How Korea sees Australian food

By: Andrew Hobbs

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How does Australia’s reputation for food stack up overseas? What is food #Hojustyle? Andrew Hobbs travels to South Korea to find out

The beer in question was in every bar we went to, almost every corner store, and advertised outside many of the Seoul restaurants we walked past as we crossed the city.

You might say that it’s natural a journalist would be drawn to beer and any advertising that went with it – and you wouldn’t be wrong – but the words on the bottle made this one stand out.

Aside from anything else, it was almost entirely in English.

‘Terra, from AGT’ the label says – explaining elsewhere ‘100% real carbonated beer made from pure AGT Malt’.

Reports from the English-language Korea Times say Terra, launched in March 2019 by Korea’s Hite Jinro Brewery, is marketed to millennial consumers "who have clear consumption habits and can generate buzz".

The TV advertising surrounding the product launch showed a young man, stuck in the city, drinking the beverage and being transported immediately to a peaceful paddock, full of golden barley blowing in the breeze underneath a bright blue sky.

AGT, the Terra label explains, stands for the Australian Golden Triangle. I am still trying to work out where that is.

 

Detail from a South Korean advertisement for Terra Beer

 

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

I was lucky enough to be in Korea in September and October last year on the 2019 Australia-Korea Media Exchange, sponsored by Australia’s Walkley Foundation and the Korea Press Foundation – where the organisations host four Australian journalists on a week-long tour of South Korea, and vice versa on another visit.

Our guides and hosts on the tour were Sohee Bae and Stella Choi, both employed by another English language newspaper, the Korea Herald, to help run familiarisation tours such as these.

Both organisations support the arrangement in a bid to help bridge gaps in understanding between our two countries – arranging interviews with experts on topics of interest and showing us parts of the country that many wouldn’t see.

And as we set off on the three-hour journey out of Seoul to the city of Andong, and later the Buseoksa Temple in North Gyeongsang Province, Stella and Sohee delve into the bus fridge and pass around a bag full of iced coffees – cups sealed with foil that you pierce with a straw.

"We’ve taken Australians around before," Sohee giggled. "We know that you need your coffee."

Our reputation, it seems, precedes us. And it’s not only the fault of sleepy journalists – whether hungover or not.

Rowan Petz, the executive director at the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Korea, tells us that Australian-style coffee, and cafés, have been performing well in recent years – earning the Instagram hashtag #hojustyle or #호주스타일 – which populates countless examples of latte art across the notorious social media hub.

Hoju, or 호주, is the Korean language word for Australia.

"You see this a lot – where Koreans will go to Australia and do a working holiday and they fall in love with this culture – they fall in love with Australian culture, not so much the coffee, it is the atmosphere," Petz says.

"You can find these brunch places [in Seoul], there a quite a few of them popping up, where you can get a good smashed avo and a flat white… they still have this concept of Australia as a paradise of rolling hills and blue skies and everything is clean, green and beautiful, and they want to be part of that."

Petz is hoping that this kind of cultural clout might extend further across other industries, including biotech and financial services.

The approach of Terra beer, he says, is an "interesting marketing tactic".

"Australia is known for being clean, safe and having a high level of quality of products," he says. "It’s a Korean beer – and that shows how much power Australian branding has over in Korea," he says.

"Beef is a huge market over here and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) does a great job of promoting goods, but you also see a lot of agricultural goods such as wheat, barley and sugar, as well as grapes and mangoes," he says.


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SELL THE SIZZLE, AND THE STEAK

Meat and Livestock Australia markets Australian beef as healthy and trustworthy for Korean families

On the phone from Singapore, general manager of international marketing for MLA Andrew Cox tells me that when meat is sold in South Korean supermarkets, it’s very easy to buy Australian.

"Beef generally tends to be sold by country of origin in retailers, etc. rather than a third party brand, so you have Australian beef, American beef, local beef," he says.

But Australian beef marketing has something different – its own branding of 호주청정우 (Hoju Chungjung Woo), which the MLA translates as ‘Australian beef, clean and safe’.

