill for about 15 minutes too nervous to ring the doorbell and proceeded to walk all the way back down empty-handed. Fast forward to this week:  we came to find that a reservation is required and a Korean speaker is not required, but it is recommended. Once we arrived it became apparent that the reservation either didn’t go through or was not done correctly, so they didn’t know the NINE of us were coming AND there was a tour of people who did it the right way scheduled at 6 (just 30 minutes later).  Despite all of this, Korean hospitality won the day and we were set up for our tasting and treated to nothing but sincerity and smiles…and a ton of booze.
We were first lulled into a false sense of security with iwhaju.  An 8% booze-pudding that might make you want to spread it on a cracker; Iwhaju was slightly creamy and a little gritty with a tart start and a mildly bitter finish.
The first official liquid we drank was takju or rice liquor.  A cousin to makgeolli, takju is an unfiltered wine drained directly from a fermenting pot.  There are two main differences between takju and makgeolli: makgeolli tends to be more carbonated and a little more sour and takju pours at a sneaky 15-17% ABV while makgeolli sits at 6-10%.  I didn’t love this one- maybe I just need some bubbles in my ‘drunken rice’?
Next up was yakju.  Yakju is the filtered layer above takju taken from the same fermentor.  I don’t know if it is all the same, but the two times I’ve had yakju it has been incredibly clean.  I can’t find any other way to describe it other than to say: a lack of harsh flavors- no boozy finish, no malts, no herbs… nothing.
The following two yakjus are brainchildren of Master Kim himself.  Essentially made the same way as above with the exception being that the base used is Chrysanthemum tea instead of water.  This yakju was like a semi-dry white wine blend. A bit more backbone and flavor yet still a crisp and clean finish.
Podo (grape) yakju is made from Korean grown Campbell grapes and then fermented in pots rather than aged in barrels and had a brandy-like flavor.  Still not as thick as brandy or red wine. This one had a nicer bouquet and a solid sweetness throughout to add some substance.
We then transitioned from fermented to distilled alcohols.  The first was the flagship Samhae soju: Made by Master Kim’s parents before him, perfected by him, the catalyst to the title of an intangible treasure of Korea, and though not as badass a title, the best soju I have ever tasted.  Soju typically pours at around 20%, while Samhae soju is a 45% (or 90 proof) and still manages to be incredibly smooth.
Following the same progression chrysanthemum soju was next.  Much like the two yakjus from which these two sojus spawned it was difficult to differentiate very many flavors.  If anything, the mum added a light earthiness.
Podo soju, much like the yakju above, just added some sugary notes and a slight dryness. I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, but again, delicious.  I like craft beer, I like good scotch and good bourbon, and I like vodka mixed with something, but I don’t really looooovvve much else, so for these to all be above and beyond is rather impressive.
Sanghwang mushroom soju was distilled using fungus taken exclusively from mulberry trees.  This was the only thing I drank all day that I didn’t like. Each of the other Samhae varietals had different flavor elements that masked the harshness of the alcohol or complimented it to make it smoother.  This one was just a bit too much like lighter fluid for my tastes.
Gwiju or ‘ghost liquor’ is triple distilled sanghwang soju (above) that comes in at a whopping 71.2% alcohol.  Its origin started when Master Kim himself tried Bacardi 151 for the first time- his immediate thought was “I can make that stronger and less harsh”.  Its name was later coined by a local tv network staff member after he said: “If human drinks this he becomes ghost, if ghost drinks this he will turn back to human”.  I personally was a bit apprehensive based on its predecessor and its unapologetic scent, but if you like a little backcountry white lightning in your life then I’d say you’re barking up the right tree.
If that wasn’t amazing enough, on our way out the door, Master Kim followed us down the stairs to pour a sample of his delicious, dessert-like, tangerine yakju still bubbling in the fermentor.  Truly an amazing experience.
If I haven’t raved enough- this was quite possibly the best 10 dollars I ever spent (an additional 10 to turn into a ghost), so, for the sake of habit, I’ll give them a rating, but it’s almost not even fair.  I give Samhae Soju a 9.9 out of 10.

East-West Brewing

(Ho Chi Min, Vietnam)

