US Department of Defense: The Best Brewers in South Korea

dragon hill beer

The best beer in South Korea is brewed by the US Armed Forces in Yongsan Garrison, dead in the centre of Seoul. The base itself is for all intents, a small American town, albeit an American hamlet with the purpose of keeping the North Koreans in North Korea. There’s a hotel, shopping mall, free cinema, schools, a Taco Bell next to the Starbucks, a Harley-Davidson salesman, lawn-fringed beige houses that look transplanted from some faceless Midwest American exurb. An arms contractor had set up display tents in front of mall; soldiers on lunchbreak pawed at the heavy automatic weapons and stared down high-powered scopes at a Lexus in a distant parking lot. Soldiers bought American taxpayer-subsidised Xboxes and Clinique cosmetics inside the US Army’s perfect simulation of Wal-Mart. Transactions were in US Dollars only, the Korean Won unsuitable as currency. The church had a signboard advertising its summer Bible camp.

Save for the large number of camouflaged American inhabitants, jarhead haircuts and the flagrant display of high-tech killing machines, the base looks like one of the many gated communities that are spreading throughout the outskirts of Southeast Asia’s major cities: those new ghettoes of the freshly-minted Asian middle class who are just as scared of the inner city as their Western counterparts. It’s a strange place to exist in the centre of the Korean metropolis, all the more stranger that they are brewing amber ale.

Dragon Hill Lodge on the base is one of four luxury hotels owned by the US Department of Defense, built to serve holidaying active and retired military members and their families. Originally established as Hartnell House in Pusan in 1950, during the course of the Korean War it has been shifted between Taegu to Seoul several times before being laid to rest on Dragon Hill. While it was purpose-built as an Armed Forces luxury hotel, a few of the older red brick offices still in use on the camp were built by the Japanese, who occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. The new foreign protectors taking the place of the old colonisers may have made tactical sense but for the previously colonised, it must look like business as usual. As a commercial enterprise, the hotel can’t be faulted. Last year it earned millions for America’s army and does business of a similar magnitude to its family of “Armed Forces Recreation Centers” in Germany, Hawaii and Disneyworld, Florida.

In the basement of Dragon Hill lies Oasis Restaurant, an ersatz Tex-Mex outlet. Their all-you-can-eat buffet runs the gamut of tortillas, guacamole, frijoles, Texas-style hickory smoked pork ribs with a choice of three barbecue sauces, Buffalo wings and burgers. Lobster was on special. Cola comes served in individual pitchers for each diner. Their amber ale is a genuine surprise, soldiers being enterprising but somewhat unconventional brewers.

When I was doing a little research on Grape Nuts for a previous blog post, I came across a rumour that during the Gulf War, US Armed Forces went a little crazy for the Nuts. While I couldn’t find anyone to confirm it with, Grape Nuts make a serviceable substitute for malt when attempting to brew beer under desperate lager-free combat circumstances. The Gulf being both a beer- and malt-free environment, bored soldiers stationed in the endless desert ordered and consumed tons of Grape Nuts. Yeast can be collected from either the air, sourdough-style; or fermented from bread. To substitute for hops, you would need a bittering agent of any description. Mix it all together with water in a clean jerry can with a makeshift airlock and in a few weeks it would make for a grisly ale, but ale nonetheless. Armies do not tend to be valued for their brewing prowess but their ingenuity cannot be faulted, which is why Dragon Hill Amber Ale is such a brilliant display of nonconformity to character.

The ale misses a good head but is packed full of malt and a jolting dose of fragrant hops, with a little aluminium flavour on the back palate. It’s a beer that for a moment makes you forget that you’re in Korea, fighting a war where there hasn’t been a casualty in years, staring north at an enemy who is busy both starving to death and targeting you, in the middle of a transplanted Middle American town.

How to get from Kep to Phu Quoc in a day

After doing the most scant research on the Internet, it seems that although many people mention that the new border crossing between Prek Chak in Cambodia and Xa Xia/Ha Tien in Vietnam is open to foreigners, nobody tells you how to get from Kep to Phu Quoc in a day or that two of the world’s best seaside destinations are now less than 12 hours apart. Here’s how:

From Kep/Kampot, catch a tuk tuk, taxi or moto to the border, departing no later than 8:00am (if you were keen on an early start, you might attempt a taxi at dawn from Phnom Penh). The price seems to be set at $15 for tuk tuks but this should drop. The last section of the dirt road to the border post has turned from OK to horrific over the wet season and is unapproachable by tuk tuk. We swapped onto some motorbikes for the last two kilometres and negotiated with them to take us all the way over the border to the Ha Tien bus station, a few kilometres into Vietnam and just over the bridge from Ha Tien town for $3. The border post is unassuming, being a few sheds on the Cambodian side and a huge edifice on the Vietnam side. Getting through the post is fast and neither side asked for a bribe. Visas for either country are not available at the border.

