Our recent trip to Seoul acquainted us with both the craft beer scene and the specialty coffee culture of South Korea. With luck on our side, we were able to catch the First Train, the Baltic Porter brewed by Magpie Brewing Co. using selected coffee beans roasted by Fritz Coffee. After all, what better way to explore two of the world’s most popular drinks than by tasting a beverage that showcases the best of both worlds.
CRAFT BEER IN KOREA: A CONTROVERSIAL START
Commercial beer in South Korea has been regarded generally as bland and of low quality. However, everything changed in 2012 when The Economist stated brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South. The story about the success of North Korean breweries and the “boring beers” of the South sparked controversy. Two years later, the South Korean government responded by relaxing its alcohol laws allowing microbrewing to flourish.
FROM KYOUNGRIDAN TO JEJU ISLAND
One of the larger and more known craft breweries in South Korea is Magpie Brewing Co. Magpie was founded by four friends in 2011, a year before the controversial article. In 2012, the brewery opened its first brew shop in the sleepy neighborhood of Kyoungridan with just a single pale ale on tap. Four years later, Magpie moved to the north side of Jeju Island as it renovated an abandoned tangerine warehouse. Guided by its tenets of maintaining balance and drinkability in their beers, Magpie currently caters four core beers and several seasonals.
SPECIALTY COFFEE IN KOREA: A NOT-SO-CONTROVERSIAL START
Unlike beer, specialty coffee in Korea emerged in a less controversial fashion. The scene hails Seo Deuk-sik as its coffee godfather who has been in the business for more than three decades and is best known as the founder of Kaldi Coffee in Gyeonggi. Further, in-house roasted coffee is the trend in Korea, with local roasters usually producing seven to 14 kilograms of coffee per batch. Roasters such as Anthracite can produce 70 to 100 kilograms of coffee per batch, supplying mostly to local shops and high-end hotels.
Another local roasting company is Fritz Coffee, the brainchild of the 2014 Korean National Barista Champion, Park Geunha, together with five other friends. Fritz is one of the first coffee companies in the country to source beans directly from producers and roast these in-house. Currently, the company sells three flagship blends, Old Dog, Everything Good, and Seoul Cinema, on top of their single-origin beans, cold-brewed offerings, and drip coffee bags.
THE FIRST TRAIN
The First Train (8.1% ABV) is the caffeinated version of Magpie’s flagship Baltic Porter, Last Train. First Train is released multiple times in a year using different single-origin beans roasted by Fritz Coffee. According to Ethan Katz, head brewer of Magpie, this beer is designed to highlight the unique flavors from different beans sourced and roasted by the team at Fritz. “When we hit the right notes, it’s amazing how well the beans and beer play together!”
This batch features beans from the Las Lajas farm in Costa Rica which has been operated by the Chacón Solano family for over 80 years and three generations. The farm is located 1,300 to 1,500 meters above sea level in the foothills of the Poás volcano in the Sabanilla de Alajuela region of Costa Rica. This lush and fertile area experiences regular-to-heavy rainfall for 150 days of the year– conducive conditions to cultivate Arabica coffee, primarily the Caturra and Catuaí varietals. The harvesting season on the farm begins in December and ends in February. This variant of First Train is expected to showcase the salient characteristics of the Guatemala- Bosques de San Francisco Pacamara (Washed), particularly notes of apple cider, red wine, and brown sugar.
This beer is being evaluated as a Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer (30A) with the Baltic Porter (9C) as the base style in the context of the 2015 Beer Style Guidelines of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). The most current version of the guidelines can be found on the BJCP website.
First Train pours dark reddish-brown in color. Despite the dark appearance, the beer allows some light to permeate. The nose evokes aromas of licorice, peppers, coffee, and syrup. This Baltic Porter has a light-to-medium body with flavor characteristics of sweet licorice, espresso, dark chocolate bitterness, cola, and a malty backbone. The acidic flavors, particularly of grapes, come after the sip and are met with the familiar notes of cola and dark chocolate bitterness.
Despite the complex flavors and high alcohol content, First Train stays true to the Magpie creed of brewing well-balanced and drinkable beers. We are quite impressed with how the coffee beans contributed to the overall acidity of this beer while maintaining the rich dark profile of a Baltic Porter.
Beers brewed with coffee such as First Train show what wonders craft beer can do to coffee and vice versa.
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“이번 첫차는 캔으로!” : 해마다 도착하는 ‘맥파이X프릳츠’ 콜라보, 커피발틱포터 첫차🚂 올해 프릳츠와 함께 고른 스페셜티 원두는 ‘과테말라 보스케스 데 샌프란시스코 파카마라☕️’입니다. 과테말라에서 6대째 이어오고 있는 커피농장에서 공수! 예년보다 커피와 맥주의 조화가 더 좋다는 게 프릳츠 스태프들의 반응입니다. 커피러버, 비어러버 모두에게 특별한 경험을 선사할 2019 첫차 캔. 오직 프릳츠 전지점에서만 구입가능!🛍 😋 #맥파이 #프릳츠 #콜라보맥주 #커피발틱포터 #첫차 #한정캔 #firsttrain #coffeebalticporter #MagpieXFritz First Train is baaaaaaaack! 🚂 One of our first and most loved collabs is with our friends at @FritzCoffeeCompany. For each edition we choose a new specialty coffee: ‘Guatemala Bosques de San Francisco, Pacamara’ comes from the oldest coffee farm in 🇬🇹Guatemala, now operated by the 5th & 6th generations. The staff at Fritz say this edition is even better than last year’s! Available for the first time in cans, and ONLY at Fritz Coffee locations across Seoul! Psst…it’s also on tap at the brewery!
References and Further Reading:
- The History of Coffee in Korea (Fiera Milano)
- The Korean godfather of charcoal-roasted coffee (CNN Travel)
- The Rise of South Korea’s Craft Brewing Scene (Vice)
- Brewing in South Korea: Fiery Food, Boring Beer (The Economist)
- Magpie Brewing Co.
- Fritz Coffee Company
- Six friends build a hipster cafe in the heart of old Seoul in a blend of old and new (CNA Lifestyle)
- Finca Las Lajas (Coffee Hunter)