Kim Jong-ale: How did Ushers brewery of Trowbridge end up in North Korea producing Pyongyang's number one beer - and what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?

Gary Todd remembers the day they came to take away his brewery: 'Some of them had never seen plastic cups. And toilet seats were like gold. They took everything'

Simon Usborne
Saturday 19 April 2014 09:22 BST

Gary Todd remembers well the day the North Koreans came to take away his brewery. It was late summer in 2000 and the Scot, who has beer in his blood, had been made redundant as head brewer at Ushers of Trowbridge. After 175 years of production, the brewery, which dominated the centre of the Wiltshire county town, had gone bust. As developers circled for valuable land, every pipe, vessel and keg was put up for sale. Soon, a preferred bidder emerged: Kim Jong-il, the late Supreme Leader of North Korea.

"About 12 of them came at first," Todd recalls at the Kings Arms, the nearest pub to the old Ushers, most of which is now a giant Sainsbury's. "Two engineers, two brewers, and the rest were Government officials, who were present during every conversation. It was extremely strange, but the memories that really stick are things like the plastic cups. Some of these guys had never seen plastic cups. They were hoarding them. And toilet seats. Boy oh boy, toilet seats were like gold. They took everything."

The story of how North Korea came to buy a brewery in Trowbridge, and then rebuild it on a cabbage patch in Pyongyang, is a long one. Told here in full for the first time, it reveals much about a cruel leader's warped priorities and stuttering attempts to open up to the West, as well as a burgeoning beer culture inside the repressive state. It involves, among other players, an elusive German middle man, a garrulous Mancunian former truck driver, and a brush with customs that nearly sinks the deal on a Bristol dock.

I first heard about Ushers last July on a US radio programme about attempts by people to import goods from North Korea. Strict embargoes mean that any American must seek Government permission to do so. The programme had acquired several written requests, including one by Park Il Woo. The New York businessman, who once had a sideline in spying on Pyongyang for South Korea, wanted to import Taedonggang, North Korea's favourite beer. What few people know inside the state, which produces the drink for domestic consumption, is that it is made using Gary Todd's brewery.

To end the final chapter in the unlikely story of Ushers, which was once renowned across the south-west of England for its Best Bitter and Founders Ale, I decided to try and succeed where Park had failed. I would set out to import some Taedonggang and take it back to Trowbridge, a journey for the beer of more than 5,000 miles. Reuniting the exotic label with its roots, I would share a pint of Pyongyang's best with Gary at the Kings Arms. It soon becomes clear, however, that this will not be easy.

First, a bit about Korea and beer. Before its post-war invasion by the Soviet Union and subsequent north-south split, the country developed a taste for hops during Japanese rule. By the time Kim Jong-il demanded a new state brewery in 2000 ('Kim Jong-Ale', they called him) years of famine and economic ruin had compelled him to ease his isolation. At a historic summit in Pyongyang, he joked about his superior drinking skills with his South Korean rival, Kim Dae-jung. Weeks later, Britain prepared to push for official ties with North Korea. Production of Taedonggang soon followed, marking the first deal between a British firm and the secretive state.

The new beer, which is brewed in seven styles ('Beer Number One', 'Beer Number Two', and so on) soon became popular. In 2009, Kim went so far as to permit the broadcast of a Taedonggang TV spot. The gaudy ad, which appeared at the same time as two others for ginseng and hairpins, offered no hint of the drink's origins. It became a YouTube hit. Perhaps as a result, Kim got cold feet. He reportedly pulled the ad and fired the head of state television.

Diplomacy, deals and displays of capitalism seem less likely now under Kim's uncle-purging, nuclear-testing son, but beer has only become more popular among those who can afford it (at about 30p a bottle, it's pricier than the more anaesthetic soju, a subsidised rice liquor). Partly as a result of bad infrastructure and the risk in capital investment, microbreweries thrive. Foreign investment is rare, but Czech entrepreneurs are now establishing a brewery in a remote north-eastern region.

Curtis Melvin is an American researcher and expert on Pyongyang economics at John Hopkins University. "More people are engaging in home production and direct selling, and this includes beer," he says in a break from scanning satellite imagery for changes in the North Korean electricity grid. "But Taedonggang is the only case I know of a whole factory being chopped up and shipped wholesale." Even so, he adds, the approach is typical: "When North Korea wants something, it just goes and gets it".