I don’t normally review a brewery I’ve never physically been to, but I had so many amazing beers by East West that I’ll never be able to find again, so I thought it appropriate.  From guest beers at other breweries to beer houses to random hole-in-the-walls and from Ho Chi Min to Hanoi- Vietnam is crawling with East West brews. I had one every time I saw it on the menu and I didn’t hate a single one.
The first one I found at a beautiful corner pub, 20 feet from the river in Hoi An was Saigon Rose.  This ale starts with a wheat backbone, but is absolutely bursting with sweet, ripe berries. Perfect.
Further down the menu, in the same location, immediately following Saigon Rose was Summer Hefeweizen.  Not quite as impressive is his brother, but this unfiltered semi-dry Hefe really hit the spot on a hot muggy evening.
I think a lot of how I judge IPAs these days is based on how they’re marketed or what the brewer wants you to taste.  In the age of oversold hazy juice bombs and big bretts that taste more like champagne, it’s nice to have a regular IPA that doesn’t taste like anything crazy and also doesn’t taste like water.  Far East IPA was just that. Maybe a little too heavy to be pounding back on the front porch, but a nice, middle of the road, well balance IPA nonetheless.
My favorite find was their Coffee Vanilla Porter.  Just enough, but not too much, coffee with just enough sweet malts and power punch of vanilla at the finish make for a truly awesome beer.  This beer was smooth and richer than many stouts I’ve had in this part of the world and my only regret is that I didn’t have 10.
To be fair, when I had the last brew on this list: Belgian Dark, I was at least halfway, if not all the way, in the bag.  I remember some juicy dark fruits and a little chocolate, but I couldn’t even manage to take a picture… not even a bad one. So, there ya have it.
No official ranking for East West, as I didn’t actually go there, but I recommend you search them out if you’re anywhere nearby.
‘Til next time, vô!

Siem Reap Brewpub

(Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Cambodia was never on our travel radar or a “must see” location, but the opportunity presented itself and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  After a day of beautiful temples (including, but certainly not limited to Angkor Wat) a brewery warm up before hitting up the local haunts was a must.  Not far from the river walk and Pub Street, tucked back from the corner of the street is Siem Reap Brewpub. We tried all 6 available beers (4 in flight form and 2 full) as well as some wings and a fried chicken sandwich as the standard pub fare because why not.
First up was the Blonde Ale.  I found her a bit too light. An easy drinker, but not much muster in this one.
The Golden Ale was a nice break from the mundane.  Darker than expected and a bit hoppier. This brew is a bit like a semi-sweet pale ale.
There wasn’t much separating the Honey Weiss from the Blonde at first, but this wheat finished with a strong raw honey flavor and delicate earthiness.
The last of the flight was the Saison and I must say this beer comes together nicely.  It was REAL heavy on the lemongrass, but followed through with a complex and unique finish.
The IPA wasn’t great.  It’ll do in a pinch, but there’s not a lot going on other than what I’m going to start referring to as the “standard pub IPA”.
The Editor liked the Saison best, but the Dark Ale was the pick of the litter for me.  Super chocolaty and creamy, great mouthfeel, and what’s described as being brewed with “100% local, organic Palm Suger for a uniquely Cambodian taste”.  Great backbone, complex, and truly well done.
All in all, I give the Siem Reap Brewpub an 8.6 out of 10.
‘Til next time- Luektukchet! (លើកទឹកចិត្)

Pasteur Street Brewing

(Hanoi, Vietnam)

Not so far off of the beaten path, in the shadow of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral lies Pasteur Street Brewing Company.  Prior to our arrival The Editor and I stumbled on to some amazing pho and cam tam nearby and bought come communist propaganda posters.  Once settle we split some quick nachos, I started with a flight, and The Editor rocked a glass.
First up was Passion Fruit Wheat.  Much like the last one I had in Vietnam- this one was great.  I was unable to squeeze much info out of anyone or anything nearby, as to if the local passion fruit is just that top notch, but this brew captures the essence of passion fruit better than anything I’ve ever had in the States.  Tart, tangy, and really well done.
Brew two was really disappointing.  Jasmine IPA isn’t worth the glass space.  I always try not to be too harsh when I write, but I didn’t like anything about this beer.
Pomelo IPA, on the other hand, impressed.  I wasn’t over the moon about it, but The Editor thought it was so nice she ordered it twice.  Again, there’s a raw component to Pasteur’s beers. This IPA balanced hops with pomelo perfectly: sweet citrus without bitterness.
Next up was Spice Island Saison.  I think I’ve come into my own when it comes to saisons:  I like them big and bold and I also enjoy a mellow, tartness.  This one just didn’t have “it”. I didn’t hate the spicy start, but there wasn’t a lot going on in the finish.
Coffee Porter was a bit of a dud as well.  I wouldn’t call myself a “coffee drinker”, but it’s grown on me.  That being said, I’m ok with my stouts and porters tasting like coffee, not with them actually being coffee…
Finishing the flight was an Irish Stout.  This brew wasn’t your typical dry Irish and not all Irish stouts are created equal. This brew is semi-sweet on nitro and really I enjoyed it.
It should be worth noting that, although I’m aware the owner and/or brewer would never say something like this- the waitress did tell me that the porter, Irish stout, and Cyclo were “all the same” Finally, I had a gut feeling about Cyclo Imperial Stout, so instead of putting it on the flight, I doubled down and got the full snifter… worth it!  This WBC gold medal winner in the chocolate stout category was worth every sip. I know I’ve been starved for good stouts over here in Asia, that notwithstanding, there’s a short list of beers that match the quality of this brew. Locally sourced cocoa nibs and vanilla beans coupled with just a hint of cinnamon and velvety smooth texture and there’s no wonder why this beer had me head over heels.  I suppose if you were someone who liked to complain just for the sake of complaining you could say that Cyclo’s 10.something% came in tasting a bit boozy and almost made me wonder if this stout was barrel aged. I guess I just like a little more booze in my…booze. Sue me.
When rating breweries I try not to compare to others and let them stand on their own feet.  This time, however, I find myself comparing a little and thinking rather hard about it. I was truly impressed with Turtle Lake the day before and though, overall Turtle Lake’s line-up impressed me more as a whole I haven’t had a beer in a long time that impressed me as much as Cyclo stout did.  Truly world class. I give Pasteur Street Brewing Company a 9.1 out of 10.

