When the sun goes down, the dokkaebis emerge. This mythical, shapeshifting Korean creature hides in objects during the day and takes various forms to interact with humans at night. They like to drink and hang out with people, while helping the good and punishing the bad.
This is the creature that Youngwon Lee, the founder and owner of Dokkaebier in Oakland, named his brewery after, at the suggestion of his wife. He describes dokkaebis as sort of spontaneous, adventurous and innovative in spirit. That’s the foundation he wanted to create for his own brewery.
“I didn’t want to have a company where, you know, after a couple of years, you get too comfortable with the flavors and just do what you do. So I wanted to have that deeply rooted into the name and the DNA of what we do,” Lee said.
Dokkaebier taproom: Open Thursday 2-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 12-10 p.m., Sunday 12-8 p.m.; 420 3rd St., Unit A, Oakland; (510) 575-0136; enjoydkb.com
The creatures show up in all parts of Dokkaebier: the culture, the art on the taproom’s walls and the packaging of the beers. There is a dokkaebi face hidden on every can somewhere in the modern, minimal designs.
Dokkaebier has remained true to this adventurous ethos, continuing to come up with unique flavors. The two most popular beers are the yuza blonde and the kimchi sour. Concept- and name-wise, Lee said that the kimchi sour, with notes of ginger and gochugaru (Korean sun-dried chili peppers), along with a kimchi culture developed by the head brewer, is the most “out there” beer.
“A lot of people, because of the name, get scared to even try it for the first time,” Lee said. “But when they understand why we made it, how we made it, and what the flavor is, it’s one of our most popular flavors.”
The first part of the flavor-brainstorming process comes from Lee exploring. He goes to new restaurants and he also walks up and down every aisle in Berkeley Bowl looking for new flavors he hasn’t experienced, trying to imagine how to incorporate them into a beer.
Every flavor starts off as an experimental beer. They are currently at experimental beer batch number 33. Whenever Lee comes up with a new flavor, he tries it out first in the taproom to see if people like it. If consumers love it, then it will get officially launched.
“I don’t want to assume based on my prejudice or my own experience, so I want to get it out there, get experimental, and go down that journey with our customers and find out what works,” Lee said.
Lee started working in the industry 15 years ago, when he was 19 and an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. His grandmother in Korea was sick, so he took a leave of absence to return to Korea to be with her. After a month, she passed away, and Lee still had a couple of months left before he had to go back to school so he started a part-time job at a wine consulting company. That launched him into the world of wine which led to spirits, and now, to beer.
Lee launched Dokkaebier in February of 2020, as a pop-up in San Francisco while making the beers at other local Bay Area breweries that had extra capacity.
“I felt like it was about time to be more authentic to myself and sort of bring the culture that I grew up with and what I represented to a beer brand that I made,” Lee said. He said that he saw the beer industry as a very empty space where he was always a minority and he wanted to use his identity to differentiate himself from other breweries.
Of course, March 2020 brought with it COVID-19, and Lee had to close his San Francisco pop-up, let go of his staff and single-handedly deliver beers around the Bay Area — a process that he described as very lonely. He pushed through the long days because he believed in the brand he created.
“COVID was a curveball like for anybody else,” Lee said. “But it’s very different when you’re just selling a product versus now you have a culture and you have a mission behind the product, right? So it has a lot more meaning for me to pursue what I’m doing.”
In April of this year, Dokkaebier had the opportunity to buy Federation Brewing and open its own taproom in Oakland. A resident of Oakland himself, this was a coming home of sorts for Lee.
“I consider Oakland to be the most diverse city in the country. And I felt like it was the right spot to do something to fulfill our vision,” Lee said.
Opening the taproom has been a turning point for Dokkaebier. Having its own space has allowed it to grow its production and with that, its creativity. When they took over Federation, they also took over the brand and are continuing to brew Federation beers. At the taproom, you can get beers from three different breweries: Dokkaebier, Federation and Hella Coastal.
Hella Coastal is the first Black-owned brewery in Oakland, and its beers are brewed and sold at the Dokkaebier taproom. Dokkaebier is paying it forward in a way, as a brewery that started off in the same way brewing in others’ spaces.
“So this is the first place where you’ll see the first Black-owned brewery in Oakland, as well as the first Korean-owned brewery in Oakland and probably the first ever Asian-owned, Black-owned brewery working together at the same spot,” Lee said.
With the taproom, Lee is no longer facing the loneliness that he felt during the pandemic. While he says that being a minority in the industry still creates a feeling of loneliness at times, there’s more of a community bringing with it energy and interaction. Before the taproom, people were hesitant to try the beers because of the unique flavors, Lee said, but now there’s a space for everyone to come experience Dokkaebier and learn about who they are.
One of Lee’s favorite parts of opening his own brewery is interacting with customers. He tries to go to a lot of beer festivals and events to see people face-to-face.
“A lot of times they get scared and they get surprised and I see them again and again throughout the same day,” Lee said. “They say: ‘Hey, you know what? Actually, your beer is the most interesting and it is my favorite and this is the place, I’m going to be here all day.’ When I see that it really gives me happiness.”