My search for Taedonggang begins in London. A few beer specialists know of the brand, but not how to get it. So I target people who know North Korea. Robert Foyle Hunwick is a British journalist based in Beijing. Last year, he travelled to Pyongyang "to meet regular people rather than the brainwashed masses portrayed in documentaries". While researching an article headlined 'Getting Drunk in North Korea', he visited the Taedonggang Brewery's on-site bar with Simon Cockerell, a British tour guide who has led more than 100 trips to the country.

"The place smells of hops and has towers and large tanks," Cockerell says. "There's steam coming from chimneys, it's like a regular factory." Hunwick remembers climbing two flights of marble steps to get to the nondescript bar. "There's a strong, macho drinking culture in North Korea," he adds. "You see people drinking into oblivion, but there are also bars." At the Golden Lane Bowling Alley, Hunwick watched young people "hanging around, bowling and drinking. It could have been anywhere were it not for the propaganda on the walls".

Cockerell agrees to buy some Taedonggang on his next trip and hand it to Hunwick in Beijing. But international couriers then refuse to carry liquids to London. As back-up, I contact another Brit in Beijing, who puts me in touch with the regional head of a shipping firm with a Pyongyang office. He prefers not to be named, but assures me it's legal for me to acquire bottles of Taedonggang. I check the relevant UK embargoes, and consult the UN's list of items prohibited for import from North Korea. It includes diamonds, luxury cars and 'Pyrotechnically Actuated Valves' - but not beer.

After several weeks, by which time Hunwick's girlfriend, Valentina, has dropped the first bottle off to me while on a trip to London , a parcel lands on my desk from Pyongyang. Now in possession of two bottles of Taedonggang Beer Number Two, the brewery's premium lager, I head to Wiltshire.

I arrange to meet Gary Todd at the tiny Trowbridge Museum, housed in a former wool mill inside the Shires Shopping Centre. It has a small glass cabinet of Ushers exhibits, but nothing to show what became of it. John Woodsford is a part-time technician here, but worked for Ushers for 30 years as a drayman, or lorry driver. He and Todd share fond memories of the beer fumes that mingled over Trowbridge with wafts from the old Bowyer's pie factory. "People used to get off the train and just sniff," Woodsford, who's 76, says, breathing in. "They could have bottled it as an aftershave."

The men agree to show me the old Ushers site, before a Taedonggang session at the Kings Arms. The last time Todd gave the tour, it was for the North Korean delegation. As well as the cups and loo seats, they wanted to take entire brick walls, floor tiles - and even Todd himself. "The deal would have been off because I was never going to go," he says. Instead, Todd, aged 47, who lives nearby with his family, spent weeks with complex diagrams, translators, and eager students. A team of Russians did the dismantling. "We had these big electrical panels with wires going everywhere and they were just hacking through them," Todd recalls. "I said there's no way this brewery was ever going to go back together in one piece."

We walk out of the shopping centre and past the old Crowing Cock Café, where Woodsford used to have his dinner. It's now a Thai restaurant. Through the gates of Ushers Court, a new housing development, Todd points out where the fermentation area used to be. Further on, a wooden Ushers sign still hangs on a listed, exterior wall. Next to it, a plaque honours an 'enhancement award' given to the housing developer by Trowbridge Town Council. "Well isn't that nice," Todd says.

The closure of Ushers marked the end of an era for Trowbridge (the pie factory has also gone). The brewery grew steadily after Thomas Usher founded it in 1824, and went on to have several owners, always keeping its name. Towards the end, Todd also had contracts to brew Miller, Amstel and Löwenbräu. Times were good for the almost 200 employees, but in 1999, the last owners announced Ushers was "no longer cost-effective". "It was horrible," says Todd, who moved from Lossiemouth near Inverness to work here as a young man. "I'd grown up with Ushers." At the old sign, Woodsford points at what used to be the Ushers Club, a subsidised social club for employees. He met his wife there in the late Sixties. "They used to have all sorts in there - dos, dances, skittles and darts," he says. "Everybody met in the club."

When Kim Jong-Il decided he wanted a brewery, the call went out to North Korea's embassy in Switzerland. The diplomats there called Uwe Oehms, a German broker specialising in second-hand breweries. He searched for sites and, in a deal he says was worth 25 million Deutschmarks (about £10m in today's money - more in 2000), he bought Ushers from Thomas Hardy Brewing, which had acquired it after it folded. The deal made headlines, but Oehms remembers nothing unusual about it. "What is unusual for you is not for me," he says from his home in Bavaria, after several attempts to reach him (he is not fond of talking about North Korea). "I'm now doing a project in South Sudan. I have erected six breweries in Russia. For me, this is normal."

