Korean Craft Beer Renaissance

Korean Craft Beer Dusk

Korean Craft Beer Culture

Korean beer culture has long been dominated by mass-produced, light lagers from large breweries like Hite and OB. However, in recent years, there has been a growing interest in craft beer, and a small but dedicated community of brewers and beer enthusiasts has emerged in Korea.

The history of craft beer in Korea can be traced back to the early 2000s when a few small breweries started to pop up. One of the earliest pioneers was Beersmiths, which opened in 2002 in Seoul. Beersmiths focused on brewing British-style ales, quickly gaining a following among expats and locals alike.

Another early player in the Korean craft beer scene was Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro, which opened its first location in 2010. Founded by Dan Vroon, who had previously worked at a brewery in the United States, Craftworks’ beers leaned towards American-style, with hop-forward IPAs and bold, complex flavors.

Despite the growing interest in craft beer, it wasn’t until 2014 that the Korean government made it legal for small breweries to sell their beer on-site. Prior to that, breweries could only sell their beer to distributors, making it difficult for small, independent breweries to gain a foothold in the market.

Brewing Beer in Korea
John the Founder of Nomadic Brewing

Since the law changed, the number of craft breweries in Korea has exploded. According to the Korea Craft Brewers Association, there were just 8 craft breweries in Korea in 2014. By 2021, that number had grown to over 200.

One of the most successful and well-known Korean craft breweries is Magpie Brewing Co., founded in 2014 by three expats. Magpie’s beers are known for their high quality and innovative flavors. Jeju Beer Company, founded in 2015, is another successful Korean craft brewery, famous for their “Jeju Wit,” made with Jeju Island tangerines and coriander.

Despite the growth, Korean craft brewers face challenges, such as the high cost of imported ingredients and the dominance of large breweries like Hite and OB.

Nevertheless, the craft beer scene in Korea continues to evolve, with a trend towards more experimental and boundary-pushing beers. With the increasing popularity of craft beer among younger Koreans, the industry is poised for further growth and diversification.

Korea Craft Beer Glass


The Spirit of Adventure, Craft Beer, and Korea

Nomadic Brewing, located in the vibrant southwestern city of Jeonju, South Korea, is a humble and captivating brewery that blends traditional and innovative styles of brewing and has become a cornerstone of their local craft beer scene.

Owners John and Hanna follow the brewery’s motto “Balanced beer, balanced life” pretty closely. They make beer with local ingredients whenever possible and take work / life balance to heart by taking time off to go camping. They capture the essence of their wanderlust and love of all things nature in their beer to bring their brewery’s philosophy full circle.

Housed in a charming hanok, a traditional Korean house in the heart of Jeonju’s historic district, Nomadic Brewing Company seamlessly blends old-world charm with modern brewing techniques. John, originally from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, began brewing in Chicago, IL, and Munich, Germany, at the World Brewing Academy. His focus on his craft is evident in the high-quality and balanced flavors of his beers.

John and Hanna craft a meticulously curated menu of beers, from smooth and malty German-style lagers to hop-forward American IPAs and spicy Belgian ales. Nomadic Brewing Company offers a beer for every palate, and it serves as more than just a brewery—it is a gathering place, a hub for like-minded individuals to come together and celebrate their shared love for craft beer.

As the reputation of Nomadic Brewing Company spread, so did its impact on the local community. John and his team actively collaborated with nearby farmers, sourcing locally grown ingredients to support sustainable agriculture. They also organized beer education programs, workshops, and tasting events to foster a deeper appreciation for craft beer among the locals.

Nomadic Brewing Company has become a beloved institution in Jeonju, attracting beer enthusiasts from far and wide. Crafted had the awesome opportunity to ask Nomadic’s Founder John a couple of questions to learn more… 

