In a truly uncompetitive market, governed by an oligopoly or duopoly, consumers would see both inferior products akin to the type Korean brewers offerand high prices. However, Korean beer is actually reasonably priced, more so than, say, poorer Thailand. Between 1970 and 2011, Korean food staples and bus fares increased by 50 times; beer, only seven times. In that period, Korea’s GDP per capita rose about 12 times in real terms. Beer has effectively gotten cheaper for the average Korean.
Korean beer manufacturers shout they can produce better beer, but cite market research which shows the average consumer prefers the bland watery adjunct lagers already on the market.
So whose fault is it for lousy Korean brews? The brewers and their government mistress or the consumers? Let’s examine the raw data. Koreans consume, per capita, 38.5 liters of beer annually, almost exactly half the amount consumed by Americans. When you look at the per capita consumption of alcohol though, the Koreans consume slightly more than the Americans – 8.9 liters vs 8.6 liters. This tells us that Koreans aren’t teetotalers. They’re just consuming most of their alcohol in forms other than beer.
The Guardian wrote an article how soju is now the most popular booze in the world, selling twice as much as any other. In 2013, 65 million 9-liter cases of soju were sold. Soju takes 97% of the spirits market in Korea. The drink has been around for over six centuries in Korea. You can be sure that many people who would’ve sipped beer in countries where soju is unknown sip soju or somaek (soju mixed with beer) in Korea.
Beer just doesn’t matter as much. In such a high stress society, Koreans take to the bottle for the purposes of inebriation. Soju gets them to salvation faster. If a Korean wants something lighter in alcohol, a beer will do, but a 4.5% ABV industrial watery Korean lager is just as efficient at doing the job as a 4.5% ABV dry-hopped hand-crafted pilsner.
The Koreans didn’t invent the phrase “a beer is a beer is a beer,” but they might as well have. I’ve heard the phrase, via translation, more times in Korea than I ever heard it anywhere else. Korean spending habits on beers show the adage is alive and well.
Korea has proven it has the technological know how to mimic the best of advanced economies and turn that into solid export moneymakers. Just take a look at their electronics and automotive industries. More so than most nations, Koreans could craft some of the finest brews on the planet if they wanted to. They don’t want to. The majority of Korean consumers are content with watery slop. They won’t pay the extra buck or two for an import at eMart. ABV, not taste, is the top consideration. Therefore, why should the conglomerates invest in higher quality ingredients to provide better brews?
Not all hope is lost. When the two Koreas eventually re-unite, South Korea can build on the tasty North Korean beer infrastructure …. or choose to water it down.
I’d place my bets on the latter.