How Ushers' Trowbridge brewery is now the toast of North Korea
12:30pm Sunday 5th July 2009 in By Wiltshire Times Reporter
The Ushers brewery in Trowbridge used to produce award-winning traditional British real ales. After an extraordinary journey, it is now being used to brew a beer dubbed the "Pride of Pyongyang" in NOrth Korea.
Nine years after the brewery was sold to the secretive government in Pyongyang, its new brew - Taedong River Beer - has made international headlines this week after inspiring what is thought to be North Korean television's first beer advert.
How the brewery plant was sold, dismantled and shipped to the North Korean capital is a curious tale. Pyongyang's warming relations with the West (since cooled), international trade, and the Koreans' thirst for a decent beer all played a part.
It began around 2000 when North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, decided he wanted a world class brewery for his country which was just coming round from a devastating famine.
The Ushers brewery was on the market at the time, having been deemed no longer cost effective by its owners.
Briton Peter Ward, of brewing company Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging, bought the plant and sold it to the North Koreans through a German agent. He remembers the deal vividly.
"When I was first approached about selling the brewery to the Koreans, I assumed it was the South Koreans," he said.
Surprised to discover that it was the North Koreans who were buying, his first thought was, "Am I going to get paid?".
That was taken care of when a German bank agreed to underwrite the £1.5 million sale.
His other concern was security. What if the North Koreans, who were pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme at the time, were buying the brewery to make not beer but biological weapons?
"There's not a lot of difference between plant for a brewery and one for pharmaceuticals or biochemical activities. Brewing equipment could be used for other things," he said.
Again, the Germans assured him that Kim Jong-il was after beer, not bugs, and the deal went ahead. Before long a team of North Korean engineers, workers, translators and officials had arrived in Trowbridge to dismantle the brewing equipment. They got to work immediately and did not stop until they had finished.
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"They worked extremely hard and long hours. The didn't go out and spent most of their time in their lightweight boiler suits," Mr Ward remembers.
"Engineering-wise, you would be turning back the clock 50 years. From a mechanical point of view they were happy to take a blow torch to it rather than dismantle a piece of plant.
"They were going to rip it up without drawings, but we helped them taking it down and marked it all up for shipping to North Korea."
Within 18 months of shipping the plant home, the North Koreans had the brewery up and running.
Uwe Oehms, the German agent who was asked by the North Koreans to find a brewery, remembers the deal as "one of the most interesting" of his life.
Though the North Koreans had limited experience of modern technology, he bought them a series of books on the latest brewing techniques.
"Despite their lack of English I was surprised that they were learning how to do this quite well," he recalls. "The quality of the beer was quite good in the beginning but when they couldn't buy good foreign ingredients the quality decreased.
The North Koreans quickly picked up how to use modern brewing techniques In Trowbridge itself, the memory of the Ushers brewery, which began brewing in the town in 1824, is fading fast.
Though the building's facade is still standing, plans to redevelop the site are still incomplete. Part of it will be housing, another part will be a major supermarket.
Town councillor Clive Blackmore says selling the brewery was a major blow to the town.
"It was a big employer but it's just one of a number of businesses that have left the area, " he says, before adding: "You can't blame them for taking it abroad. There's no bad feelings towards the North Koreans."
But would the Pride of Pyongyang ever take the place of Ushers' award winning ales?
"I can't see anyone here being against it. It would depend on what it tasted like. If it's fine, I'd drink it, " he says.
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