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Korea Blog: Why Has Korea Hired Gordon Ramsay to Be Its Big Brother?

A few months ago, a somehow youthfully hardened face familiar to Westerners started to pop up in advertisements all over Seoul: that of Gordon Ramsay, the British Michelin-starred celebrity chef known for television shows in which he profanely and remorselessly shouts down culinary incompetence in his own restaurants and elsewhere. His sudden prevalence in Korea comes as less of a surprise than the product it promotes: Cass, the flagship beer of Oriental Brewery (OB), one of the few domestic mega-producers who dominated the South Korean beer market for decades and decades effectively without competition — and thus an unexpected object of favor from such an aggressive enemy of complacency in matters of food and drink.

Not that long ago, anybody in Korea who didn’t want to drink Cass could choose only from Hite, Max, or whatever else the conglomerate-owned breweries felt like bringing to market, for all of which even the most nationalistic Korean drinker could only summon one credible defense: that they do the job just fine after a few rounds of powerfully spiced food accompanied by soju, when even good beers won’t have much flavor. This dire situation only began to change about five years ago, when then-Economist correspondent Daniel Tudor took the heavily regulated local brewing industry to task with an article headlined “Fiery Food, Boring Beer.”

In it Tudor, who has since published the popular book Korea: The Impossible Countryand opened a chain of pizza pubs, wrote that “South Korean diners would not tolerate bland kimchi (cabbage pickled in garlic and chili) or sannakji (fresh chopped octopus, still wriggling on the plate), so why do they swill boring beer?” He also dared to venture that “brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South. The North’s Taedonggang Beer, made with equipment imported from Britain, tastes surprisingly good.” In recent years, changes in the relevant laws have liberalized the market for imported and domestic craft beers, creating the conditions for a challenge that Korea’s hulking legacy brewers would sooner or later have to come up with a way to counter.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.