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CASTLE MALTING NEWS in partnership with www.e-malt.com
04 June, 2020

Malting news North Korea & China: North Korea keeps importing roasted malt from China despite pandemic

Since the 2002 debut of the Taedonggang Beer Factory, North Korean beer has been a source of national pride — from the ubiquitous brew itself to the drafts available at Pyongyang’s high-quality microbreweries, NK News reported on June 2.

Romantic marketing often highlights the beer’s wholly domestic production. Taedonggang, for instance, uses “water of the River Taedong, barley of South Hwanghae Province and hops of Ryanggang Province,” or so state media claims.

But an analysis of Chinese trade data may put a dent in these boasts: for a country that both loves its beer and faces insufficient agriculture production, the industry may be reliant on imports of roasted malt from China, with over 2.6 million kilos brought in last year.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic providing a natural experiment for which commodities prove “essential” to the DPRK, continued imports of Chinese roasted malt point to the persistent and patriotic demand for a product requiring malted grain: beer.

The Korean peninsula has enjoyed roasted barley malt drinks for centuries, mostly in the form of barley tea.

But beer became popular in Korea during the Japanese occupation and was brewed locally until the DPRK founded the Taedonggang factory by importing and re-assembling a complete English factory in the early 2000s.

The state’s unusual sponsorship of the industry (Taedonggang was one of the first, if not the first, DPRK television advert) coupled with the beverage’s natural appeal makes beer one of the few commodities in food-strapped North Korea exploding in both demand and production, with brands such as Ponghak, Rakwon, and Kwangbok springing up.

All that beer means a lot of barley and rice diverted for brewing, in a country that has little arable land (outside experts say between 15 to 25%) and underdeveloped production technology.

Data analysis of state-sponsored media saw mentions of “beer” (Korean maekju “맥주”), “Taedonggang,” and “대동강” (which also is the translation for the Taedong River) rising from 2010 and accelerating around 2014 before peaking and falling just before 2020.

But the recent nosedive in newspaper beer mentions doesn’t mean the demand for beer has diminished.

“Taedonggang beer never skipped despite winter cold,” ran a February headline of the Pyongyang Times, implying that the state can either ensure, or merely wants people to believe, that beer supply will meet the voracious “demand… [that] does not decline a bit even in winter.”

This cheery outlook for the continued flow of ale contends with multiple reports, even from state media itself, that food production, including beer precursors barley and rice, has declined over the past decade amid a series of droughts.

More than 10 million North Koreans face malnutrition and require “urgent” assistance, a United Nations report said last month.

And yet beer continues to be made, drunk, and even exported.

According to Chinese trade data, North Korea was able to sell over 488,000 litres or $195,000 worth of beer to China, 46,000 litres of which were destined for re-export to other countries.

As North Korea faces both a growing demand for beer and falling cereal yields, Chinese barley imports (and roasted malt in particular) present the only real solution to square both realities.

As beer boomed in state media mentions over 2017 through 2019, China exported huge amounts of roasted malt to North Korea: 1,275,000 kg in 2017, 788,000 kg in 2018, and 2,608,000 kg in 2019.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which was represented in Chinese trade data starting in February, could not stop the shipment of 50,000 kg in April out of an “essential” 165 commodities.

The Chinese General Administration of Customs (GAC) defines malt in only two categories, unroasted and roasted, so the various grades of toasted malt used by brewers would all fall under the “roasted” category.

Roasted malt could be used for barley tea, or as malt syrup for use in baked goods, but the commodity is commonly associated with beer production, say industry experts.

At quantities of 2.9 million kilos a year, “I don’t know what else they could be using it for,” says Vic Chouchanian, co-owner and brewer at San Fernando Brewing Company.

“Roasted malt is an incredibly important backbone of a lot of beers,” he told NK News. Without it, “half the beers craft brewers make probably wouldn’t be made… Most of our beers use some kind of roasted malt.”

When told Taedonggang’s most popular product, Taedonggang No. 2, was a Pilsner using a recipe of 30% rice and 70% barley malt, Chouchanian said, “I could see them going through that much grain easily.”

As the owner of a commercial production, “we’d never roast it ourselves, we would just source it.”

Daniel Tudor, co-author of “North Korean Confidential” and founder of the Booth Brewing Company microbrewery, agrees.

“Generally speaking, it may be very difficult to do everything locally. You get barley from one place and hops from another place. And there are instances where you might want to… for branding purposes and taste.”

Tudor demurred saying if the revelation that North Korean beers used Chinese malt would matter to consumers.

Reading a Taedonggang label over the phone, he said: “It’s not like they’re absolutely saying that everything comes from the domestic market; they’re also not saying that there are foreign ingredients.”

Besides, he said, despite beer’s positive presence in state media, the beverage was still “slightly upmarket,” drunk in cities with state breweries or hotel/restaurant microbreweries.


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