An Interview with Galmegi Brewing Company in Busan, South Korea
Galmegi Brewing is Busan’s first craft beer pub, and will soon be opening the first American-style microbrewery and brewpub in Korea’s second city. We sent Josh Sokolow to find out what keeps them brewing with style!
An avid traveler, expat, foodie, and lover of all things with an ABV (Alcohol by Volume) over 5%, you can probably imagine Josh’s excitement when he sat down to interview Stephane Turcotte, originally from British Columbia, but now co-owner and brewmaster of Busan’s first craft brewery: Galmegi Brewing.
Here’s what Stephane had to say about the beer scene in Korea, and what he and his partners are doing to quench the growing thirst for a proper pint on the peninsula.
Josh: First off, for those who aren’t familiar with Galmegi, could you tell us a little about you guys?
Stephane: There are four of us that own Galmegi and, about a year and a half ago, we realized we were just tired of the beer scene in Korea. At the time, the only way we could get quality beer was to import it, but prices were insanely high. We all had some home brewing experience and so we realized that we could just do it better ourselves, right here in Busan. That idea essentially started out as a home brew club, but after we started home brewing it just grew by steps until we decided we needed to do a craft beer pub.
Luckily in Korea, there aren’t a lot of licensing issues, so it can happen quite quickly. Galmegi went from idea to reality in about 4 months, which is pretty amazing!
A lot of people who come to Busan – or Korea, for that matter – don’t know a lot of Korean at the start, so could you tell us about the name, Galmegi?
We pitched a bunch of names, but we wanted to represent Busan because it has no real representation in beer. The term Galmegi means seagull in Korean and it’s the symbol of the city. Even though it may seem like kind of a lowly bird to a Westerner, it’s quite revered over here. The local baseball team, the Lotte Giants, plays a song called “Busan Galmegi” at every game; all the fans know the song and the people call themselves Busan Galmegi, so it’s become a colloquial term for someone from Busan.
The craft beer market has really exploded in the Western world, but what made you think it would work as well as it has in Busan so far?
We actually picked up signals from Seoul. I went on a mini-scouting trip up to Seoul with my wife and, at that time, there were about three craft beer bars there and they were full. We were there on a Tuesday night in early February and they were full! So we kind of got the signal that craft beer was finally arriving in Korea.
I’m sure you know that in Korea they love to drink, any night of the week, after work socials, whatever. For the entire history of Korea they’ve been drinking some of the worst beer in the world so it was only a matter of time before they started caring about the beer that they drink.
When I first got to Busan, the wine selection was terrible: It was very expensive and there were few quality wines. Now though, if you look in any supermarket, there’s a very decent selection at relatively good prices. We knew it was just a matter of time before the beer scene took off like the wine scene, and we wanted to be a part of it.
That leads to my next question, which is that many people say traditional Korean beers, like Cass and Hite, are simple and weak in terms of flavor, so how do your beers compare to the domestic beers on offer?
It’s a whole different ballgame. The Korean beers are really low alcohol; they’re all lagers- which is okay: it’s the most popular style of beer in the world in terms of mass-produced beer. But I’ve also heard that their brewing process involves dilution, and that can lead to a severe lack of flavor.
At the same time, the beer is not treated very well. Everywhere it’s served it’s crash-chilled, and in many cases also served through dirty lines.
[blockquote align=”center”]We’re using kilos of fresh American hops[/blockquote]
From our side, what we’re trying to do is make much bolder beers that are higher in both flavor and alcohol. We tend to add a lot more hops just like many American craft brews; a lot more hops than Korean companies would. They’re (Korean companies) using a hop extract to bitter their beers whereas we’re using kilos of fresh American hops.
We’re making sure that we serve our beers through clean lines and keep all of our kegs in a refrigerated state, so that they never warm up. We’re really just trying to follow all of the cues coming out of North America these days, and treat our beers as a more elevated product.
When Galmegi started, what were your goals for the brand? How have those goals changed?
At the start, we didn’t anticipate getting very busy. We knew that we liked beer and we knew that the expats would like the beers, but we had no idea that Koreans would like the beers. It was a huge shock.
At the beginning, there was no thought that this is a brand and we’re going to take over the beer scene. It was more of a hobby. I was a full-time university instructor and this was something I wanted to do in my part-time. But very quickly, after only about two months, we realized that this is something that needs to be full-time. So I quit my job and went full-time into the pub.
We were contract brewing (paying another brewery to brew our recipes), so we didn’t care that much about brand or the branding of the beers, but then we got to start planning the opening of our own brewery, which we’re actually very close to opening at the moment. In terms of brand awareness, we’re just starting to get into that. We actually just hired a local company, made up of 3 expats and a couple of Koreans, to do our website, branding, and logos. They’re focused on that because I’m more focused on the brewing and the serving.
Their name is Meme communications, they’re doing some really cool work these days on dual language content for us as well as a lot of other Korean businesses. You can find them on the web at memecommunications.com
They’ve designed our web page at galmegibrewing.com so you can see their work there. It’s gorgeous! They’ve been helping us out a lot.
