A popular beer with foreigners, Ponghak is one of the most unique beers produced in the DPRK
Located just outside Pyongsong city limits is an area known as Ponghak. Ask any of the locals about this otherwise nondescript area and they will tell you it’s known for three things – bee’s, spring water and beer.
Hidden away in a small valley of this area is the Ponghak Foodstuffs Factory. The location of the factory was chosen as there is a natural water spring hidden in the valley. Using this fresh spring water, the factory produces bottled spring water, soft drink, soju and most famously Ponghak Beer.
Ponghak Foodstuffs Factory is one of the country’s oldest beer breweries with construction starting in 1978. The factory started producing beer for the masses in 1982 and has been doing so consistently ever since apart from some breaks for renovations & expansion.
The beer produced here follows, as the brewery manager advised the author, an older process that relies on giving the fermentation and conditioning processes time to do their work. They also mention that they use different sugars in their beer compared to other breweries which helps impart a richer flavour to their beer.
The factory produces beer in a rich pale lager style and offers it in two versions – Ponghak 11 and Ponghak 12 with the number corresponding to the beer’s degree plato measurement, or in simpler terms how much sugar was used which then correlates to the beer’s alcohol content and flavour. Ponghak 12 is the more popular beer as it has a bolder flavour in comparison to Ponghak 11.
People tasting Ponghak for the first time are usually impressed by its flavour compared to the more widely encountered Taedonggang Beer #2. Sweet notes reminiscent of honey or syrup flow through, followed by a slightly bitter, hoppy taste typical for the style of beer. It’s a beer you drink to enjoy.
Getting to the Ponghak Brewery
Visiting the Ponghak brewery is a unique experience compared to other breweries in the country. We visit the source of the spring water, the spring water bottling plant and then watch a very informative video on the production of Ponghak beer, but at this stage the brewery building itself is not setup to be able to accept visitors.
At the end of the tour you are treated to a picnic on the factory grounds amongst tall pine trees with servings of fresh fruit, sausage and the ubiquitous dried Pollack. The real highlight of this picnic though is your only chance to drink fresh Ponghak beer – both Ponghak 11 and Ponghak 12 – unpasteurised and fresh out of conditioning. This is the peak Ponghak experience.
The brewery staff confirm that after being bottled and passing through the pasteurisers the flavour of the beer changes, so it’s not possible to drink Ponghak like this anywhere else in North Korea. As a seasoned drinker of Ponghak beer, I find it very delicious. It’s the Ponghak I already know, but on a higher level, more well rounded and very drinkable.
Among North Korea’s locally produced beers dominated by light, refreshing lagers, Ponghak stands out for its uniqueness. It’s a fact not lost on their Brewery Manager – they know of the positive feedback Ponghak beer receives from foreigners and beer experts because of its unique taste. They are proud of their beer and when pushed on if there was anything they would change about it, they say no. People enjoy their beer already, so they will not be making changes to their product. Even as technology improves, they will still be making their beer the same way they have been since they started.
If you’re interested in trying fresh Ponghak beer for yourself you can only do so at this point in time as part of specialised group tours such as Koryo Tours' Brewery Industry Tour. The next edition is to be confirmed, but get in touch to be kept up to date. Otherwise expect to come across bottled Ponghak beer at least once on any of our tours of North Korea.
“What about the bee’s?” you ask... The area of Ponghak is also home to North Korea’s Bee Institute’s ‘Bee Experiment Station’ where they are working on developing “superior species of bees”. The institute itself is a part of North Korea’s Academy of Agricultural Science.
Koryo Tours recommends all travellers to drink responsibly. Drinking is a major part of social life in Korea among friends indoors and outdoors on some public holidays, however, public displays of drunkenness or rowdy behaviour are strongly discouraged.