Magpies, Pizza Pies and Good Beer

Magpie Brewing Co. beer menu

Seoul’s evening rush hour had peaked and traffic was clipping along the wide avenue when our driver began to slow the taxi. He came to a stop in a gas station driveway and pointed up to a street sign affixed to a building. I’m pretty sure what he said in Korean was, “Here’s your alley.” Hugo and I were barely out the door before he drove off, leaving us in the dark at the mouth of a crooked alley.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel so sure about what I’d gotten us into. What if the concierge of the posh hotel had gotten the address wrong? Or the doorman had translated incorrectly when he gave instructions to the taxi driver? With all the crooked alleys in Seoul, what if our driver had deposited us at the wrong one? And what kind of brewpub would have its main entrance in an alley so small that a taxi couldn’t even drive up to the door? Hugo had been fighting a lingering chest cold, and I’d him made him come out in the dark with temperatures in the forties and falling. What if we couldn’t hail a taxi to get back to the hotel? We couldn’t even make a call on our cell phones in Korea. Magpie Brewing Co. had better live up to its 4.6 stars in 36 Goggle reviews.

I stared into the alley—and there, God bless Greg Koch and Steve Wagner—sat a Stone Brewing refrigerator! A few steps further, a tiny shop advertised “craft brewery.” We were definitely headed in the right direction, although I’d done some research on Seoul craft breweries and, unlike Magpie, this little place hadn’t come up once.

God bless Stone Brewing

God bless Stone Brewing

We pressed on. Near the twist in the alley, we discovered a set of double doors and a sign saying, “Magpie Brewing Co.” I pulled on the door handle, only to find it locked. No way! The concierge had even called to confirm they were open. I tugged at both locked doors and groaned.

No luck, no Magpie

No luck, no Magpie

By the end of the crooked alley, we’d found no signs of a brewpub or anymore craft beer. Heading back, we noticed stairs leading to a basement door and, painted on the wall, “Magpie Brewing Co.”

The magic Magpie stairwell

The magic Magpie stairway

This time, the door not only opened; it led us to one of those exotic pub experiences craft beer enthusiasts dream of finding.  From behind the bar, a blond bearded and pony-tailed Anglo man greeted us in English and held out a beer menu.

Magpie's French bartender, Guillaume Fenaille

Magpie’s French bartender, Guillaume Feraille

“You have flights?” I asked. This drew a blank from the Guillaume, the French bartender, and Juhui, the female Korean bartender working beside him. I showed a couple of photos on my phone. Both nodded and immediately went to work. Voilà, within two minutes, an impromptu eight-beer flight lined the bar before me.

Impromptu Magpie flight

Impromptu Magpie flight

I started with the Kölsch, observing, sniffing, tasting, waiting for the aftertastes while the bartenders watched expectantly. In countries where the craft beer scene is just developing, the general level of sophistication among consumers is frequently not where it is in countries with plenty of well-established craft breweries. Too often, what passes as craft beer can be mediocre at best. So, I was keeping my expectations in check for Magpie, which according to the very nice website, only began its own brewing last year. Interestingly, the brewery is actually located on southern Jeju Island, which means added expenses and quality challenges for transporting the product to market.

I sniffed the Kölsch some more and took a second sip. The maltiness was coming through nicely. There was a sweetness to the aftertaste that my brewing consultant husband had warned me I was going to find in some beers here since Koreans aren’t accustomed to hoppy beer and the bitterness that offsets sweetness. I was surprised to see it listed with 23 IBUs (International Bittering Units). It was a darn decent Kölsch. I shared my opinion with Guillaume, who had been watching as though he were observing a master BJCP judge, which I certainly am not. He appeared pleased and a little relieved.

With the second sample, the American pale ale, the stats again showed 23 IBUs, considerably less than a typical U.S. APA like Sierra Nevada with 38 IBU’s or Zombie Dust with 50. I did notice the bitterness more than in the Kölsch and found Magpie’s pale ale really quite pleasant. The wheat brew was right in stylistic range, with the expected banana, clovey flavor from the yeast. The salty Gose was even more pleasing for my palate. The Belgian wit, amber ale and three porters all held their own, too.

While Juhui was called away early on, Guillaume came and went over the next hour, chatting with us as often as he could. I’ve forgotten whether his favorite brew was the Last Train Porter or the First Train Porter. Not a coffee drinker, I told him I had to go with the Robust Porter as my favorite of the eight beers. Hugo, meanwhile, was happily chatting and working his way through a pint of pale ale and the house pizza we’d ordered.

Heading back out of the alley, we realized we had walked right past Magpie Brewshop which faces a small patio area. Behind the bar, we could see Juhui pouring beers. My one regret is that I didn’t go in and get her photo because she was such  a knowledgeable and attentive bartender.

To all Magpie’s great brewers and bartenders, 건배 (Cheers!)

Magpie's Brewshop

Magpie’s Brewshop and patio

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