Everyone who is involved with North Korea will have heard of Taedonggang Beer, the country’s premier alcoholic beverage, so named after the river which runs through central Pyongyang. Many tour groups get the opportunity to visit the drink’s famous brewery, meaning throughout every trip there are abundant opportunities to try it. But did you for any moment ever stop and wonder where Taedonggang for that matter, its brewery, came from? Probably not. It’s not something that would be at the front of our minds. Yet, in this situation, the answer might actually surprise you. Like most things in North Korea, Taedonggang beer has a unique and somewhat bizarre backstory behind it, once which doesn’t begin within the country itself, but starts westwards thousands of miles away in a small town in rural England…
Trowbridge, Wiltshire. A fairly unremarkable market town in the South of England. It’s really your stereotypical kind of “English” rural settlement. Small, quiet, sleepy even. On a national level, it was famous for one thing: its local beer brand. From the 19th century to the early 2000s, the town operated a small brewery known as “Ushers of Trowbridge“, in which its signature drink was named.
By the end of the 20th century, however, rising production costs saw smaller breweries begin to struggle. Signature local brands, such as Newcastle’s Brown Ale, for example, were being snapped up by giant multinationals as their local suppliers simply buckled. Usher’s would meet the same fate. In 1999, Trowbridge’s signature local brewery ultimately closed its doors for the last time. The brand would be later purchased by the same company which produces “Hobgoblin” in Southern England, meaning it continues to exist today.
Of course, where does North Korea come in? The old brewery itself would put its equipment up for sale, but who ended up purchasing it was far from what the owner expected. Gary Todd, former head brewer at the company, recalls that he received a visit from 12 men, consisting of government officials and engineers. North Korea had been informed of the site and its status through the recruit of a German broker, obtained through contacts in the country’s Swiss Embassy.
He had to give extensive briefings on how it all worked, something which was completely fascinating to them. They would pay him $1.5 million for the equipment, something which was back then possible before today’s sanctions in environment. The equipment was then shipped in trucks between Towbridge and the nearest port at Avonmouth, where it would be shipped all the way to Wonsan. UK customs had ultimately given the shipping the green light, again something that would not be possible in today’s environment
Finally making its way back to Pyongyang, the imported equipment would ultimately become the Taedonggang brewery in 2002, the start of a professional brewing industry in the country. From here, the new drink would become quite iconic, a favourite among foreigners visiting. Other state companies would eventually copy and create their own brands, such as Ponghak.
So next time you’re in North Korea and tuck into a drink of its most famous beverage, make sure you spare a thought for Trowbridge in Wiltshire, the real innovator of Pyongyang booze!