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Makgeolli’s Rice Beer Renaissance

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Makgeolli’s Rice Beer Renaissance


Years ago, when Korea was primarily an agrarian society, farmers would break their toil with a bowl of the cloudy rice beer makgeolli (막걸리). This historic association is why the beverage is also known as nongju, with “nong” meaning farmer in Korean. As Korea has urbanized, however, today makgeolli is also popular among young and stylish customers in Seoul or Busan’s most cosmopolitan districts. Served along tasty cuts of pork belly or fried onion pancakes, Korea’s oldest traditional liquor has made a comeback.

An Ancient Drink Reimagined

Historical records suggest that makgeolli goes back at least as far as the fourth century and Korea’s Shilla Dynasty. By contrast, the ubiquitous firewater soju (소주) claims a mere 600-year record. But after a heyday in the 1960s and early 70s, makgeolli’s popularity waned when government rice rationing spawned unpopular barley and wheat varietals. What’s more, the use of chemicals to hasten the fermentation process gave makgeolli a reputation for causing hangovers.

As a result, in the 1970s Korean consumers increasingly turned away from domestically produced makgeolli and turned instead towards beer, foreign whiskey and wine. Today, makgeolli accounts for just four percent of the domestic liquor market, down from a previous high of sixty or seventy percent, according to Yoon Jin-won, the CEO of the Global Food Business Organization’s food division.

In response to this dramatic drop, Korea’s 700 small makgeolli breweries have been tasked in recent years with repairing the ancient liquor’s reputation and restoring its market share. Although they’ve improved their recipes, the worldwide economic downturn has also helped. Since 2008, growing numbers of Korean consumers have reached for a bottle of 1,200 won ($1.10) makgeolli instead of a 35,000 won bottle of French Beaujolais Nouveau wine. According to the National Tax Service, even as overall alcohol sales fell in 2009, makgeolli surged almost 48 percent. At the same time, wine imports dropped 19 percent, the second consecutive decline after ten years of steady growth.

A Perfect Blend

Also called “takju,” after its cloudy appearance, makgeolli is made by steaming glutinous rice, barley or wheat with water and the fermentation starter, nuruk. Unlike other traditional clear liquors like soju or cheongju, makgeolli isn’t distilled after fermentation, hence its milky, opaque appearance. Frequently enjoyed from a humble ceramic bowl, makgeolli’s low alcohol content – typically in the six to seven percent range – makes it a popular alternative to higher-proof spirits.

One of Korea’s leading makgeolli producers is Baesangmyun Brewery. Based in southern Seoul and well known for its raw-rice “Daepo” brand, the company opened five mini-breweries in 2010 to encourage walk-in sales of its “Slow Village” label rice beer. Produced on site each morning, the subtly carbonated beverage has a sweet and bright taste reminiscent of apples. On a recent visit, a steady stream of customers dropped by to pick up one or two bottles of their signature makgeolli.

According to Baseangmyun’s Yangjae store manager, Jay Lee, makgeolli’s taste primarily depends on its main ingredient, rice. For example, despite an identical recipe, the flavor of their new “My Hometown Rice” brand depends on where it’s produced. Lee explains that while Gyeonggi Province rice yields a distinctive sweetness, the southeastern Gyeongsang region produces a bold character (not unlike its people). Lee adds that the products’ freshness is due to his company’s refusal to use artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

Beyond its refreshing taste, traditionally-produced makgeolli also includes healthy vitamins and minerals, like fiber, amino acids, lactobacilli, and vitamins B1, B2 and C. Combined, these essential nutrients are said to possess anti-aging properties, as well as help prevent cancer, lower cholesterol and promote intestinal health.

Fostering a “Sool” Culture

Beyond bottling popular makgeolli, several places also work to preserve Korea’s traditional alcohol culture. In 1996, Baesangmyun established a traditional wine research institute, and two years later, Dajuheon (다주헌), a restaurant specializing in traditional foods and liquors. In 2002, the company opened the Sansawon Gallery alongside its main plant in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. The multi-purpose facility includes a museum. The 30,000 guests that are welcomed annually can view exhibitions of home brewing artifacts, antique books on traditional Korean liquor and a map highlighting the diverse origins of Korean home-brewed spirits.

As part of a growing trend to promote “hands-on” activities for Koreans and foreign tourists seeking active ways to learn about Korean culture, companies like Baesangmyun, the major brewery Kooksoondang, and the Gyeonggi University-affiliated Susubori Academy offer “home” brewing classes. For a modest fee, participants learn how to make their own spirits in the comfort of top-of-the-line facilities.

The workshops, which typically take place over four sessions held over one to two weeks, begin with participants cooking glutinous rice. The rice is then mixed with the yeast and mold culture, nuruk. Nuruk is usually packed in a dry block, so pieces must be broken off and mixed by hand with water and then combined with the rice. The mixture is then placed into a jar and covered with cheesecloth. After a couple of days, the workshop participants return to stir and replace the breathable cloth with a firmer top. Another few days will pass until the final session, when everyone’s home brew is ready to drink. Surprisingly, the resulting alcohol content – usually about 13 to 15 percent – is about double makgeolli’s typical range. Hence, the product may need to be diluted by adding water.

Government Support

The resurgence of makgeolli on the domestic and international stage is also thanks to government efforts to globalize Korean cuisine. In 2009, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, along with the Ministry of Strategy and the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness, announced plans to invest 133 billion won ($116 million) into the industry over five years.