Korean Craft Beer Night
Can you give me some back ground on why and when you started Nomadic Brewing. Maybe a pretty brief but deeper background on your experience and how you got in to craft beer and then ended up with Nomadic Brewing. I read that you are really in to camping and outdoors so I am wondering if you brew specific styles that go well with this type of outdoor lifestyle too?
I always had a natural fascination with beer from a young age. But I wasn’t even aware of the craft beer movement in the States. There were no craft breweries to speak of where I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. So, my first experience with quality beer was international. During college I studied abroad in Ireland and quickly discovered the Guinness sponsored pubs with live music and later visited St. James Gate. I couldn’t get enough of the pub culture and decided to take some beer trips to Germany and the Czech Republic. From that point on I knew beer would be my life’s work. I graduated during the recession and couldn’t find any brewing jobs. Then the travel bug hit me and I moved to South Korea to teach English. At the time, the country was devoid of drinkable beer pushing me deeper into homebrewing. During my second year in Korea; I met my wife on an airport bus. She was returning from a 2 year working holiday in Canada and I from a trip to China. We immediately hit it off and our first date was at a place called the Beer Cave which had the best selection of imported beers in Jeonju. I told her of my dream to start my own brewery one day. I guess she liked the idea because we were married 1.5 years later. And After 4 years of teaching English, homebrewing, and saving money in Korea; I enrolled in the World Brewing Academy’s Master Brewer Course. A combination of Siebel Institute of Chicago and Doemens Akademie of Munich. I tasted and learned how to brew nearly every beer style that exists from an academic perspective. Of course, Munich is one of the greatest beer cities on Earth. Plus, I took some focused beer trips to Austria & Belgium. Then upon receiving my certification, I took jobs brewing in Michigan, Mexico, and even job shadowed in NYC. These experiences allowed me to connect my academic knowledge with the practical knowledge of operating a brewery. At that point, I felt confident enough to start my own brewery and make beers that I believed in. We discussed potential locations to open a brewery and thought it might be nice to be near family. My wife then asked me to open a brewery in Korea. So we moved back to Jeonju, the very city where we fell in love, and opened up Nomadic.

Craft Beer and Connecting With Nature

Camping is a great way to stay grounded both literally and figuratively. It always seems to offer a fresh perspective on life. Many of the stresses and problems one faces in everyday life can seem less important in Mother Nature. At Nomadic we have a deep appreciation for the Earth. I think it’s a natural evolution for a brewer upon realizing that great beer simply comes from great ingredients. I like to say that we are an environmentally conscious brewery. Meaning that we try to consider the environmental impact of every decision made at Nomadic. Whether that’s choosing an electric brewhouse, buying a more expensive heat exchanger to save water, brewing flagship beers with local organic ingredients, using local fruits, designing T-shirts made from recycled plastics mixed with Korean paper, being the first brewery in Korea to offer biodegradable single-use cups for take out, or even just purchasing toilet paper made from recycled milk jugs. To this day we still don’t have stickers due to our attempts to avoid single-use plastics. Of course, we are far from perfect and still have a lot to learn. That’s why I prefer to use environmentally conscious instead of environmentally friendly. We just do the best that we can.
Can you also. give a broader scope of craft beer in South Korea. I read that there are about 200 craft breweries there now compared to the US where there are over 9,000 at this point. Sounds like it is probably a really exciting time for craft beer in South Korea.
I can’t speak too much on the craft beer movement in South Korea in a broad sense. My wife and I rarely leave Jeonju and when we do it’s to go camping, swim, or hike in nature. But I can tell you that it’s been an absolute honor introducing this traditional city to craft beer. We are the only craft brewery located in Jeonju and the first in Jeollabukdo. I’m also one of the very few expat owned businesses in this city, a UNESCO World Heritage site for cuisine. There’s a saying in Jeonju that if your restaurant can survive here, it can make it anywhere in Korea. So, the local population has a great understanding of quality ingredients and cuisine. This makes them quite a knowledgeable crowd. In fact, Koreans from other cities travel to Jeonju to eat traditional Korean cuisine. Opening a craft brewery here definitely required lots of trailblazing. But, I can say that it has been a blast! And I’m often impressed by the palates of my locals despite their limited experience with craft beer. Of course, I’ve had to keep this in mind when formulating my recipes. There’s no way Nomadic would have survived if we had 10 IPAs on tap or only brewed spontaneous sour beers. Instead our motto is “Balanced Beer, Balanced Life”. The concept of drinkability is one big key to our success. One thing that is often said about Nomadic is that we are the brewery for all ages. Beer fans from Seoul and Busan often mention their surprise at the age diversity of our Korean patrons. Perhaps in Seoul and Busan Craft Beer is viewed more as a trendy and hip scene for the younger generations. (In Korea, age is an extremely important metric of one’s identity within the culture that even dictates how you speak.)  But at Nomadic, we prefer to view ourselves as a classic place instead of a trendy hotspot. Every beer style is treated with equal respect just as every patron that walks through our door. 
Craft Beer Scenery Korea

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