Makgeolli: How Korea’s Traditional Drink Made A Comeback
Image Credit: Seoul in Love

South Korea has long been renowned the world over for its prominent drinking culture. You'd be hard pressed to find a Korean of age that is a teetotaler. Nearly every man and woman in the country has had a few cold ones in their social circles over the years. Koreans aren’t averse to enjoying a pint or two when taking some time off with family, or out at karaoke nights, or kicking back with some soju in the company of close friends. Soju is the usual poison of choice, given the drinks’ cheap price and ubiquity. That said, it isn't the only traditional alcohol the country consumes. Koreans have been fermenting rice to make hooch for centuries. The most interesting of their concoctions is also the oldest of the lot - makgeolli, a sparkling rice wine.

Makgeolli’s appearance and defining characteristics can vary depending on the recipe, which is often a familial heirloom. The drink is categorized as a sparkling rice wine that is off-white in color and slightly fizzy with a cloudy appearance. Makgeolli prepared using traditional methods have a higher amount of carbonation owing to longer ferment times. The ‘cloudy’ look is due to the beverage’s traditional one stage filtration through a mesh. Factory made makgeolli usually lacks sediment. The beverage is ideally slightly sweet to taste, the final palate being determined by a variety of factors, such as fermentation time, temperature, proof (usually six to nine percent) etc. It is usually prepared as a familial effort, with the women doing the main part of the work.

Makgeolli is Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage, dating back to the three kingdoms era (1 BCE-7 CE). The bubbly drink was originally consumed by farmers to deal with fatigue and is considered a communal beverage today. The drink is traditionally prepared using ‘chapssal’ (short-grain sticky rice), and/or ‘Maepssal’ (short-grain non-sticky rice).  The rice is washed to remove starch, up to six times. Park Bok-soon, the owner of the South Korean brewery Boksoondoga, says that the way the rice is prepared is crucial to the final taste and texture of the beverage. Bok-soon runs the brewery with her family, producing the beverage artisanally using a recipe that she developed herself. She starts off by steaming the rice in clay pots topped with bamboo lids and lined with thin cotton sheets. The rice is cooked al dente, spread out flat and left to cool. It is important that the rice is firm so that it can hold its own during the fermentation process; the end product will be excessively sour if the rice used is mushy. 

The cooked rice is then fermented using a traditional starter called nuruk. Nuruk is the starter used for nearly all Korean rice alcohol that is made traditionally. The starter is prepared using broken wheat and rice (barley may be added). The grains are mixed by hand with a bit of water, and pressed into a cake with the help of a frame, after which it is left in a controlled environment that favors the growth of specific microbial strains. Bok-soon emphasizes how difficult it is to get the nuruk right, and laments that most people don't go through the effort, preferring to use lab made strains instead. In the next step, the rice is inoculated with crumbled nuruk, and is left to ferment in large Onggi (traditional Korean earthenware) pots. The fermentation process can take up to 20 days, and is done in temperature controlled rooms. The construction of these rooms can drastically affect the fermentation process. Kim Min-kyu, Bok-soon’s eldest son, and the company’s CEO, designed the whole brewery.  They build the fermentation room in a manner that ensures the process is consistent year round.

The fermented mash is filtered using a traditional mesh strainer, and a cheesecloth. The mixture is subject to just one level of filtration, which is why the final product has a large amount of sediment. The strained liquid is then bottled, after which it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. The second fermentation is what carbonates the beverage. But that first fermentation is paramount to how the liquid ‘ages’ in the bottle, which is proportional to the drinks fizziness. The second fermentation can take anywhere between three to seven days, after which it is refrigerated.

Makgeolli has a shelf life that ranges from ten days to three months, depending on the method of preparation and microbial activity. Manufacturers are increasingly opting to pasteurize the beverage, which extends the shelf life up to a hundred days. This practice is commonplace for large companies, or small brands that choose to export their offerings. Some connoisseurs consider this blasphemous as it destroys most of the complex enzymes and flavor compounds that make the beverage enjoyable.

While most family owned operations make the drink the traditional way, younger artisans, especially those based in other countries, prepare the beverage using contemporary methods. Artisanal makgeolli produced using neo-traditional methods, with added natural flavorings like herbs and fruit, has seen an immense boom in both domestic and international markets in the last five years.