In contrast to the government’s rice rationing policies from 40 years ago, today’s makgeolli producers are encouraged to use domestically grown rice. Also earmarked in the government’s plan is funding for a three-year initiative to revive dozens of extinct varieties of traditional alcoholic beverages from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Among the most committed champions of restoring Korea’s lost liquors is Park Rock-dam, the head of the Korea Traditional Wine Institute. Over almost eight years, Park combed ancient texts for recipes and other hints to recreate some 850 varieties of traditional liquors once thought lost to history.

Science has also emerged to promote the nation’s spirits industry. Makgeolli’s typical lifespan of about one week has hindered its growth prospects, especially as an export. As a result, companies like Baesangmyun have worked with scientists and food engineers to develop products like “third generation” makgeolli, which stays fresh for up to six weeks.

Domestic & International Growth

As local breweries, trade associations and the government cooperate to promote Korean traditional booze abroad, marketers of the cloudy rice beer are excited by a new wave of young, fashionable and multicultural consumers. The official government statistics agency, Statistics Korea predicts that the 2010 domestic market will grow 33 percent from 2009.

To meet this burgeoning demand, makgeolli bar chains like Dduktak (뚝탁) are filling the void. Part of the Global Food Business Organization’s portfolio, Dduktak’s 22 bars include seven located in youthful Seoul neighborhoods like Hongdae and Sinchon. Amidst dark wood booths and dance music are tattooed waiters that serve makgeolli cocktails and fusion snacks. Although the chain limits its alcohol offering to the GFBO’s Chamsari Takju brand, customers can order their rice beer infused with over 20 different types of fruit, like peach, strawberry, kiwi or pomegranate.

Beyond its resurgent domestic popularity, makgeolli’s international reach is expanding into the Japanese, American and Chinese markets. According to the E-dong Rice Wine Brewery, which established overseas distribution facilities in Japan in 1993 and in the U.S. in 1998, overseas makgeolli sales have grown 20-25% percent annually in recent years, with several varieties taking top prizes at international spirits events.

Honoring Tradition

As Korea’s spirits industry cultivates new varietals and expanded access to overseas markets, top manufacturers haven’t lost sight of one of alcohol’s earliest functions in Korea – as a ritual offering for one’s ancestors in this deeply Confucian society. In 2006, Baesangmyun launched Charaesool, a brand for ancestor worship ceremonies. Once again, Korea’s unique traditional liquors connect the young and old, the ancient and modern..
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For your information…

Baesangmyun Brewery’s Neurin Maeul Yangjojang (Yangjae Location)

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10:00-20:00 (Sun-Sat)Neurin Maeul Makgeolli: ₩3,00002-6917-8999
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Seoul Seocho-gu Yangjae-dong 90-8 (B1)Yangjae Station (#342/#D08) on Line 3 & Sin Bundang Line, Exit 6website
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Dduktak’s Sinchon Pub

……………………………….……………………………….……………………………….
02-313-8820
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Seoul Seodaemun-gu Changcheon-dong 13-2, 3FSinchon Station (#240) on Line 2, Exit 3
………………………………………………………………………………………………

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12 Comments

8 April 2011 14:39

Anju: Korean Wine News | Wine Korea

[...] For more background information on Makgeolli and some history see Matt Kelley’s article for the Korean Tourism Organization. [Discovering Korea] [...]

8 April 2011 16:58

Anju: Korean Wine News | Nanoomi.net

[...] For more background information on Makgeolli and some history see Matt Kelley’s article for the Korean Tourism Organization. [Discovering Korea] [...]

25 May 2011 06:59

Milblogs | Blog | ROK Drop Weekly Linklets – May 15, 2011

[...] Is there a makgeolli renaissance going on in Korea? [...]

8 May 2012 16:08

Hamburger and French Fries « Bobster’s House

[...] had intestines and makkeoli, And I’ve chowed down on live octopi. But I refuse to eat boenddaeggi, Cuz that stuff stinks [...]

17 May 2012 13:57

SEOUL Weekly: April 5, Issue No. 471

[...] Seo Ji-eun introduces Chan’s Espresso Bar in Hongdae. Matt of Discovering Korea looks at Korea’s makgeolli renaissance. Eat Your Kimchi goes backstage to Seoul Fashion Week. Steve the QiRanger brings us to Seoul [...]

24 August 2012 07:01

Makin’ Makgeolli: Soju’s hotter, single cousin | Gwangju Blog

[...] days however, Makgeolli is back. Makgeolli breweries and bars have become quite a trend in the more fashionable areas of Korea’s biggest cities. The [...]

15 October 2012 11:40

How to Drink and Enjoy Makgeolli | Advanced Technology & Design Korea

[...] makgeolli renaissance is also thanks in part to the Korean government. According to Discovering Korea, in 2009, several governmental organizations announced plans to invest 133 billion won ($116 [...]

25 October 2012 04:47

Hamburger and French Fries « Bobster's House

[...] had intestines and makkeoli, And I’ve chowed down on live octopi. But I refuse to eat boenddaeggi, Cuz that stuff stinks [...]

5 May 2013 21:10

kelly

Hi, could you post a link or contact info on how I can attend one of the classes to make magkeolli? I searched around but couldn’t find any info on it. Thanks!

July 15 2013 03:08 am

Matt

Hi Kelly,
Thanks for the note. Unfortunately, I'm not sure who is currently offering makgeolli classes. If you find out, can you let me know? Thanks.
Best, Matt

6 September 2013 16:34

Julia Mellor

Hi Kelly,

Susubori Academy runs classes in Korean, but there are two expat brewers who currently run classes in English there on demand. We (Makgeolli Mamas & Papas Korea) just had a class in August, and there will be more in the future. If you follow us on Facebook or subscribe to our website you will get up to date information on when the next class will be!

October 01 2013 06:20 am

Matt

Thanks for the info, Kelly!
Best, Matt

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