Turtle Lake Brewing Company

(Hanoi, Vietnam)

It’s a bit off the beaten path if you’re hitting up the ‘must-see’ sights in Hanoi, it’s not technically on Hoan Kiem (Turtle Lake), and when you think of culture and authenticity in SE Asia a brewing company doesn’t exactly come to mind, but The Editor and I try to hit up at least one everywhere we go; if for no other reason than to add a pin in a new country.  Sometimes the beer is so bad that being able to say “we did it” almost isn’t worth it (Bangkok was terrible), but this time around wading through the sea of motorbikes and heading a bit out of the way was totally worth it. We had a flight, a few more pints, and perfect soft pretzel all while enjoying some pretty killer Ho Tay (West Lake) views.
First up was a pint of Cu Rua (or Tortoise)  Kolsch. Light and crispy, but more ‘meh’ than anything else.
Next up was a flight!  Starting with Helmet Boy Saison… yum!  Helmet Boy is the quintessential farmhouse style: big on spice, yet balanced with zesty orange peel and a tangy, sweet citrus finish.
Double-Edged Sword NEIPA waaaaasn’t really a NEIPA.  So, I pretended it was just a regular IPA. I still didn’t like it.
I’ve never been to Slovenia, but I imagine the Slovenian Christmas Porter hits it right on the head.  It was spicy and bold, with just enough coffee to keep you warm without a fire nearby, and though, it was a bit thin, the chocolaty finish was the perfect trifecta.
Big Boy Pants macadamia stout, was a 2nd place winner at the Asia Beer Cup, and a first place winner in my heart.  If stouts this good were more easily accessible in Korea it’d be a whole new ball game. I didn’t taste much of the milky/buttery macadamia flavor I was expecting, but I did get a ton of sweet cocoa and fresh vanilla.  It was big and strong with a creamy mouthfeel that stayed smooth beginning to end.
We obviously had to have another couple of pints (not pictured).  First was TLBC’s flagship: Mango smoothie IPA. Mango smoothie was a much better IPA alternative than the NEIPA mentioned above.  I don’t want to sound like a hater- maybe I just didn’t like it because it deceived me. Either way, mango smoothie didn’t mislead.  This one captures a great bitter hop to sweet mango balance.
Our last pint was Vietnam pale ale (VPA).  Although it didn’t overwhelm me with new and fresh flavors, it was an interesting diversion from the mundane pale ale.  Exclusively brewed with locally sourced ingredients VPA was one of TLBC’s first brews, along with Mango Smoothie, and I’m glad I gave it a shot.
I wish we had more time here, but we had a date with a killer bahn mi sandwich and an Uncle Ho viewing to get to.  I was really impressed with TLBC, particularly as they’ve only been around since 2017. There were a couple of duds, but overall their brews were on point, they’re making a big splash in Asia as the new kid on the block and all in all, I give Turtle Lake Brewing an 8.9 out of 10.

Magpie Brewing Company

(Itaewon, Seoul, SK)

You’ll find Magpie nestled in a basement, down some dimly lit stairs, through a hard-to-find doorway, in the aptly named “Craft beer alley” right around the part of town where Itaewon transitions into HBC.  Sadly, their beers aren’t brewed on location, or even in Seoul; they’re brewed a couple hundred miles away in Jeju. I’m not sure why breweries that do that bother me so much, but they do. Regardless, once we finally found the place we loved the ambiance, we split an order of their amazing, homemade hot cheeto-style rice puffs and, as they don’t offer tasting glasses or flights, a pair of pints.
We started with a mainstay:  The Magpie Kolsch. This kolsch was typical of the style with some warm fruity notes to start and finishing crisp and lager-clean.
The next brew was Southbound Train.  We were there a few weeks ago and I think it was about to be phased out or replaced by a fall seasonal, so I’m really glad I got to try it before it was gone.  Southbound Train is a Baltic rum porter that was the perfect amount of boozy, sweet, and bitter all while remaining smooth throughout. There were definite notes of vanilla, toffee and dark fruits with a slight hint of coffee and I was truly impressed!
I don’t think it’s fair to give them an official rating as we only tried two of their drafts.  I will say Magpie Brewing Company is a much try if you’re in the neighborhood. Try the other two microbreweries and half a dozen craft beer bars that are there while you’re at it!
Look for the tag (MpBC) to see where they fall in the rankings!