Roy Choi gives U.S. craft brewery Korean culinary star power
Renowned culinary innovator Roy Choi has a new gig as a national pitchman for Blue Moon Brewing Company, matching his Los Angeles Korean-style food with craft beers. From what he told me a while back, this move into 맥주 maekju (beer) seems to have been brewing for some time:
“To me, culturally, Korean food is more of a beer food. That’s just the way I feel about it.”
—Roy Choi, “Korean taco innovator Roy Choi rolls into Napa Valley,” Oct. 23, 2013
As part of Choi’s new collaboration with Blue Moon, he created recipes that use various Blue Moon beers either as an ingredient or a pairing. For example, he matches his take on Korean Cheese Corn with Blue Moon’s Cinnamon Horchata Ale.
Choi steered me toward pairing Korean food with lighter beers, rather than wine, India pale ales (IPAs) or hops-heavy beers. Blue Moon primarily is known for Belgian wheat and pilsners, so this relationship is not a surprise.
Blue Moon Brewing picked a good time to partner with Choi. Time magazine recently named him among its Top 100 Most Influential People of 2016. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain wrote the Time piece on Choi, lauding him as a culinary pioneer and trailblazer.
I interviewed him shortly after his Mad3 talk and as he was preparing to visit Napa Valley, Calif., for Flavor! Napa Valley. Since Napa County is all about wine, I asked his recommended pairing of Korean food with wine. I was surprised to hear he preferred beer for most Korean dishes.
Before that interview, I never drank beer. I had horrible memories of tasting it for the first time at age 9. When I lived in the eastern Korean city of Chuncheon, I never drank a single glass of national brands Cass, OB, Hite or any others. Domestic beer in South Korea is inexpensive and sold nearly everywhere.
After my 2013 interview with Choi, I buried myself in beer research. Thanks to his guidance, my palate has settled on barely bitter brews: hefeweizens, Belgian wheat beers and Czech-style pilsners. Living in Northern California, which is becoming as famous for craft beer as it is for wine, my research has become more adventuresome and rewarding.
Royal Korean connection
Blue Moon head brewmaster Keith Villa has had a long relationship Korean culture and cuisine.
“My interest in Korea started in 1986 when I was first hired by a Korean-American man who was in charge of fermentation research for the Coors brewery,” Villa told me by email. “He was very humble, yet creative and very smart. My wife and I went to his house for dinner and his wife made traditional Korean dishes, including kimchi and bulgogi.”
Villa has also eaten hanshik on his own time.
“I have tried many Korean dishes,” he said. “I always love to try kimchi. Just as we create distinct new styles of beers by combining various flavors and spices, I especially enjoy trying different kinds of kimchi that experiment with different spices. Bulgogi is also a favorite. Korean fusion dishes are always fun to eat and pair with different styles of beer.”
Villa learned more about Korean culture as the friendship with that boss grew.
“After some time, he revealed that he was one of the true princes of Korea and was forced to flee when the communists took over in the north,” he said. “He had a book that traced his family history in Korea back over more than 1,000 years. According to Korean tradition, each generation of his had to give their sons a name starting with a specific letter of the alphabet.”
After 30 years, Villa has carried the lessons from his former boss into his work at Blue Moon, which is a Molson Coors Brewing Co. brand.
“His humble outlook and creative spirit inspired me to apply the same attributes towards my work with Blue Moon,” he said. “At Blue Moon, we have won many accolades and have been recognized for our creativity and innovation in brewing, but we remain humble.”
Blue Moon Brewing entered the South Korean market last year, and Villa plans to travel there in the near future.
How do you say ‘Choi’?
The Korean family name 쵀 Choi looks like it should be pronounced choy, like the vegetable bok choy. Roy Choi camps on the alliteration this pronunciation gives his first and last names.
But the Korean pronunciation of Choi is closer to chay, or better yet, chwae or chweh. The vexing vowel is a combination — nerd note: a diphthong — of the sounds oh and ae/eh.