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23 Dec 2007

Korean Beer Review: Black Beer Stout – Today I’d like to start what I hope will be a more or less regular feature here at Liminality. As you can see from the title, this feature will be called the “Korean Beer Review.” Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy a good beer. I tend to favor imported beers here, but they can be on the expensive side, and when I’m out with people from my department we will usually drink the domestic brews. I thought it might be interesting to review some of these brews, especially since the major breweries seem to be expanding their product lines and experimenting with new types of beer.

“Stout is not a new brew for Hite, but it seems to have gotten a redesign and a new marketing campaign recently.”

I am not an accomplished beer reviewer, and to be perfectly honest I don’t really get all the language used to describe the way beers taste and smell (beer has its own descriptive language, just like wine). I’m going to give it my best shot, though, based largely on information I’ve gleaned from, where I’ve been a member for a few years now. Mostly I use the site for entertainment purposes (i.e., dreaming about all the wonderful beers I can’t get here), and I’ve never published a review there. Rather than embarrass myself in front of a bunch of beer geeks, I figured I’d just embarrass myself in a venue where I already embarrass myself regularly anyway.

One more note before I dive into this thing: while these reviews are going to be focused primarily on the beers themselves, I can’t help but take into account the particular image that the breweries are trying to project with each of their products. So although I will be mainly talking about how these beers look, smell, and taste, I will also be talking about the particular image attached to them and—most importantly, whether or not I think the beer lives up to the hype. I don’t know how much this will play into future reviews, but it definitely plays into today’s review. I thought I’d give you fair warning, just in case you were expecting a “pure” beer review.

OK, the first beer to hit my palate is “Stout” (site in Korean), brewed by the Hite Brewery, which apparently goes by the English appellation, “The Hite.” In the interest of full disclosure, Hite is my least favorite of the three major Korean lagers— Cass is my favorite, OB (Oriental Brewery, which actually also owns Cass) is also good, but Hite just doesn’t really do it for me. That being said, this applies only to their original lager lines. Whatever I may feel about their standard product, I have to admit that Hite is the most adventurous of the three major breweries, and I can’t but appreciate that.

Stout—“Black Beer Stout,” as it seems to be marketed these days—is not a new brew for Hite, but it seems to have gotten a redesign and a new marketing campaign recently. I had tried Stout before, but it had been so long that I had forgotten what it tasted like, and it appeared that this might have been a new and improved version. The current campaign began on December 10th and will continue until January 31st of next year. I’m not sure exactly what this campaign involves, other than that the beer was on sale at E-Mart when we were there on Friday. It originally sells for 900 won per 330 ml bottle, but we got it for 800 won (this is a good deal when you consider that I usually pay two to three thousand won for bottles of imported beer).

The date stamped on the bottom of the label shows that it was bottled on December 5th, making it about two and a half weeks old now. Somewhat disturbingly, the expiration date is listed as December 4th of next year—yet a general rule of thumb is that commercial beers have a shelf life of about four months. I can’t imagine a bottle of beer lasting that long at the store, but I suppose it’s a good idea to check the date before buying anyway.

Also probably way too small to be made out in the above photo is the alcohol content, which is 5%. This is slightly higher than your standard lager here, but not that high.

I wanted to provide a close-up of this particular part of the bottle, because the marketing copy here is going to come into play very shortly (I also switched to a pink background to avoid “light bleeding” from the white background, and also because pink is a manly color). In case the script is a bit difficult to read (especially at the curving edges), beneath “Premium Beer” it says: “Stout offers a rich black flavor topped with sweet, smooth & creamy head.” I winced a bit at “black flavor,” but as we’ll soon see that’s by no means the worst of it.

I kept the beer in the refrigerator and took it out twenty minutes before drinking to give it some time to warm up just a bit (with most decent beers, refrigerator temperature is too cold for the full flavor to come through). Then, in a brave display of optimism, I took out one of my Guinness glasses. This is not a pint glass, mind you, but a glass specifically designed to hold a 330 ml can of Guinness (330 ml is the standard size for beer bottles in Korea). I figured it would deserve the glass if it lived up to its claims, and it was still the best glass for it even if it turned out to be more of a dark lager.

I uncapped the bottle and poured it into the glass, tilting it slightly so that the beer hit the side rather than the bottom. It was immediately apparent that this was not what I knew as stout. Here’s a photo of the head taken about five seconds after I finished the pour (basically as fast as I could get to the camera and hit the button).

