Ah, Busan. The emerald city of sea breezes and seafood; of forest-clad mountains that twinkle and dance across the glass facades of soaring skyscrapers; of sun-dappled, tree-lined avenues and a natural abundance of thermal hot springs. Oh—and there’s craft beer. A lot of it. And it’s pretty good.
My time in Busan was brief, so I could only squeeze in a handful of the many new breweries and beer bars that now populate the city. On the whole, these chapels to craft consumption do not disappoint. Is the standard for sophisticated, world-class beer perhaps a little lower in Korea’s second city, with its relatively nascent interest in craft? Sure. Is the beer nevertheless interesting and delicious and fun to drink? Absolutely.
Craft beer comes with good fun in Busan, where nearly all of the multiplying breed of mod breweries are friendly, affordable, and just boisterous enough to feel like you have had a proper night out. Some of these taprooms are surprisingly spacious, with views of bright lights and big city; some are snug and cozy and demand a luscious stout on a windy winter’s eve. All of them proffer a range of exciting beers that seem to embody the city itself: young, vibrant, and cheekily irreverent.
My first stop was the trendy Gwangnam-ro area of Suyeong-gu district, where modern Korean boutique shops and mid-century hardware stores are scattered along pretty, tree-lined streets. Just a few blocks from Gwangalli Beach, Gorilla Brewing Co. occupies a large, warehouse-like space, with the brewery occupying the first floor and the tasting room upstairs. (One might wonder—for rather a bit too long—how to enter Gorilla: fear not, the door to the stairs is on the far right of the building.)
A large, airy space with the standard brewery-industrial vibe—long wooden tables, tall metal stools and benches, and a tap wall and bar fashioned from concrete and brick—Gorilla’s best feature is its expansive windows, which dramatically frame the traffic and pedestrians below.
When I visit, there are 11 taps reserved for Gorilla beers (all brewed on the first floor), including the signature Gorilla IPA (hoppy, tropical, a little touch of creaminess) and the 2018 Asia Beer Championship winner Busan Pale Ale, which is light and crisp, with hints of citrus and jasmine. Two collaborations were available, as well: Slow Boat Project, a not-too-sour sour brewed with Beijing’s Slow Boat Brewery, and Seoul to Busan, a huge, sloppy, yet delicious extra stout brewed with Seoul Brewery that reeks of rum, maple syrup, chocolate, and winter-spiced fruits.
The tasting room also has at least 12 guest taps, which on this night include beers from Korean breweries like Wild Wave Brewing Co., Seoul Brewery, Galmegi Brewing Co., and Magpie Brewing Co. All in all, this is a casual, relaxing spot to taste some exuberant beers, people watch, and devour tasty kimchi fries.
Night Two: Haeundae
I stayed slightly closer to home in Haeundae on my second night. First up was a quick stop at Park Hyatt Busan’s Living Room Bar for panoramic views and glass (or two) of proper wine, and then it was on to Wild Wave Brewing and Galmegi Brewing Haeundae, with the latter just steps from the pounding waves of Haeundae Beach.
Wild Wave is slightly tricky to find if you are as confused as I am about the Busan method of street numeration—and that is to say, very confused—but it’s an easy taxi ride from central Haeundae and its beers stood out as some of the most sophisticated and exciting that I tasted during my short tour of the city’s beer scene. The tasting room has ample courtyard seating (mostly empty on this winter eve), as well as a cozy indoor space with good food and surprisingly good music. (I say “surprisingly” because I am accustomed to trying my very hardest to ignore the truly horrid American kiddie-pop that blares from nearly every bar in Singapore.)
To me the most exciting aspect of Wild Wave is its range of sours. The brewery’s flagship, Surleim, is a floral, refined, dry-hopped sour that at 5.3% is perfect for summer drinking (as is its lower-alcohol, 4.2% sister, Surleim Light). At 6%, Surleim Plus is the fuller-bodied, slightly sweeter version, with more pronounced aromas of orange and caramel, while the similarly 6% Surleim Wild is a barrel-aged sour with a nice, rank kick. There are many others to try: The Wild IPA and Wild Session (the only wild beers I noticed in Busan); Tropical Saison (a juicy farmhouse ale); and Bella IPA, among others.
This is a fun bar, with fun, lively beers and plenty of local character. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, perhaps I am partial to Wild Wave because my time there ended with every traveler’s fantasy: A compliment on her travel skills. After my friendly but somewhat alarmed bartender—why is this strange woman here alone?—was nice enough to use his phone to book me a Kakaotaxi back into central Haeundae, my driver was duly impressed: “How did you know about this taxi service!? How did you find this bar? You are very smart!”
Thank you, sir.
It says something about the novelty of Busan’s beer scene that Galmegi Brewing Co., founded in 2014 and now expanded to six venues across the city, is one of the city’s “oldest” craft breweries. The Haeundae branch is easy to find, especially if you’re staying in the area or visiting Food Alley, a cheerful if touristy strip lined with seafood restaurants, neon lights, and vocal touts. The upstairs tasting room is tiny but comfortable, and offers a bird’s-eye view of the glimmering seafood arranged below.
There are 15 or so beers on tap, along with bar food and a solid range of bottles and cans (to drink in or takeaway). On the night of my visit, seven Galmegi beers flow from taps, including Galmegi IPA, which features bright fruit hops and intensely bitter finish; Yuja Gose, a yuzu gose with a slightly saline finish and fragrant yuzu aromas; and Moonrise Pale Ale, which is crisp, refreshing, and fragrant—something like a moonrise in the forest, I guess.
Those with a preference for hop-forward brews will appreciate Galmegi, which tends to favor high-IBU beers that can be daunting for those new to craft, or for this particular sour-loving writer. Indeed, the beers I try here are acutely hoppy with clearly identifiable flavors; they are not subtle beers, perhaps, but are certainly charismatic and memorable. With the exception of a couple beers from Wild Wave, Galmegi’s guest taps largely feature American heavyweights like Founders, Ballast Point, and Melvin Brewing Co.
(Slightly) Off the Beer Trail
There’s a lot more to Busan than beer, of course. But it might be argued that many of the city’s signature attractions—hiking, shopping, beach-going, seafood-eating—pair rather well with this time-honored pastime.
After several nights of beer and seafood, for instance, one could do worse than to soak in the expansive hot springs of Spa Land—“an urban oasis,” indeed—which is conveniently adjacent to the behemoth Centum City shopping complex. A huge number of fishmongers at the truly impressive Jagalchi Market, Korea’s largest seafood market, feature sit-down stalls where you can devour the freshest fruit of the sea while also sipping cold beer (no, not craft, but don’t be a snob).
Then there is trendy Seomyeon and its vast network of underground shopping, which demands a therapeutic stop at An:nyeong (although fair warning that the emphasis here is international rather than Korean beer). Even the food wonderland that makes up the lower level of Shinsegae Centum City includes an upscale supermarket stocked with global craft beer.
One side note: If you have not brushed up on your Korean in some time, make sure to write out meticulously the names and addresses of everywhere you plan to visit, and then have someone—hotel staff, friend, friendly passerby—translate them into Korean. Many taxi drivers cannot speak or read English, and Busan is composed of a complex maze of winding backstreets that spin off the main avenues and are fiendishly difficult to pronounce for non-Korean speakers. Be sure also to have your hotel address card with you so that you can easily hop in a taxi home after… the last pint of Busan (sorry).
There are several other craft beer bars and breweries in Busan, including Slice of Life Taphouse, Sköll Gastropub, Owl & Pussycat, and Levee Brewing Co, and surely there will be many more by the time I return. Alas, until next time Busan.