At Dokkaebier, an Asian-inspired brewery in Oakland, California, the michelada receives a multicultural remix. Instead of Tajín, taproom bartenders rim a glass with kimchi spices, before adding lime juice, briny Clamato, and the brewery’s tart and spicy Kimchi Sour. The Kimchilada, as it’s called, is just one way Dokkaebier is introducing craft beer to a historically underserved audience.
“There are around 19 million Asian Americans living in the country, but nobody’s marketing craft beer to us,” says Korean-American CEO Youngwon Lee. “That’s untapped potential.”
In a beer landscape awash in hazy IPAs, Dokkaebier distinguishes itself with beers featuring traditional Asian ingredients, including the Lemongrass Witbier spiced with Sichuan peppercorns; bright and citrusy Yuza Blonde; and a crisp pilsner infused with bamboo tea. The taproom’s best seller is the beer flight. “People want to come and taste all the flavors that we create,” says Lee.
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Born in Korea, Lee grew up in Guam and New Jersey before moving to Seoul in 2008 and working in the beverage industry. He moved to California in 2017 to run the U.S. operations for Booth Brewing, a South Korean craft brewery, before founding Dokkaebier in 2019. (The brewery is named after Korea’s folkloric dokkaebi, playful shapeshifting creatures that love eating and drinking.)
Dokkaebier debuted in February 2020 with a San Francisco pop-up taproom serving gochujang-marinated octopus and Korean fried chicken alongside its beers. The timing was inauspicious. In response to the pandemic, the city of San Francisco issued stay-at-home orders on March 17. “We had one month to showcase our beer, but that created word of mouth in the community,” says Lee.
Like many businesses, the pandemic forced Lee to pivot to takeout and delivery. “It was survival, but we also knew we had to prove our concept,” says Lee. After the taproom and kitchen closed that June, Dokkaebier focused on production and distribution. It shipped beers to customers’ front doors and found shelf space in Asian supermarkets such as H Mart, where mass-market Asian lagers such as Sapporo and Hite filled the fridges. “There wasn’t a premium choice,” says Lee.
Securing store placements didn’t ensure sales for beers like its milk stout spiced with cardamom and green peppercorn. “It’s critical for customers to experience [our beers] firsthand,” says Lee. The Dokkaebier team doubled down on in-person tastings, attending more than 50 beer events last year alone.
For most breweries, taprooms offer a flavorful welcome to a brand’s lineup. But since shuttering its pop-up, Dokkaebier lacked a brick-and-mortar location. That changed this April when Dokkaebier acquired Oakland’s Federation Brewing, taking over its taproom and production facility. “It was a turnkey operation,” says Lee, adding that Dokkaebier retained Federation’s staff and will continue to produce its beers, including a West Coast IPA and golden ale.
The taproom now attracts a growing Asian customer base and hosts culinary pop-ups that might include Filipino cuisine or Korean-inspired pizza. In May, Dokkaebier drew more than 3,000 people to its inaugural Chimaek Festival, a block party dedicated to fried chicken and beer—a popular combination in Korea. “I wanted to bring that culture here,” says Lee, who plans to make the festival an annual tradition.
Going forward, Lee plans to use Dokkaebier’s Oakland location as an experimental playground for novel beers. The brewery also began exporting its beer to Germany, and has since expanded into New Jersey and New York. Dokkaebier also collaborated with Black Desert, an online game that includes a dokkaebi character, to create a limited-edition gift package. Even a roleplaying game can become a bridge to drinking Bamboo Pilsner.
“We’re exposing more people to craft beer to try something new,” says Lee.
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Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.