Special Ingredient: Kimchi

It can be a polarizing dish for those who didn’t grow up with it, but there are some affinities between certain styles of beer and this fermented Korean favorite. Can you brew with it? Of course you can.

Joe Stange Apr 15, 2024 - 7 min read

Special Ingredient: Kimchi Primary Image

Photo: Yousuk Yang/Shutterstock

Can you brew a beer with kimchi? Of course. Should you brew a beer with kimchi? That is not a question we ask at the Special Ingredient laboratories. As a brewer you must first consider the ingredient, its flavors, and the potential ... and then look deep within your own dark heart.

For the most part, there are three kinds of people in this world: People who don’t know kimchi, people who’ve had kimchi and think they know something but don’t realize how little they actually know (hi, it’s me), and people from Korea.

Personally, I love the stuff. It’s fermented, spicy, sour, salty, versatile, and it’s even kind of healthy—what’s not to like? Sure, it’s an acquired taste, but all the best ones are. So, I’ll be ignoring all of you who’ve decided you hate it because it’s got cabbage or it smells funny, or whatever. Get with the program.

To review the basics, for those who didn’t grow up with it: Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish often made with chopped-up cabbage, radish, garlic, chili powder, ginger, and some brined seafood or salty fish sauce, and all of it fermented together—however, there are many variations that leave out some of those ingredients or add in various others. In Korean restaurants, it’ll typically appear as a small dish alongside many others to enjoy with a main course. It’s often salty, sourish, spicy, and crunchy-firm in texture. You can eat it as-is or add it to anything you want. It works great as a condiment—think tacos, bratwurst, sandwiches, and so on—and it works beautifully as a flavorful ingredient in fried rice. The possibilities, in fact, are endless.


Thus, inevitably—because brewers eventually will chuck anything into beer, and that perversity is what interests us here in the Special Ingredient labs—there have been attempts at making beer with kimchi. Before we get into that, however, let’s talk about the fermentation—because we all love fermentation and because it’s relevant to brewing beer with kimchi.

Judging by the academic papers out there, there are Korean food scientists who’ve devoted their whole careers to studying kimchi’s complex fermentation process. But let’s keep it simple: You salt some raw veggies to draw out excess water, then cover it up to allow fermentation via the deep bench of natural bacteria teammates who live on those ingredients. A few are familiar friends from the Lactobacillus family, but there are many others (including one called, not coincidentally, Companilactobacillus kimchii).

Industrial kimchi producers have reliable, time-tested cultures they can add to make sure there are no surprises. However, if you’re making kimchi at home with fresh, raw ingredients … it just works.

In short, by making your own kimchi, you can make your own kimchi Lacto culture. That leads to an interesting possibility, beyond just throwing some kimchi (or its constituent components) into a fermentor: using kimchi culture to acidify wort.


Brewing with Kimchi

One place where kimchi beers appear to have caught on (as a niche within a niche) is Russia—not too surprising, maybe, given their interest in savory, spicy riffs on tomato-laden goses. On Untappd, the kimchi-based beers with the most check-ins are all made in Russia.

A U.S. brewery that makes one is the Asian-inspired Dokkaebier in Oakland, California. Their Kimchi Sour is a year-rounder that includes some ginger and gochugaru, a powder made from dried Korean chiles. They acidify it with a Lacto culture isolated from head brewer Aaron Weshnak’s own homemade kimchi.

However, the very beer that led me to choose this topic in the first place is a recent release from a brewery in the homeland of kimchi—Gorilla Brewing in Busan, South Korea.

Now, when someone hands you a kimchi beer to try, you manage expectations. However, when handed one by Gorilla founder and head brewer Paul Edwards, I loved how the acidity provided a refreshing backdrop for those familiar savory notes—cabbage? garlic?—which in another context would taste like off-flavors. Plus, I always enjoy a good chile beer, and the capsaicin kick helped my inner pedant to file it as an unusual entry within that comfort zone. Yeah, it was odd. But it was also tart, spicy, balanced, and really tasty.

Most of Gorilla’s lineup would be familiar to craft brewers anywhere—their IPAs are top sellers, and they’re making solid stouts, fruit beers, lagers, and so on. However, Edwards says the idea to brew a kimchi beer came from their desire to make something more distinctly local—and to see whether it would find success as an export. “We’re always looking for ways that we could show that we’re Korean,” he says, “and we’re also looking for ways to be unique.”

He says they had tried other kimchi beers, many with actual kimchi in them, “but I never had one that’s drinkable.” Instead of throwing some fermented kimchi into the kettle or fermentor, Gorilla’s approach—led by brewer Youngjae Jo—was to “use every ingredient that you find in kimchi,” Edwards says.

That includes kettle acidification using a Lactobacillus culture that they acquired from a commercial kimchi producer. It also includes one kilo each of cabbage, radish, garlic, ginger, and chili powder for a 10-hectoliter batch. (That’s roughly four ounces/113 grams of each per barrel.) What it does not include is any salty anchovies or fish sauce. “Korean law [says] you can’t use animal products [in beer], apart from lactose,” Edwards says. “So, we’ve basically done a vegan kimchi.”