South Koreans love their booze. The country ranks at the top of the charts of alcohol consumption per capita. Alcohol is an entrenched part of their social customs in gatherings and meals, especially. Interestingly (for us beer lovers), beer has a huge 40 percent share of the alcohol market in the country.
The country’s maekju (beer, in Korean) tend toward “enjoyable” brews with lower alcohol content that go down easy. No beer on our list has above 5% ABV, even.
In this list, we explore five excellent Korean beers. These are our top picks to try, to get a taste of what Korean beer is all about, and also pretty easy to find abroad.
Is Korean Beer Good?
Traditionally speaking, South Korea has never been a big beer drinking place. However, within the last decade, beer has grown in popularity. Despite this, there are still only about 5 large breweries in the country. It wasn’t until 2014 that microbrewing was legal in South Korea, and there are now estimated to be around 20-30 microbreweries.
Korean beer tends to be very light and favors light lagers over ales and darker beers. Due to this, they also tend to be more bland and flavorless compared to what we are used to drinking in the United States. However, the arrival of microbreweries has expanded the beer options within the country.
In the United States, you are likely only going to run into beers from the few major breweries, such as the 5 best Korean beers we list below.
So, is Korean beer good? It’s not usually well regarded as great beer. However, if you are looking for an easy and light lager to throw back, the below options are great choices. They are pretty equivalent to what you get out of popular Japanese beers like Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban.
1. Hite Korean Pale Lager
Originally founded in 1933 as Chosun Beer Corporation, Hite wasn’t produced until 1993 and wasn’t officially named Hite until 1998. Since then, Hite beer has gone on to become the top-selling beer in South Korea and one of the top selling beers worldwide. Hite is produced at the Hite Brewery in Seoul, South Korea, the country’s capitol.
This brewery prides itself on using pure underground spring water and premium cornstarch, malt, yeast, and hops, resulting in a beer with a heavy malt aroma with a hint of hops that’s light-bodied, yet buttery. The Hite Brewery produces at least 7 different beers, with Hite being the most popular one.
Hite is brewed from barley, malt, and rice. Since rice is a key ingredient, Hite is little bit lighter and doesn’t have a heavy wheat taste like many other beers.
Hite beer has a light golden color and pours with a small white head. For most Koreans, it is a popular beverage to accompany meals, be it an elegant dinner or a casual Korean barbecue. It has an alcohol content of 4.3 abv, so it’s right in line with most Korean beers that are typically on the lighter side.
Hite ABV: 4.3%
Hite IBU: 0
Hite Calories: 129
2. OB Korean Golden Lager
Oriental Brewery makes OB Golden Lager and introduced it in 1948. The brewery crafts the beer to produce a distinctive, deep taste, using German hops, premium malt, cornstarch, and rice.
Many South Koreans find the OB Golden Lager to be nearly interchangeable with Hite (and Cass Fresh, the next on our list) after the company altered the recipe to include rice. OB Golden Lager is the #4 selling beer in South Korea and is found on draft in most Korean bars.
OB Golden Lager can be found with different abv levels, but it’s typically found around the 4.4-4.8%. It tends to be a bit more hoppy Hite but still has a nice light taste.
This premium lager has a heavy hops aroma, is light-bodied, and has a deep, crispy malt taste, which is a result of using tower-malting and light corn. The pale golden lager pours with a small white head and is a smooth beer with which to complement meals.
OB Golden Lager ABV: 4.8%
OB Golden Lager IBU’s: 0
OB Golden Lager Calories: 144
3. Cass Fresh Korean Lager
Oriental Brewery acquired Cass in 1999 after falling off. In the 1980’s Cass Brewery was the leading brewery and Cass the leading beer. However, in the early 1990’s Hite took over as the nations top seller which opened the doors for OB to purchase the Cass Brand. Ever since, OB has been the brewery responsible for putting Cass Fresh on the market. Today, Cass Fresh sells well globally using premium ingredients like pure water, malt, hops, and cornstarch to give it its quality consistency.
Much of the beer’s regained popularity is credit to Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef. He noted Cass Fresh as his go-to beer with Korean dishes and described it as “not pretentious”, “easy”, and “fresh”.
The beer is light, refreshing, and has a grainy malt and hops aroma, with a sweet malt taste and crisp, bitter finish. It pours pale golden with small white foam. Additionally, there are no identifiable “hard” tastes in the profile, which makes it a great beer to have with meals.
Cass Fresh ABV: 4.5%
Cass Fresh IBU’s: 0
Cass Fresh Calories: 135
4. Cafri Light Korean Lager
Cafri is a well-stocked, popular beer in stores and bars across South Korea. Oriental Brewery has produced this premium beer since 1995. Core ingredients consist of water, malt, hops, and yeast.
It has a sweet, malt, and corn foretaste with a trace of fresh hops, but afterward, the aftertaste turns watery, finishing with a slightly bitter aftertaste. The beer is also highly carbonated, pouring light golden with a small white head.
Cafri is noted to be one of the lightest beers on the Korean market which would explain the almost watery taste and finish. While this may seem like a bad thing, this makes Cafri pair exceptionally well with spicier Korean foods, especially their famous barbecue.
The main critique of Cafri across global markets seems to be the carbonation as it was described as soda-beer by a couple of reviewers. Not surprisingly, many mentioned the light, thinness, “almost water-like” quality of Cafri, not as a bad thing, but merely as a lack of taste and character that is found in other beers worldwide.
Cafri ABV: 4.2%
Cafri IBU’s: 0
Cafri Calories: 126
5. Kloud Original Gravity Pilsner
For a beer to be launched and immediately command a demand that surpasses its supply is quite a feat. The launch of Kloud beer in 2014 got such a massive reception that it was soon short of supply, just shy of its launch. This situation caused the beer maker, Lotte Chilsung Beverage, to begin the construction of a new brewery to bridge the supply gap.
Despite being a Korean beer, Kloud is actually a German-style Pilsner, making it quite different from the light lagers we’ve featured above. At 5% alcohol and a few IBU’s the Kloud Pilsner is a bit less light and therefore a bit more flavorful compared to traditional Korean lagers.
It also makes it the heaviest beer on our list, so you might want to avoid it if you are doing a lot of Somaek’s. A Somaek is the Korean version of a sake bomb where you drop Korean Soju into your Maejku.
Lotte Chilsun brews Kloud beer from hops, malt, and yeast. Instead of water, the brewery uses fermented concentrates from the original gravity method.
The lager has an aroma of malt, bread, and hops. It has a sweet, malty taste with a light bitter finish.
The beer pours light golden, forming a fluffy white effervescence for its head.
Kloud ABV: 5%
Kloud IBU’s: 4
Kloud Calories: 150
Top 5 Korean Beers: Final Thoughts
When it comes to the top 5 Korean Beers, Kloud was the most familiar as it has a bit more flavor and depth that we are used to in America and other parts of the world. Hite, OB Golden Lager, Cass Fresh, and especially Cafri follow the traditional view of Korean beer: light and easy. With this, comes a beer that is fairly thin and in some cases watery.
While this may seem like a bad review, it isn’t much different from the beers that are widely consumed in America. Those who enjoy flavorful beers, hoppy IPA’s, or dark and stout beers would likely say the same things about the light beers that so many of us enjoyed in our college days and, oftentimes, still do.
Though South Korea is not internationally famous for its beer, the country’s love for brews is well documented. Remember that these beers reviewed here are exported (especially Hite) and can often be found in Korean restaurants (they’re a great complement to Korean barbecue!)
Also, if you like international beers, check out the International Beer Club by Microbrewed! They mail you a selection of great beers from around the world each month.