Makgeolli: how Korean rice wine emerges from the shadow of soju

(CNN) — Kim Kyung-seop remembers going to cheap bars after class with his friends, where they rushed for as many makgeolli as they could.

“You know the saying, ‘Alcohol consumes men?’ It was like that.”

Makgeolli, Korea’s traditional milky and often sweet rice wine, was chosen for price, not flavor.

In 1989, when Kim entered college, a half-gallon of makgeolli cost about 40 cents. He and his friends would sit around a table, pouring makgeolli from a brass kettle into individual brass bowls, as is tradition.

Kim, now an adjunct professor at Global Cyber ​​University in Seoul, has been teaching makgeolli brewing techniques for 10 years. Still, he remembers his first encounter with the unpleasantly sour and bitter drink.

“When we were with women, we drank beer. But with boys, we drank makgeolli.” Makgeolli – with his less chic reputation – was not adept at impressing women.

Two decades later, in bars across the South Korean capital, Kim’s lackluster memory drink was coming into fashion, this time in the hands of a younger generation of entrepreneurs and brewers.

“We worked very hard to get rid of the established images that people have of makgeolli,” says Kim.

Kim Min-kyu (no relation to Kim Kyung-seop) is a brewer who led the change. He launched his premium brewery makgeolli Boksoonga in 2009.

Min-kyu’s devout and sober Christian father opposed his plan – especially after spending the family fortune to support his son’s five years of training as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union. His father even smashed a clay pot used to brew makgeolli in a fit of anger.

Min-kyu was undeterred. He believed in the power of his grandmother’s makgeolli recipe.

When he was a child, he visited his farm in Yangsan, a city in the southeast. She was mixing half-steamed rice with her homemade yeast and water. And he listened to the silent bubbling of the air as the mixture fermented into makgeolli. His fondest memories were of his grandmother generously sharing the finished brew with the neighbors, after which they sang and danced.

He convinces his family that mixing is for him an extension of architecture. Applying his training, he designed the branding, marketing materials and building of the brewery, while his mother brewed makgeolli, creating the first bottle of Boksoondoga. Doga means “brewery” and Boksoon is the name of Kim’s mother.

The timing was fortuitous. Makgeolli was emerging from a dark age of a century.

Kim Min-kyu is one of the pioneers of the new Korean makgeolli scene.


The story of a drink

Makgeolli is a combination of the Korean words mak (meaning “roughly done” or “a while ago”) and geolleun (“filtered”).

While the name first appears in “Gwangjaemulbo”, an encyclopedia believed to have been written in the 19th century, the opaque alcoholic beverage is likely a millennium old.

A record from the early 20th century claims that it was consumed in all corners of Korea.

“Makgeolli is inherent in Korean culture, it is the drink of the Korean people,” says Kim Kyung-seop.

One of the reasons for its popularity is its simplicity. It is a mixture of steamed rice, yeast and water, left to ferment for a few weeks in a clay pot. Many families across Korea have brewed their own drinks with their unique recipe.

Japanese colonization during the first half of the 20th century put an end to many cottage industries. The colonial government gradually phased out homebrewers in favor of standardized industrial liquor makers. All alcohol manufacture was taxed and licenses were required, even for self-consumption.

A few mass-produced beverages dominated the market, and by 1934 home brewing was banned.

World War II and the Korean War left the country devastated. The new government continued the policy of strict control of alcohol production. As food shortages worsened in the 1960s, the use of rice – the key ingredient in makgeolli – to produce alcoholic beverages was banned.

Manufacturers used wheat and barley as substitutes, and makgeolli’s popularity plummeted. It was supplanted by modern soju, a clear liquor obtained by diluting ethanol. As the economy improved and the supply of rice exceeded consumption, the rice liquor ban was lifted in 1989 and home brewing was made legal again in 1995. But much tradition has been lost.

The Pyongyang Pub, a North Korea-themed bar, has opened in the South Korean capital and raised some eyebrows.

bring it home

The recovery of the lost art of makgeolli brewing can be largely attributed to pioneering researchers like Park Rock-dam. Park has traveled across Korea for 30 years collecting recipes and recreating ancient techniques.

The government has also reversed course on its previous policy, embracing traditional alcohol as a proud – and potentially lucrative – legacy of the industry.

In 2016, the government allowed small breweries and distilleries to sell their alcoholic beverages by lowering the brew tank size requirement from 5,000 to 1,000 litres. The following year, traditional alcoholic beverages had the unique privilege of being sold online and delivered directly to consumers.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has kept people out of bars and restaurants, online and offline sales of makgeolli have skyrocketed. According to a 2021 report published by Korea Agro-fisheries and Food Trade Corporation (aT), a state-owned company that promotes agricultural products, the makgeolli market grew by 52.1% while the total liquor market declined. by 1.6% in 2020.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli brewing class.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli brewing class.

