Korean-owned brewery in Oakland serves up culture, Asian-inspired flavors

A new Asian-influenced and Korean-owned brewery is putting roots down in Oakland. Dokkaebier opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Oakland’s Jack London Square in early May after acquiring Federation Brewing and its space.

For Dokkaebier owner Youngwon Lee, each time he pours a beer, he’s sharing a piece of who he is. "It’s important for us to be truly authentic to our culture and what we represent and dissolve into the beer we make," Lee said.

For more than 15 years, Lee’s worked in the alcoholic beverage industry. A few years ago, he delved into craft beer. "When I started working in the beer industry, I noticed I was the only Asian person pouring beer at beer festivals, over and over," Lee said. "When I had the opportunity to start my own [brewery], I said ‘Hey I’m going to go all Asian, go all out: Packaging, brand-name, design, as well as the ingredients.'"

And so, Dokkaebier was born, and its flavors are definitely unique.

The beer company has the Kimchi Sour which uses a kimchi culture – rather than one made of yeast, which is typical for most beers – and features distinct chili and ginger flavors. 

There's the Bamboo Pilsner made with bamboo tea leaves. And soon, Lee and his colleagues will make one with lemongrass and Szechuan pepper. 

"There’s a lot more potential as a beer to have more flavors and I wanted to use the Asian cuisine, and Asian flavors introduced through the beer, and be unique on its own," Lee said.

The unique flavors, the logo, even the name, embody Lee’s Korean heritage. 

"[There’s] a Korean mythical creature called ‘dokkaebi’ that likes to eat, hang out with people and drink," Lee said when explaining the company name. "Usually they hide in an object at daytime, come out at night to hang out." 

Realizing the potential for a Korean-inspired beer company hasn’t always been easy. Dokkaebier opened a pop-up in San Francisco in February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. 

"We were pretty well received, but COVID happened, so we had to shut down the taproom business," Lee said. "I started just driving around the Bay Area: 200 miles a day, 12 hours a day, just doing door-to-door delivery service."

Now beers from the small brewery are in more than 400 retailers across the state and the team is looking for more investors. But for now, Lee and his Dokkaebier colleagues are ecstatic to have a brick-and-mortar to call their own. "We finally have a place where we can get more creative with the flavors we make," Lee said. "But, also have consumers be available to visit us."

The small team continues to serve Federation beers and selections from Black-owned brewery Hella Coastal. The partnership is raising a glass to diversity in an industry that’s predominantly White. "We’re the first Korean-owned brewery in Oakland, [Hella Coastal] is the first Black-owned brewery in Oakland, I feel like us together, we can really represent the diversity and bring more culture and flavors to the beer industry."

During this AAPI Heritage Month, Lee plans to bring another piece of Korean culture to the streets of Oakland on May 20: a chicken and beer festival, known by the Korean name of Chimaek, a combination of the word "chi" for chicken and "maekchu" for beer.

In Korea, Lee said, Chimaek is a big festival and Lee wants that bring that part of his culture here to Oakland. The event will feature Dokkaebier commemorative beer glasses for tastings, live music and a number of food vendors. 

Lee's optimistic about the future of Dokkaebier, but said it’s not always easy to be first, or in the minority. However, Lee said authenticity and representation are well worth the struggle.