The team first arrived in the rural English town of Trowbridge in the summer of 2000. There were two brewers, two engineers, and eight government officials. They were all from North Korea, and they had come to take the brewery. Their leader, Kim Jong Il (nicknamed “Kim Jong Ale” by the residents of Trowbridge), had recently decided that North Korea needed a better state-run brewery. But instead of building a brewery from scratch, the North Korean leader decided to go shopping for one.
For £1.5 million, North Korea bought the 175-year-old Ushers of Trowbridge Brewery. A team of Russians came in to entirely dismantle the brick-walled factory, then the North Koreans shipped all four million pounds of it back to Pyongyang. The crew left nothing, taking every vat, keg, pipe, nut, bolt, tile, and toilet seat in the brewery. They wanted to take the brewmaster himself, but had to settle for just his knowledge. Korean translators spent weeks with him poring over beer-making schematics.
A mere 18 months later, in 2002, the Russian team had reassembled the factory on a cabbage field in East Pyongyang. Since named the Taedonggang Brewing Company, the brewery produced seven styles of beer, named pragmatically from light pilsner “Beer Number One” (“Taedonggang 1”) to dark, chocolatey dunkel “Beer Number Seven.” (They have since added at least one more.) Taedonggang is considered some of the best beer available on the Korean Peninsula, and even within Asia.
Despite the improved state-run brewing game, most North Koreans still prefer cheaper, harder stuff such as the local liquor, soju. Rural North Koreans must use food rations to buy beer, which makes it a luxury item few can afford. In the country’s capital, men receive beer vouchers (usually 1–2 liters a month) that can be redeemed in a Pyongyang bar. But for the most part, beer is still an urban, middle-class affair, more akin to a nice glass of wine than a party beverage.
Although North Korea and the Taedonggang Brewing Company would like the world to focus on their surprisingly good beer, the brewery still remains the property of a mysterious and harsh dictatorship. In 2016, Pyongyang held its first-ever beer festival, which attracted 45,000 visitors. In 2017, however, the festival was canceled by the government without explanation.
Know Before You Go
For foreigners, your best bet is checking for tour operators that visit the brewery. Otherwise, Taedonggang's beers can sometimes be found—depending on the state of sanctions and international relations—in grocery stores in countries such as China.