The journey from Kep to Ha Tien bus station took roughly two and a half hours. Although we’d heard that there is a ferry from Ha Tien to Phu Quoc, we couldn’t confirm this with anyone in Ha Tien and so headed onward to the speedboat at Rach Gia, about 100km away. At the bus station, there are two buses that you can catch to Rach Gia: a green express bus or a purplish slow bus. We only discovered that the express buses existed after a few passed our local bus. Local buses to Rach Gia cost about 35,000 VND which take about 3 hours depending on how often they stop to pick up passengers/crates of fish along the way.

From the Rach Gia bus station, grab a motorbike to the speedboat to Phu Quoc, which leaves at 1:30pm and arrives in Phu Quoc at 4:00pm. The speedboat is 180,000VND for foreigners, air-conditioned, and the plushest boat that I’ve been on in two years.

Total travel time from Kep to Phu Quoc: 8 hours.

As a smal addendum: I discovered the ferry from Ha Tien to Phu Quoc once we’d arrived in Phu Quoc. According to a sign painted on it, they left Ha Tien at 10:30am and weren’t at all keen on selling me a ticket.

Addendum (13 March 2009): Paul (commenter below) says the ferry from Ha Tien to Phu Quoc is now running. Can be organised through Sok Lim Tours and is even cheaper than the way that I did it.

Hite Exfeel-S: Alcoholic Colonic


Brewer: The Hite, South Korea

Beer is not good for you. In large enough quantities, it has the invariable tendency to kill you and thus gussying it up as a health food defies explanation. Labeled as the “Stylish beer with fiber”, Korea’s Hite Exfeel-S attempts to market a beer that is just as good on the way in as on the way out, and as far as I could detect, fails on both accounts. According to the press releases, “Exfeel” is meant to be a portmanteau of “excellent feeling” and the “S” is meant to stand for S-line, a strange Korean term for having the perfect hourglass figure rather than a letter to be appended to the start of “Hite”.

Hite says: “Smooth & light premium beer exclusively designed for well-being of young generation.”

I say: By adding an invisible fibre, Hite seems to have rendered the beer almost perfectly flavour-free. Lightly carbonated, no head retention. Golden colour cleverly distinguishes it from water with Braille embossed onto the bottle to help the visually-impaired come to the same conclusion. Perfect argument against low-calorie beer.

Presentation:1600ml plastic bottle

Korea: French fry-coated hot dog

frenchfry coated hotdog

If Coney Island witnessed the birth of the hot dog, Seoul in saw subsequent generations mutate into a an entirely new genus of animal. An animal coated in a skin of batter and french fries then presented deep-fried on a stick.


After first witnessing this monstrosity on Newley Purnell‘s site, I thought that chasing it down would be difficult. That it would be the type of food that only demented South Korean carnies sold for a scant few days of a State Fair until their consumers ended up in the waiting queue for a heart bypass. The taste is about as obvious as it looks: greasy but still crispy fries glued to a hotdog with a thick, neutral batter.

Hot dog on a stick: variations

It turns out that Seoul is packed full of artisan hot dog vendors. Vendors wrap them in bacon, mashed potato, corn batter or what looked to be seaweed then invariably deep fry them. I spotted three french fry-coated hotdog vendors in the narrow alleys of Myeong-dong alone and a few more in the neighbouring Namdaemun Market.

budae jiggae
home-made budae jigae

I blame this mutation on the Korean War. When meat was scarce in the years during and after the war, Koreans made do with whatever they could scavenge from the surplus from the US armed forces bases – Spam and hotdogs. To make these items edible for Koreans, the locals mixed them together with the paste gochujang in a makeshift stew named “Budae jjigae” (부대찌개) – literally “base stew”. Over the subsequent fifty years, the locals have grown to love the processed meat-flavored soup and it now graces franchise restaurant menus, the only difference being that the stew now contains actual meat along with the mechanically-separated variety.

There seems to be no particular rules to making the stew, insofar that you need gochujang and hotdogs to start, and then whatever seems to be lying about the average Korean kitchen to continue: kimchi, frozen dumplings, greens, ramen, rice cake, actual meat. 50 years of hotdog flavoured broth has to do strange things to your palate and drive you towards experimenting with hotdogs in an obscene and deep-fried manner.


Try: French Fry Coated Hot Dog on a Stick Recipe

Great eating from the white trash of Asia

A blog’s first post starts with a manifesto, bluster, and the raw energy that comes from somebody’s conviction that they have words in them that are relevant to the rest of the world. Then the blog usually dies, so I’ll get straight to the point.

In the 70s, around the time that I was born, Singapore’s erstwhile leader Lee Kuan Yew, after a few meals in Sydney pronounced Australia to be “the white trash of Asia”. He then set his nation on a course to become Australia’s most popular tourist destination. Poetic economic justice. He later recanted the statement but the “white trash” moniker sticks because it is true. Australians are still outsiders in Asia, but now, thanks to the immigration policies of long defunct governments and amazing raw ingredients, Australians cook great Asian cuisine.

So I plan to document it. in and the rest of the world.