Questionable Complaints

A complaint I hear regularly from expats is that X (where X is some Korean thing like beer or gum) tastes like chemicals.

“Korean beer sucks. It tastes like chemicals. Where can I get good gum? Korean gum tastes like chemicals. Anyone know where I can get shampoo online? Korean shampoo tastes like chemicals.”

(Yeah – I don’t know about that last one either.)

But my question is where the hell are these people coming from and what were they eating there to know so well what chemicals taste like?

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9 responses to “Questionable Complaints”

  1. Rick Bowes says :

    Yeah, “tastes like shit” always leaves me wondering as well.

  2. Lord Gwydion says :

    Except for soju (which often tastes the way rubbing alcohol smells), I haven’t experienced that.

    Korean beer sucks, but to me at least there are a few drinkable brands. And the undrinkable brands taste like shit beer from the US. But then maybe US beer tastes like chemicals, too. Guess I wouldn’t know.

  3. gordsellar says :

    Oooh, ooh!

    I know this post ain’t wholly serious (and it’s like a year old–I ran across it searching for something else–but this is neat trivia.

    Two things: it’s neurological. Smelling and tasting are deeply related, right? I read someplace (I think that book The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, though this is me remembering 12 years back) that a lot of low-level synaesthesia goes on in our brains. Which is, Cytowic argues, where things like our capacity for metaphor and simile and so on come from: we’re wired for those kinds of (synaesthetic) comparisons fundamentally. So taste and smell, already being codependent senses, are switcherooed easily in our brains, right? We know what chemicals smell like, and when we taste things that remind us of that smell… 🙂

    Second: soju smells like chemicals because it is chemicals. Ethanol, dosed with flavorings and sweeteners. And I’d say the gum complaint is probably due to the flavorings in Korean gum being unfamiliar (and dying off way quicker than in North American gum).

    But as for chemical tastes in the crappy Korean beers: I’d wager people with these complaints are mostly drinking the stuff in draft beer form. And guess what? Like in many other areas, Koreans running bars are way better at setup than maintenance. When you have a keg system running regularly, you need to clean the lines. You get infections, you get buildup of stuff. Every once in a while you should run line cleaner through all the taps and hoses, but line cleaner is not so freely available here as back home. (The only line cleaner I’ve seen has been what Americans had sent over. It may be available, but I haven’t seen it anywhere. I myself have had to make do with iodophor sanitizer in my home system, which kills any bacteria in the system but doesn’t necessarily remove residue.)

    If you ask homebrewers in the Seoul area, they can tell you which places serve beer through hoses that aren’t cleaned regularly. (Or rather, which places actually do clean their beer lines and keep them in good order, because they’re the minority.)

    Those that don’t clean the lines, their beer often tastes… like chemicals. (And it’s more headache-inducing, or so I’ve heard. I wouldn’t know, I avoid the crap beer.)

    • Justin says :

      On the other hand good soju – like Andong soju – tastes like ethanol-flavored heaven. And as far as beers go, I pretty much stick to bottled at this point since that’s where the variety is.

      • gordsellar says :

        Oh, yes, proper soju, made the old-fashioned, pre-Park Chung Hee way, is good stuff. I hear that much of the soju from North Korea that gets out is of that sort, like the Andong stuff. If I drank hard alcohol more than once or twice a year (usually just to try the taste of it) I’d absolutely be 100% on the traditional sojus.

        It’s a funny parallel, Park banning soju made from rice, with the whole Gin craze: in both cases, heavy drinking became part of the coping mechanism for adapting to as-yet-unfamiliar urban life, and in both cases, the hard liquor was made with waste products — soju with industrial byproducts, and gin with agricultural waste, namely grains too poor quality to sell for food.

        As for beer, yeah, if you’re outside Seoul (or watching your budget) then the only ways to go are either homebrewing, or commercial bottle beers. The variety’s growing slowly, but still has a long way to go.

        Too bad you’re busy later in the month, as there are homebrew/beer events on the second and third weekend!

      • Justin says :

        If those weekends open up I’ll let you know.

      • gordsellar says :

        Do… the third weekend in February especially there’s a cool event happening that’s completely free…

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