"We launched that branding around 20 years ago because we knew the market really valued trust and integrity and safety over all other attributes," he says.

It’s a brand that has become "extremely well known", Cox says, adding that it can be seen at supermarkets and restaurants around the country.

"Food safety is of huge importance in export markets in Asia and Korean families are no different," he explains.

"They really want to be confident that they can trust the food that they are giving their family. We are really able to trade on the trust we have built over time with that disease-free status."

Korea’s domestic beef products tend to be very expensive, he adds, with high fat meat produced that is ideal for Korean barbecue – where small slices of beef are grilled around the dinner table.

Cox says that while Australian beef was targeted at all aspects of the market, there was a strong marketing pitch for the family buyer.

"What brings it all together is the trust that consumers and the trade in Korea have with the beef that comes from Australia," he says.

TRUSTED FRIENDS

That need for safety is thrown into stark relief on the last day of our tour – where we were scheduled to visit the notorious Demilitarised Zone on the border between South and North Korea, only to be told the South Korean government had banned all travel to the area on that day.

The reason? An outbreak of African Swine Fever in China and North Korea – an incurable and highly contagious disease which, while harmless to humans, kills about 80 per cent of the pigs it infects.

Rabobank senior animal proteins analyst Angus Gidley-Baird says global demand will keep local beef and sheepmeat prices strong, with any further upside due to Swine Fever driven by an improvement in seasonal conditions as producers come back into the market to restock.

"There is considerable upside potential for prices, given livestock inventories for both sheep and cattle are at their lowest levels in over 20 years," he says.

"And it is this low stock availability that will see the market remain highly sensitive to substantial rain events."

The Swine Fever outbreak coincided with the seventh round of tariff reductions under the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA), reducing tariffs on beef from 24 per cent to 21 per cent, and on lamb from 9 per cent to 6.7 per cent, while the duty free quota for malt barley increased by 221 tonnes to 11,262 tonnes.

Under KAFTA, beef exports to Korea totalled $1.37 billion in 2018, up 24 per cent from 2017 and lamb exports totalled $133 million in 2018, up 26 per cent from 2017.

"Improved outcomes across a range of key commodities, including beef, lamb, barley, cheese and mangoes, will help to protect and improve our competitive position in Korea, helping ensure Australian farmers and businesses have access to prosperous markets into the future," then-Agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie said at the time.

Back on the tour bus, after we returned from border villages that weren’t affected by the outbreak, I made a point of giving Sohee and Stella a small gift I had brought from Australia – jars of honey I had bought from sellers at the Paskeville Field Days in South Australia.

And it was my turn to giggle when Stella, after thanking me and closely reading the label, asked in the tone of a person who has heard about Dropbears one too many times: "Is this real?"

"What do you mean?" I asked. "Of course it’s real."

"Is this a real place? Kangaroo Island?"

Reader, I had to show her a map. It is, of course, much more real than the Australian Golden Triangle, which did pop up once again as I was putting the article together.

In January the Korea Times had a follow-up story to its article on Terra Beer – this one in the newspaper’s business and technology section.

It reported that the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety had banned Hite Jinro from using terms such as ‘clean lager’ on its promotion of the Terra beer brand, saying its use was "exaggerated" and "could mislead consumers".

The newspaper reported Hite Jinro had claimed Terra "stood out in cleanness compared with rival beers… because it was made with ‘malts harvested in exceptionally clean areas in Australia’."

The ministry rejected the claim, noting that some of Hite Jinro’s biggest rivals in the market (Oriental Brewery and Lotte Chilsung Beverage) also produced beer made with Australian malts.

And it seems Hite Jinro got the message – with new versions of Terra emblazoned with the phrase ‘Australian Genuine Malt selected by Terra’.

Though I am not quite sure the translators at Hite Jinro have fully understood the acronym they’ve set themselves up for – emblazoned on the bottles being sold around South Korea at this very moment.

 ‘Terra, from AGM’.

Now there’s some corporate double-speak for you.

Andrew Hobbs travelled to South Korea as part of the Australia-Korea Media Exchange.

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