N. Korea mys­te­ri­ously nixes beer fest, but un­veils new brew

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

PY­ONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea has sud­denly can­celed a pop­u­lar month-long beer fes­ti­val, but peo­ple won’t be go­ing thirsty in a coun­try where brews are cheap and carry the rul­ing fam­ily’s seal of ap­proval.

Last year’s in­au­gu­ral fes­ti­val along the Tae­dong River was a sur­prise hit with tourists and Py­ongyang res­i­dents alike. This year’s event, sched­uled to be­gin Wed­nes­day, was scrapped for un­known rea­sons at a time when in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism over the death of an Amer­i­can tourist and the July 4 test of Py­ongyang’s first in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile have left the coun­try’s nascent tourism in­dus­try in limbo.

North Korea’s pre­mier brew­ery had crafted a new beer for the fes­ti­val, and un­veiled it Wed­nes­day de­spite the can­cel­la­tion. Tae­dong­gang Brew­ery’s eighth spe­cialty brew has not been bot­tled yet and does not even have a for­mal name, but it’s avail­able in kegs as draft.

Tae­dong­gang beers are gen­er­ally re­puted to be world-class, which is a mat­ter of na­tional pride among many North Kore­ans.

Though not as pop­u­lar as soju, a much stronger, clear al­co­hol dis­tilled from rice, beer is read­ily avail­able all over the coun­try and prices are low.

A pint at the Tae­dong­gang beer hall just across the street from the sprawl­ing brew­ery cam­pus cost about $2. But beer at a stand-up bar on Py­ongyang’s fancy new Sci­en­tists’ Street is sold by the liter for about 500 North Korean won, or about 6 cents if cal­cu­lated at the un­of­fi­cial but widely used ex­change rate of roughly 8,000 won to the dol­lar.

Han Hy­ong Chol, head of qual­ity man­age­ment, told The As­so­ci­ated Press Tae­dong­gang’s brew­ery pumps out 200 kilo­liters (53,000 gal­lons) of beer ev­ery day to meet the de­mand of beer drinkers in the North Korean cap­i­tal — a city of about 3 mil­lion — where it’s dis­trib­uted to 160 beer halls.

Ac­cord­ing to brew­ery his­tory, the plant on Py­ongyang’s out­skirts was built at the or­der of Kim Jong Il, cur­rent leader Kim Jong Un’s fa­ther, in 2001 and be­gan pro­duc­tion the fol­low­ing year.

The brew­ery court­yard fea­tures a large mu­ral of Kim Jong Il wear­ing a white lab coat and hold­ing a trade­mark green Tae­dong­gang bot­tle while smil­ing broadly be­fore a pro­duc­tion line. Sev­eral larger-thanlife pho­tos of Kim con­duct­ing “on-the-spot guid­ance” hang in brew­ery pro­duc­tion halls.

“He in­structed our man­agers and tech­ni­cians that as a so­cial­ist coun­try we must pro­vide the peo­ple with the best beer in the world,” a guide replied when asked what kind of guid­ance Kim had to of­fer.

The state-run brew­ery em­ploys about 700 peo­ple, but is mostly au­to­mated. It takes about 20 days to pro­duce each batch of beer.

The brew­ery gave The As­so­ci­ated Press the pub­lic first taste of its lat­est brew, made from wheat and hops.

It’s not bit­ter, which is a plus. One com­ment was, oddly enough, “minty.” But it also seemed a bit flat, though that might have some­thing to do with a lot of pre-taste-test jostling of the keg.

Brew­ery of­fi­cials said they stud­ied tech­niques and beers from around the world when set­ting up the brew­ery. It’s sus­pected they drew par­tic­u­larly heav­ily on Bri­tish and Ger­man know-how, but Han had no com­ment on that.

Han also had no com­ment on the sud­den can­cel­la­tion of the beer fes­ti­val, though it’s cer­tainly an­other se­ri­ous hit to the rep­u­ta­tion of tourism in North Korea.

Py­ongyang has been push­ing tourism hard as a rev­enue stream, but the case of Otto Warm­bier and oth­ers has raised safety and eth­i­cal con­cerns among po­ten­tial for­eign cus­tomers.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ex­pected to soon for­mally an­nounce a ban on travel to the coun­try by Amer­i­can cit­i­zens af­ter the death of Warm­bier, a col­lege stu­dent who was jailed for al­legedly try­ing to steal a pro­pa­ganda ban­ner while vis­it­ing North Korea. He fell into a coma for un­known rea­sons soon af­ter his March 2016 sen­tenc­ing, yet Py­ongyang re­vealed noth­ing about his con­di­tion for more than a year. The North al­lowed him to re­turn to the U.S. last month, but he died days af­ter com­ing home.

The num­ber of Amer­i­cans in North Korea is quite small — prob­a­bly in the dozens, if that. Three are in prison.

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