Kim Kyung Seop

In Kim Kyung-seop’s makgeolli class, half of the students are entrepreneurs, many of whom are women in their 30s or younger. Ten years ago, almost everyone in the class was over 50 and looking to brew makgeolli as a hobby in retirement.

Since 2009, the number of makgeolli brew licensees has increased by 43%, according to data from the National Tax Service.

Kim says opening a makgeolli brewery is much easier than any other type of liquor. While equipment for setting up a beer microbrewery costs around 200 to 300 million won ($155,000 to $233,000), equipment for a makgeolli brewery can be acquired for 10 million won ($7,800 dollars), says Kim. Plus, it only takes four 3-hour courses to brew something better than mass-market makgeolli, he adds.

Go global

An Australian citizen, Julia Mellor originally came to South Korea to teach English. Then in 2009, she met Makgeolli.

Today, his business The Sool Company offers makgeolli lessons and consultations for those wishing to open their own brewery, but most of his clients come from overseas. She says her business has quadrupled during the pandemic.

Its customers come from countries such as the United States, Singapore and Denmark. Many of them are members of the Korean diaspora. “They watch Koreans enjoying it here and they are inspired to bring it back to their country,” she says.

“It was so different, so interesting. It’s rare to find something that people around the world haven’t heard of.”

She arranged meetups with other enthusiasts and ended up learning Korean as most of the resources weren’t available in English.

07 makgeolli korean rice wine

Participants in a The Sool Company tasting hold their glasses.

The Sool Company

Mellor thinks makgeolli will appeal to overseas audiences.

“It’s very easy to make at home. You just need rice and nuruk (yeast).”

And for her, spreading the makgeolli carries another layer.

“It saves something that was about to disappear,” says Mellor.

Kim Min-kyu says his makgeolli will be sold in the United States and Austria this year and other Western buyers have approached him. His makgeolli is already a hit in Japan, where he became popular during Hallyu, or the Korean Wave in the mid-2000s, a time when the success of K-dramas and K-pop opened the door for others. cultural exports such as kimchi and traditional drinks.

“For foreign consumers, this natural fermentation is considered healthy, organic and clean. And it’s a type of alcohol they’ve never seen before,” Min-kyu says.

Korean “soft power” has expanded beyond Asia in recent years. He thinks Makgeolli can ride this wave.

make it cool

Despite the rapid growth of makgeolli, the South Korean alcoholic beverage market remains dominated by soju and beer, which account for more than 80% of sales.

Min-kyu says the biggest challenge facing makgeolli makers is the public perception that the drink is for older people. Most of its advertising and marketing aims to change this perception. In one ad, a sharp-looking model with a shaved head and pierced eyebrows gently pours makgeolli into a champagne flute.

Changing perceptions about which foods go best with makgeolli is another hurdle.

In Korean culture, alcohol is almost always consumed with a meal or snack. For makgeolli, it’s jeon, a Korean savory pancake made by frying meat or vegetables in a batter made from seasoned flour.

“A fresh sip of makgeolli after a bite of salted green onion jeon acts as a palate cleanser preparing you to fully enjoy another tasty bite,” says Kim Kyung-seop.

The combo is especially popular on rainy days. According to a report by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the sale of makgeolli and jeon ingredients spikes sharply on rainy days in major convenience store chains.

But premium makgeolli, with its broad spectrum of flavor, effervescence and body, can pair well with any type of food, Min-kyu says.

“I drink it with jajangmyeon (a Chinese-Korean noodle dish) and it also goes really well with ice cream. Because it’s a fermented drink, it tastes good with other fermented foods. I think it’s delicious with really tasty kimchi and cheese.” Min-kyu added.

Boksoondoga makgeolli was recently the main offering of a discreetly tucked away gastropub in Seoul’s trendy Hapjeong district. Elegant bartenders skillfully poured the drink into stemless wine glasses. Customers, mostly young professionals, enjoyed the drinks while relaxing to the sound of hip-hop music. In a leather-bound menu, beef tartare was offered alongside an array of other premium makgeolli brands.

At the tables, more women occupied the seats than men. After each pour, the bartender explained the flavors and the origin. They smiled. They lifted the glass to their lips, listening carefully to every note hidden in the drink.

Jihye Yoon and Minji Song contributed to this report

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