What does the process of developing a new recipe typically look like? How many tries does it usually take until you find one that you’re happy with putting the Galmegi name on?
Like anything, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like any cooking or art project, you start with something you know and you like, then you modify it to match what’s available to you, and then you modify it again to make it better.
For example, we’ve been developing a new flagship IPA through a ton of home brew batches. Our current IPA is really popular but we know it can be better. I was in the States a few months ago and I found my favorite IPA there and talked to people who knew the recipe. So we started building and tweaking. I know that our new IPA is going to have a really pungent aroma; we added a lot of hops at the end and we really like this characteristic in our IPAs. It’s really “piney” and “citrusy” which we think goes really well together.
Finally, after about 6 iterations, it’s where we really like it. Beer is never a fixed product. You have to keep making it and so if it comes out a little under then we’ll just keep adding to it.
What’s your favorite thing about what you guys do?
The collaborative nature of it! We’re brewing and running a bar and a restaurant, so we’re getting artists, graphic designers, cooks and all kinds of other passionate people to come together on our goal. So I really like that aspect of it. I also really like that we get to make something that we put out there and get instant feedback. People might say, “Oh I really like the IPA” or “the pale ale is a little disappointing”, and that’s fine because we can take that information and adjust. But we get to put something out there and have people enjoy it.
Congrats on all the growth and early success! You guys have a lot to be excited about. To what do you primarily attribute all this success?
I think it’s a couple of things. Luckily, we’re coming at it from a home brewers’ perspective, which gives us a lot of passion about the product. If Joe Blow (from Kokomo) sees that the craft beer scene is exploding and decides to open a beer pub, he sees it from a business perspective first, which I think is not the way to go. We’re coming at it from the perspective of, this is our passion and we like it and since it has ended up succeeding, we’re always going to have passion for the product driving the future.
Also, timing. Three years ago, Craftworks was the first beer pub to open up in Seoul. They’re using the same contract brewing that we’re using right now and they tapped into something that was just eager to blow up. Korea has 45 million people and they didn’t have a single craft beer and so we’re in that first wave of the scene here. Like I said, Koreans like to drink and they’re now starting to care more about what they drink, so it’s just perfect timing for us here.
Can you tell us about the new place that you’re opening up?
Sure. It’s about a block away from our current location and as soon as we saw the building was available, we were all over it. It’s in an old building that used to house a snowboard shop. It’s a really funky layout and it’s going to be multi-level. The first floor is going to house our new brewery behind glass, so that everyone can see the process. If you walk by in the afternoon, you will probably see me working in there. There will be a small bar overlooking the brewery and on the second floor we’re putting in a restaurant: We’ve already hired a foreign chef – Andrew Bencivenga – to come in and run it.
We’re thinking about pairing “foodie” food with our craft beers. The chef we’ve hired is into sausage-making and charcuterie, so he does a lot of his own meat and cured meat. We’re hoping that his passion for food will mix well with our passion for beer! Also, with a new law that has been passed, we’re going to be able to keg our beer and sell it to other bars. Our new business is not just a bar or pub and restaurant, but also a brewery that can send kegs to other bars that are interested in carrying them.
Does that market seem like one that you’ll really want to tap into?
Well it’s an idea. Several bars that are interested in carrying our beers have already contacted us, but we want to find people that are interested in taking care of our beers. We don’t want to send our beers to places that would crash-chill it or whatever, so we’re going to be a little careful about that. There are several bars in Busan that have proper, walk-in coolers and know how to serve beer, so we’ll probably look into those places at first.
Is there anything else you want to add about Galmegi and what you guys are doing here in Korea?
Yeah. The interesting thing about us is that we’re trying to get away from contract brewing. Most other craft beer bars in Korea are doing contract brewing through one of two mid-sized breweries in Korea. We’re trying to turn that on its head and be in charge of every single step of the beer-making process. So, we’re going to start off with a standard line up and then very shortly we’re going to get to do our crazier concoctions that we’re more interested in.
I think we’re really looking forward to having a very liberal license over what we’re going to be producing: big beers, beer with strange ingredients. Those are the beers we’d love to get out there into Korea. Right now, you basically can’t buy them here and in the States they’re readily available. There are really good breweries doing all kinds of crazy things, so we’d like to follow their lead and do it here.
If you’re in Busan you should definitely pay a visit to Galmegi Brewing. Here are their addresses:
- Original Bar: Suyeong-gu, Namcheong-dong 3-4, 3rd floor
- New Restaurant and Brewpub: Suyeong-gu, Gwangnam-ro 58, 1st floor
[note title=”From Galmegi Brewing” align=”center”]We started off as a band of crazy homebrewers and have always hoped to contribute to (and hopefully improve) the beer scene in South Korea. We opened Busan’s first craft beer pub, Galmegi Brewing Co, and are soon to open the first American-style Microbrewery and brewpub in the city. We focus on high quality ingredients and innovative ideas to bring exciting craft beers to South Korea. We also focus on pairing our beers with real food from our kitchens. We care about beer and food and hope that it carries through in our customers’ experiences. Cheers![/note]