Makgeolli: How Korean Rice Wine Is Coming Out of the Shadow of Soju

(CNN) — Kim Kyung-seop remembers going to cheap bars after class with his friends, drinking as much makgeolli as possible.

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

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

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 the Global Cyber ​​University in Seoul, has been teaching makgeolli-making techniques for 10 years. However, she recalls that her first encounter with the drink was unpleasantly sour and bitter.

“When we were with women, we drank beer. But between guys, we drank makgeolli.” Makgeolli, with his least chic reputation, was not apt to impress women.

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

“We work really 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 has led the change. He launched his Boksoondoga makgeolli premium brewery in 2009.

Min-kyu’s devout Christian father opposed his plan, especially after he had spent the family fortune supporting his son’s five-year training as an architect at Cooper Union in New York City. His father even broke a clay pot used to prepare makgeolli in a fit of rage.

Min-kyu was not discouraged. She believed in the strength of her grandmother’s makgeolli recipe.

As a child, he would visit his country home in Yangsan, a town in the southeast. She mixed half-cooked rice with her homemade yeast and water. And she listened to the quiet bubbling in the air as the mixture fermented into makgeolli. The best memories of him are of her grandmother generously sharing the finished brew with the neighbors, after which they sang and danced.

He convinced his family that brewing is an extension of architecture for him. Applying his training, he designed the brand, marketing materials, and brewery building, while his mother brewed the 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 century-long dark age.

Kim Min-kyu is one of the pioneers of Korea’s new makgeolli scene.

boxer dog

The story of a drink.

Makgeolli is a combination of the Korean words mak (meaning “quite done” or “just now”) and geolleun (“filtered”).

While the name first appears in “Gwangjaemulbo,” an encyclopedia presumed to have been written in the 19th century, the opaque alcoholic beverage probably dates back a millennium.

A record from the early 20th century states that it was consumed in every corner 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 the popularity is its simplicity. It is a mixture of steamed rice, yeast and water, which is left to ferment for a few weeks in a clay pot. Many families in Korea made their own drinks with his unique recipe.

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

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

World War II and the Korean War left the country devastated. The new government continued the policy of strictly controlling 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 made by diluting ethanol. As the economy improved and rice supply outstripped consumption, the ban on rice alcohol was lifted in 1989 and home brewing became legal again in 1995. But much tradition was lost.

Pyongyang Pub, a North Korean-themed bar, opened in the South Korean capital and has caught the attention of some.

bring him back home

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

The government also reversed course from its earlier policy, embracing traditional alcohol as a proud heritage and potentially lucrative industry.

In 2016, the government allowed small-scale breweries and distilleries to sell their spirits by reducing the brewing tank size requirement from 5,000 to 1,000 litres. The following year, traditional spirits were given the unique privilege of being sold online and delivered directly to consumers.

While the Covid-19 pandemic prevented people from going out to bars and restaurants, sales of makgeolli online and offline have skyrocketed. According to a 2021 report published by the Korea Agro-fisheries and Food Trade Corporation (aT), a government-operated company that promotes agricultural products, the market for makgeolli grew by 52.1%, while the total market for spirits shrank 1.6% in 2020.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli making course.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli making course.

Kim Kyung Seop

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

Since 2009, the number of holders of makgeolli-making licenses has increased by 43%, according to data from the National Tax Service.

Kim says that opening a makgeolli brewery is much easier than any other type of alcohol. While equipment to set up a microbrewery costs around 200-300 million won ($155,000-233,000), equipment for a makgeolli brewery can be purchased for 10 million won ($7,800), says Kim. Plus, it only takes four 3-hour classes to make anything better than mass-market makgeolli, she adds.

go global

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

Now his business, The Sool Company, provides makgeolli classes and consultations for those interested in starting their own brewery, but most of his clients are from abroad. He says his business quadrupled during the pandemic.

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

“It was so different, so interesting. It’s rare to discover something that people in the world haven’t heard about.”

She arranged meetings with other enthusiasts and eventually taught herself Korean because most of the resources were not available in English.

07 makgeolli korean rice wine

Participants in a tasting session for The Sool Company hold their glasses.

the sool company

Mellor believes makgeolli will appeal to foreign audiences.

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

And for her, propagating makgeolli takes another layer.

“This is saving something that was about to disappear,” says Mellor.

Kim Min-kyu says his makgeolli will be sold in the US and Austria this year and has been approached by other Western buyers. His makgeolli is already a hit in Japan, where it became popular during the Hallyu, or Korean wave, of the mid-2000s, a period when the success of K-dramas and K-pop opened the door. to other cultural exports such as kimchi and traditional drinks.

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

Korean “soft power” has expanded beyond Asia in recent years. He believes that makgeolli can ride this wave.

doing great

Despite the rapid advance of makgeolli, the South Korean spirits market is still dominated by soju and beer, which account for more than 80% of sales.

Min-kyu says the biggest challenge makgeolli makers face is the public perception that the drink is for the elderly. Most of their advertising and marketing is focused on changing this perception. In one ad, a dapper-looking male model with a shaved head and pierced eyebrows daintily pours makgeolli into a glass of champagne.

Changing perceptions around what foods go best with makgeolli is another hurdle.

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

“A fresh sip of makgeolli after a bite of salty jeon scallion acts as a palate cleanser that prepares you to fully enjoy another salty bite,” says Kim Kyung-seop.

The combo is especially popular on rainy days. The sale of makgeolli and ingredients for jeon increases sharply on rainy days at major chain convenience stores, according to a report by the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

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

“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 great with other fermented foods. I think it’s delicious with kimchi and really tasty cheese.” Min-kyu added.

Boksoondoga makgeolli was recently the main offering at a discreetly located gastropub in Seoul’s trendy Hapjeong district. Stylish bartenders skillfully poured the drink into stemless wine glasses. Patrons, mostly young professionals, savored drinks while relaxing to hip-hop music. On a leather-bound menu, beef tartare was offered alongside a variety of other premium brands of makgeolli.

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

Jihye Yoon and Minji Song contributed to this report.

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