One of the highlights of a recent visit to the Rason Free Trade Zone of the DPRK (in the far north, on the border with both Russia and China) our adventurous tour group who had travelled to this area from Pyongyang by local train (a tourism first! We will be offering this again in the near future) was invited to be the first visitors to the Rason Soft Drinks Factory – naturally we jumped at the chance.
This factory is slightly misnamed; it does make soft drinks; mineral water, various fizzy drinks, makkoli (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makgeolli), but is mainly known in the area for its ‘Hundred Flowers Soju’ – made from the essences of a hundred different flower, so they say. They also produce beer.
We at Koryo Tours are fans of North Korean beer – We’ve tried as much of it as possible; Taedonggang, Ponghak (t-shirts of the Ponghak logo are exclusively available in our office by the way!), Pyongyang Beer, the Czech micro-brewed stuff in Rason, Rakwon Beer, Ryongsong Beer, and so on. But this was a new one to us. Triangle Beer!
The stuff is so named due to the location of the factory, in the Rason ‘golden triangle’ area, linking the DPRK, China, and Russia. Two bottles were purchased for the low low price of 2 RMB per bottle, and they were wrapped up and brought back to our office (via Vladivostok and Harbin, two train rides, two flights, a long bus ride, a couple of taxi trips – probably didn’t improve the taste really). The beer is 4% alcohol, and the factory makes just this one kind.
Koryo tours staff eagerly gathered around as the bottles were opened (perhaps extra eager as it was 6PM on a Friday, time to leave work) and the taste test commenced. These were some of the main comments;
Marielle: It smells like olives
Rich: not much of a head on that (it was rather flat looking)
Jonas (arriving late): What kind of drink is this? Beer?
(first impressions – not that great. It smells a bit odd and looks flat)
the first glasses were tasted
Jonas: I like it
Marielle: Doesn’t taste very fresh
Simon: hmmm, not particularly wonderful at all
Rich: after three weeks of Mongolian beer this really isn’t very good
Greg: this would pass at a Budapest micro-brewery (note: Greg is from Hungary, still this comment doesn’t encourage us to rush to the airport to tour the micro-brews of Budapest, a lovely city nevertheless!)
Jonas: It tastes like Kvas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kvass) (a very astute comment, it really does actually)
Greg: It doesn’t (wrong Greg, it does)
Marcus: tastes like it is about to go off
Zafina: It tastes like medicine (note, Chinese medicine tastes notoriously awful)
Marcus: It may have over-fermented a bit perhaps (a charitable comment)
Rebecca: urgh! (Pours her glass into Someone else’s. No further comment needed!)
Greg: Can I have some more?
So that was our taste test. The conclusion was that it was not a particularly amazing beer, and tasted a bit wrong. Still it was cheap, cheerful, and unique. Also it came in repurposed Budweiser bottles (a common thing to do in the DPRK, you often find Taedonggang Beer in Tsingtao bottles for instance) and while nobody will be giving up their devotion to Taedonggang #7 (Marcus) or Taedonggang #1 (everyone else) it was something to try.
It was washed down with some President Beer from the Dominican Republic (thanks, Simon’s mother-in-law, for sending that from a recent trip) which was fizzy, normal-tasting, refreshing)
UPDATE: a friend who knows what he is talking about (thanks Chris!) write:
I reckon the beer may be infected with DMS by the sounds of it. This happens with poor brewing practices (the wort is not cooled quickly enough allowing the volatility of the compound to decrease and remain in the finished product prior to fermentation) or bacterial infection. Most of the beers I tried in DPRK were infected with Diacetyl, which usually happens when the beer undergoes too many temperature fluctuations during fermentation or is packaged too quickly and not allowed the time for a full fermentation. I would need to taste it to identify any potential off-flavours but sounds like the most likely culprit. I must try it now!
UPDATE 2: A counter-view! fro another friend who knows what he is talking about! (thanks Carl!)
Diacetyl isn’t an “infection” and DMS is caused by short boil times, not lengthy occupation time in the whirlpool before chilling. Basically if you boil for 45 mins you get an increased presence of Diamethyl Sulfide that would take about 8 hours in high temperature rest to reach the same perceivable level.
Join Koryo Tours on a trip to Rason if you want to try this stuff – even after this not-so-great recommendation from our team!