As you can see, this is not the head of a self-respecting stout. In fact, it could barely be called a head at all. It fizzled and vanished rather quickly. Ten seconds later, it looked like this:

So let’s get the obvious out of the way: this beer does not even come close to a stout. The copy on the top label? A blatant lie, to put it nicely. Now that we’ve established that, I’d like to drop the issue of what the beer isn’t for now and just focus on what the beer is. Let’s start with appearance. As you can see from the previous two photos, it is rather dark. In direct light it looks almost black, but at the edges you can see that it’s actually a very deep brown. In fact—and I realize that this will destroy any credibility I might have, but oh well—it looks very much like root beer. The carbonization is very visible, again as you can see in the previous photographs.

I picked up the glass and held it beneath my nose for a long sniff, and I was surprised. You can smell roasted malt, and my first impression was that of a dark, toasted grain. The aroma is not very strong; more suggestive than anything else, but it is rather pleasant. It reminds me a little of a stout, but I couldn’t tell you exactly why.

The real litmus test, of course, is the taste. When I took my first mouthful, I made the mistake of holding it in the front of my mouth. The beer has absolutely no sweetness at all (which is actually a good thing, I think), so all I experienced was the carbonation. It is highly carbonated, almost like a soft drink, and I think toning that down would do worlds for the beer. I think the carbonation is due to the Korean fondness for beers that have a sharp, biting taste (“tok ssoneun mat” is the Korean version of this phrase, and you will often hear it used to describe Korean beers). As a result, it is anything but smooth, and has a very light mouthfeel—slightly heavier than lager, though.

As for the actual taste, that only came when the beer passed toward the back of the tongue. My first impression, written down, was: “roasted grains, slightly smoky.” It is bitter, but not overwhelmingly or unpleasantly so. The taste is not very complex—it strikes me as one basic note—but it’s pretty good. The beer warmed as I sipped it, and as it warmed the flavor grew fuller, indicating that twenty minutes was probably not enough warming time. I would recommend thirty minutes out of the refrigerator, but no longer than that, and only if you’re not going to nurse it.

Judging this beer simply on its merits alone, I would have to say that I enjoyed it. Although I couldn’t place it at first, Hyunjin walked in when I was about halfway through, took a sip, and immediately said: “Ah, it tastes like Negra Modelo” (I couldn’t find an English website that wasn’t “coming soon” or “unavailable,” so no link). Which made me feel somewhat foolish, because she’s right—it tastes very much like Negra Modelo, but I was unable to place it. (Maybe I should have her review the beers....)

But maybe I needn’t feel too foolish. After all, Hyunjin didn’t see the bottle. She simply picked up the glass and took a sip. I had gone into the experience wondering how it was going to stack up against a true stout. It doesn’t, of course—it doesn’t even hold a candle to a true stout—and I think that’s a shame. Not that it doesn’t hold a candle to a true stout, but that it is marketed as something it’s not. I can understand why this is done—mainly because the general Korean public is not too educated when it comes to beer (although I suppose the same could be said about the general public in a lot of places), and Hite probably felt the need to project an image with which people were already familiar. This is not to say that all Koreans know what a true stout is, but they do know that it is a very dark beer, and Hite’s Stout is indeed a dark beer.

If it’s not a stout, though, what is it? My first impression, judging by the color, was that it was an American-style dark lager. But the similarity in taste to Negra Modelo and the claim on the website that they use “German dark malt” makes me wonder if it’s not a European amber lager. If I had to guess, I would say it’s somewhere in between—the taste of a European amber lager with the color of an American dark lager (which makes me wonder if they used coloring to make it darker).

I wouldn’t have been too miffed if they had simply decided to use the word “stout” as a brand name in order to conjure up the positive connotations associated with that type of beer—bold, strong, manly (this last connotation seems to be the core of their marketing campaign: “Black Beer Stout... become a man.” Really, that’s the tagline). But then they had to go and claim that it actually is a stout, complete with “black flavor” and a “sweet, smooth & creamy head.” I still have no idea what “black flavor” is, and the head didn’t stick around long enough for me to determine its taste or texture, but I’m guessing it wasn’t any of the things it claimed to be. Hite, you’ve got a good beer on your hands—you don’t need to make up marketing babble for it. Give the Korean beer-drinking public a little credit, OK?

As I mentioned above, though, if you forget about the marketing, Stout is a good beer. I don’t think it’s the best if its kind that I’ve tasted (I think I prefer Negra Modelo), but it definitely holds its own. More importantly for me, it’s a major product line from a major brewery, and I think it might be the boldest experiment yet for mainstream Korean brewing. I would, and most likely will, buy this beer again, especially considering the price compared to most imports.

Thus ends the first issue of the Korean Beer Review. If you’ve got a Korean beer that you’d like me to review, drop me a line and I’ll pick it up the next time I’m at the store. (Don’t even think about asking me to review soju.)

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