Nick Crewe is more forthcoming. A former Manchester mechanic, he now owns a Rochdale-based construction firm, and specialises in moving breweries to developing countries. He says Oehms paid him about £8m for the Pyongyang job. For months, trucks shuttled between Trowbridge and Avonmouth, Bristol's port, carrying more than 2,000 tons of equipment and kegs. Eventually, 30 containers were piled at the docks as a ship prepared for the month-long voyage to Wonsan, two hours east of Pyongyang.

"I'd rung up customs to check about trade embargoes," Crewe says. "You could hear the guy leaning back in his chair. He said, 'You'll be fine with that'. Nobody stressed about it until I'd got everything sat there on the port and I'm paying 90,000 a day for this bloody ship. Suddenly they say, 'Hold up, we better check this stuff'."

Concern centred on dozens of giant steel fermentation vessels, or tanks. "They wanted to know if they could be dual-purpose," Crewe says. The officials were right to be diligent. A UN report last year revealed how North Korea had once tried to smuggle from Cuba two MiG fighter jets and missile parts under thousands of tonnes of sugar. The Ushers consignment was eventually approved. Crewe says the ship then made a detour to the European mainland for more cargo. "One of these items was a personal car for the Dear Leader," he adds. "An adapted Mercedes truck with one seat inside that could be called a mobile nuclear bomb shelter. It was crazy."

Crewe spent the following nine months with his Russians turning a field into a working brewery. Scores of local workers were encouraged by speakers blaring out propaganda, and cigarette packs loaded into their lunchboxes. Teams of women polished once-rusting parts to a mirror finish. Crewe had a translator at all times. "I was going back to Beijing for a weekend break and she asked me to bring her back a Dirty Dancing DVD," he says. "I came back and she'd gone. I thought, crikey."

Even at a time of improving relations, did Oehms or Crewe have reservations about establishing a barley-eating brewery in a state known to use hunger as a weapon, among other crimes against humanity? "I saw a bit of the bad stuff at the port," Crewe says. "When you get out of Pyongyang, wow does the clock go back. But the money was good and they were excellent clients." Oehms adds: "If all my Western partners would be so accurate and so proper like the North Koreans, I would be very happy. The politics were a different matter."

The tour of Trowbridge continues around the new Sainsbury's, where the bottling and kegging plants used to stand. At the Kings Arms, the new landlord had no idea about the fate of Ushers. We take a seat. Todd reaches for a bottle opener on his keyring. I hand him a Taedonggang. Is he worried about drinking it? "No, I'm excited," he says, popping the cap. "Look, I'm smiling and I'm not known as a person who smiles that often."

Todd and Woodsford each pour a glass of bright, golden beer. "Bit of a weak head," Todd says. "You always look for how tight the head is. This one's disappearing quickly, which could mean it hasn't been brewed with a lot of barley. But the colour's crisp, looks good." He licks his lips and takes a long sip. "It's clean... quite malty. You can tell it's aged because it's got a slight cardboard flavour, which can mean oxygen has got into it. But it's not bad, I'm impressed."

Woodsford is more of an ale man, but describes Taedonggang as "reasonably tasty". The bottles are soon empty. I leave one with Todd, who later sends me a photo of it on his drinks display cabinet at home, next to a portrait of his daughter. Would Woodsford like the second bottle for the museum? "I wouldn't mind, but perhaps we shouldn't have a foreign bottle in there," he says. "It might be a little bit, you know." Todd looks at the bottles, and says to Woodsford: "This is where Ushers has gone. This is part of our history now"

Totalitarian tipples

By Joseph Kavanagh

Zimbabwe: Zambizi Lager

Brewed in Harare to the original 1992 recipe, this beer is 'Zimbabwe's Own Lager' if the advertising is to be believed. This rich, bitter drink also packs a punch with its 4.7% alcohol content.

Cuba: Bucanero/Cristal

Often overlooked due to the island's association with the hard stuff, Cuba also offers a variety of premium beers. Most popular are the Bucanero and Cristal, which are brewed on the east side, where the quality of the water apparently contributes to the beers' fresh taste.

China: Tsingtao

The Tsingtao brewery was set up in 1903 by British and German settlers. They now export drinks around the globe. Tsingtao is also the most popular Chinese beer sold in the US.

Belarus: Krinitsa

Based in Minsk, the state-owned Krinitsa brewery is Belarus's largest producer. With a 28% market share, their bestselling beer is the 'Krinitsa-1', a light, hoppy lager.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in