For a year and a half, sometime back in the mid-1990s, I lived and worked in Pusan, South Korea. I had a fabulous time there and think very fondly of the country and the people I met there. Immersing oneself in a foreign culture can be a very eye-opening experience, and sometimes it’s the little things that stand out: how Koreans use two hands when shaking or handing something to a person in order to show respect, how English words and phrases were used in very random ways on products and shirts and store names, how the public telephones all had a “report a spy” button, how–long before cell phones became ubiquitous here–my junior high school students in Korea seemed to all have pagers. At the time I was there, I was a beer-lover, but with only a few years of legal drinking experience under my belt, I was definitely a neo-phyte. Still, I had to try Korean beers. I found them… uh, lackingI guess would be the best way to put it. Standard, mass-produced lagers. Not worth writing home about, even to someone who–at the time–thought of Leinie’s Red as somewhat exotic. One thing that did strike me as noteworthy, though, was that Korean beers only ever came in bomber-sized bottles. They were probably some metric quantity as opposed to 22 oz., but the point is that they were more than one serving in a single bottle.
Why did this fact stand out to me? Well, back in the mid-1990s, that bottle size was rare for American beers. Colt 45, perhaps the King of Shame in the American beer court, was the only widely available large format beer available. Keep in mind that the plethora of craft breweries we have now did not exist then. The microbreweries that were in operation then either didn’t sell in Wisconsin where I could get them or they primarily produced packs of 12 or 16 oz. bottles because that was what people expected. So why did Korea have mostly large format as the default bottle size? Because of culture.
Mainstream American culture is individualistic. That is, the individual is the smallest functional operative in cultural identity. We have a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Our cultural heroes are often individuals who buck the trends and stand out, carving their own paths, making their own rules. The lonesome cowboy, the rugged individual. When that cowboy wants to drink, he pops open a single-serve bottle of beer. He’ll drink when he wants to, dammit, whether or not there’s another cowpoke with him. After all, it’s a big, wide-open country with lots of desolate, empty areas.
Mainstream Korean culture is collectivistic. The family is the smallest functional operative unit in cultural identity. Korea follows a Confucian model, where there are a series of loyalties and responsibilities, such as children must obey parents and teachers. Don’t tell me we have that here, too, because it’s not the same — Teachers in Korea have AUTHORITY. Parents can and do make decisions for the children even after their children reach adulthood. One’s identity springs from to whom and to what you belong: your family, your job, etc. Also important in the shaping of Korean culture is the fact that the country is approximately the same size as Wisconsin, yet it has around 50 million people compared to Wisconsin’s 5 million or so. And Korea is quite mountainous and, generally, people don’t build homes or apartments on the mountains. So…less elbow room. Being alone, especially in public, strikes some Koreans as a bit strange. Drinking alone in public? Even stranger. Of course you will be drinking with your friends or colleagues or family, so beer needs to come in a bottle for you to share! (Oh, and you shouldn’t pour your own glass; that’s just unseemly. Make sure to fill up any of your companion’s empty glasses.)
It struck me just last week when I was rifling through our beer cellar that at least half of the beer Mr. NN and I buy nowadays is large format. Craft brewers do still make beer in 4- and 6-packs of 12 oz. bottles (or sometimes a 4-pack of 16 oz. bottles), but they put their special beers in bottles to share. If you are a responsible beer-drinker, you don’t see a bomber or a 750ml and think, “Okay, that one is all mine.” (Okay, you might think that, but then you might want to attend an AA meeting later on.) How amazing is that? The size of the bottle affects your social life — if you want that tasty beverage, you need to find someone to share it with you. That one change is bringing beer to the table around which a community sits. The Koreans had that figured out long, long ago. (Sadly, I see now that OB Lager, one of the predominant Korean beer companies– no relation to the tampon company — now sells single-serving bottles. Their culture is shifting, too.)
So Thanksgiving was last week, and many Americans found themselves sitting around a table with their community. For my part, I share a 750ml of Smokin’ Jack, my smoked pumpkin beer. Sadly, there was no pumpkin pie to have with it. (Can it really be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? Jury’s still out on that one.) The next day, I did all my Black Friday shopping at Rogers Park Fine Wine & Spirits in Chicago. They had several Dogfish Head beers and I bought them all: Sah-Tea, Namaste, Theobroma, Black & Blue, Ta’Henket, and a 4-pack of Chicory Stout. We also picked up bombers of a Pipeworks beer (Chicago-based) and Uinta (Utah-based), both unavailable here in Minnesota. Some of these, Mr. NN and I will just be sharing with each other. Others, we will invite friends over to enjoy — and by buying these beers, those plans are already cooking in our brains.
Alas, I almost had a moment of Scrooge McDuck-itude. A friend of ours invited us to an artistic performance gathering that was part holiday party and part cabaret. We were told that people usually bring something to eat (vegetarian only) or something to drink. Other than our one friend, we would know no one else. Mr. NN insisted that we bring a beer, but we didn’t think about it until it was time to leave our hotel. The only things chilled were a couple of Dogfish Head beers — ones that cost $15 per bottle. We would only be able to get another Dogfish Head the next time we came to Chicago, which is usually only a once or twice yearly event. Reluctantly, I agreed to part with the Sah-Tea, knowing that at least Mr. NN and I would get a taste of it. This beer is DH’s version of a traditional Finnish beer called “sahti” which is brewed with juniper berries. DH also uses rye and then — in a stroke of brilliance — adds black chai. Finland meets India in a bottle, basically. It was wonderful, a rich farmhouse-type of body with the zing of juniper which pairs well with the cardamom and ginger in the chai seasoning. Yes, I would be sad that I would have less than my usual portion of this incredible beer, having to give up the rest to strangers….
But then I heard and saw the reaction of those strangers. These were not Bud Lite-swigging fools, they were people who appreciated craft. These strangers enjoyed our beer, and some of them were no longer strangers by the end of the evening. That is the magic of good beer.