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10 Feb 2008

Korean Beer Review: Cass Red – The Korean Beer Review returns for its second episode with a look at Cass Red (this link is just here for form—it’s a flash page, so I can’t link directly to the product, and it’s in Korean, but I’m going to translate the hype anyway, so no big loss). I purchased a 500 ml bottle the weekend before last, and it sat in the refrigerator as I tried to figure out what to do with it. Half a liter of beer is nothing to sneeze at, especially when it is high-alcohol beer. Fortunately for the Korean Beer Review, Hyunjin felt like having a beer the other night, and she wasn’t in the mood for Guinness. The Cass Red was the only other beer in the refrigerator, so we split it (more or less—I had 300 ml, and she had 200 ml).

You may or may not be able to make out the date printed on the bottom of the label. There are nine numbers: 070829237. I didn’t notice this at the time of purchase—shame on me for not paying attention—but it would appear that this beer was bottled at the end of August of last year. It seems odd to me that they would keep a beer around for nearly six months, but I can’t figure out any other way to interpret those numbers. Perhaps high-alcohol beers have a longer shelf life? I didn’t notice an expiration date anywhere, and the bottle is now gone, so it’s too late to check. Whatever the case, I suppose this is one piece of information to keep in mind.

Let’s take a closer look at the label:

“Taste of passion.” Sounds good. Below the golden crest and horizontal rule, it says “6.9% high-alcohol beer.” The line below that says: “Our high-alcohol fermentation method and aromatic hops give the beer a high alcohol content and bring to life its refreshing and rich taste” (this is a very liberal translation, as a more literal translation would be rather awkward). For a bit more hype, we head to the website, where we get this expanded version:

OB Beer has preserved the smooth and refreshing taste of Cass Red 6.9 percent beer even as we optimized the alcohol content, thanks to our cutting edge brewing methods and strict quality control. Through our high-alcohol fermentation method, we have both raised the alcohol content to 6.9 percent and improved the beer’s deep and rich flavor. Using “Special Crystal malt,” we have given the beer a distinct color, and we have reduced the bitter taste of high-alcohol beer through the use of “Finest Aroma Hop.”

(Again, this is a liberal translation with an eye for fluency. The words in quotation marks appear in English in the original, so I’m leaving them as is, even if they might not be completely correct. Man, I should be getting paid for this.)

By now you have probably noticed a recurring theme: the term “high-alcohol.” It appears three times in the extended marketing blurb (I excised the first instance because it makes no sense grammatically) and three times on the label. The magic number, 6.9%, appears on the bottle no fewer than six times—twice on the cap and four times on the label. Usually it will appear only once on the label and maybe once on the cap as well. But why settle for twice when you can have three times that number of references? And how about the number itself? I won’t go into specifics, seeing as this is a family program, but maybe we’ve got some Freudian advertising going on here, hmm?

OK, enough about the hype—on to the beer. I didn’t actually read any of the hype before I drank the beer (not even the hype on the label), so I went in with little in the way of expectations. I had a previous experience from quite some time ago lodged somewhere in my sense memory, but that was it.

First, the color. It’s definitely much darker than your typical lager. Not red, of course, but ranging from gold to deep amber. Unfortunately, I have no photos to share of the beer itself because every shot I took after the bottle shots came out terribly out of focus, and I have standards. I would say the color is similar to that of a good wheat beer, but not as cloudy and a little redder. Distinct color? When compared with your typical lager, it is most certainly distinct.

After appreciating the color, I picked up the glass and held it beneath my nose. The aroma was unexpected. I took copious notes on both the taste and the aroma (they are related, of course), but I don’t know if I have hit the nail on the head here. My first impression was “slightly fruity,” but not the citrus aroma of, say, Hoegaarden (site in Flemish/Belgian French). It’s not actually fruity, but suggestive of fruit. I’m guessing that this is the smell of the “finest aroma hops” mentioned in the hype. It is a rather pronounced aroma, but it is not very hoppy, like an IPA. Whatever the case, it is an slightly odd but not unpleasant aroma.

Next came the actual tasting. My first impression was: “surprisingly smooth.” It is very light in the carbonation department, which is a welcome change from most Korean lagers. The taste itself changes as it travels across the tongue—sweet at first, then slightly fruity, and very little bitterness at the end. I was surprised that it was so drinkable, considering the high alcohol content.

The review, of course, does not end after the first sip, though. Halfway through the glass I began to feel the effects of the alcohol. Usually I can drink a bottle (330 ml) of beer without feeling much of anything, but apparently upping the alcohol content by fifty percent or more makes a difference. I wasn’t at the point yet where I was unfit to review, but I could definitely feel my blood vessels opening up.

Three quarters of the way through the glass, my opinion of the beer began to change rather rapidly. The taste, which was different but palatable at first, quickly grew old and even started to taste a little bitter. I think there were two factors at work. Firstly, the beer had begun to warm up. It’s a bad sign when the taste deteriorates as the beer warms up. And I’m not even talking about room temperature, I’m talking about a difference of a few degrees—there was still condensation on the glass. Secondly, some things are only good in moderation, and I think the taste of Cass Red might be one of those things. At the three-quarter mark I began to find the taste burdensome. The beer was also going to my head more, so I decided to stop taking notes at this point. I finished the glass, but it was as effort.

Does Cass Red live up to the hype? Well, when you cut through all the marketing speak, what you’re really left with are a few basic claims: a claim about the alcohol content (high), a claim about the taste (smooth and refreshing, yet at the same time deep and rich), and a claim about the color (distinctive). The color, as I mentioned above, is distinctive, but this is really a footnote. Honestly, I’m not sure about the taste. It is smooth, but I don’t know about deep or rich. What’s really important here, though, is the high alcohol content, and in that regard Cass Red does indeed live up to the hype.

I don’t think I will voluntarily subject myself to this beer again. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but it wasn’t entirely pleasant, especially as time went on, and I’m too old to go around drinking beers that I don’t enjoy. However, if I were in the market for a beer that would get me hammered in short order, I would pick up a few bottles of Cass Red and down them in rapid succession while they were still ice cold. Running head first into a brick wall, though, would have about the same effect and save you a few thousand won.

Unlike Hite’s Stout, the beer reviewed in episode one of the Korean Beer Review, I cannot in good conscience recommend Cass Red. It might not be so bad if drunk in smaller quantities, at colder temperatures, and at quicker speeds, but that sounds like a bit too much effort to me. Pick up a small bottle or can if you’re interested in tasting a Korean high-alcohol beer, but otherwise you can probably avoid this one.

Oh, and here’s an interesting anecdote in closing. After I had first tasted this beer some time back, I mentioned it to one of my juniors at school, and he said that the beer had been nicknamed “somaek.” This is a combination of “soju,” a vile Korean rice liquor that is about as user-friendly as really cheap wine (there is indeed non-vile soju, but that’s an entirely different ballgame), and “maekju,” the Korean word for beer. I guess the idea is that it looks and (kind of) tastes like beer, but has more of a soju kick. I think that really says it all. If you want beer, stick with a real beer. If you just want to get smashed, chug a bottle of soju. Call me a purist, but I think I’ll stick with my 4% alcohol beers.

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