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Makgeolli: How Korean rice wine is stepping out of soju’s shadow

(CNN) — Kim Kyung-seop recollects going to low-cost bars after class together with his mates, the place they binged on as a lot makgeolli as potential.

“You already know the saying, ‘alcohol consumes males?’ It was like that.”

Makgeolli, the milky and infrequently candy conventional rice wine from Korea, was chosen for its value, not taste.

In 1989, when Kim entered faculty, half a gallon of makgeolli price about 40 cents. He and his mates would sit round a desk, pouring makgeolli from a brass kettle into particular person brass bowls, as is custom.

Kim, now an adjunct professor at World Cyber College in Seoul, has been educating makgeolli brewing methods for 10 years. But he remembers his early encounter with the drink being unpleasantly bitter and bitter.

“After we have been with ladies, we might drink beer. However among the many boys, we drank makgeolli.” Makgeolli — with its much less stylish status — was unfit for impressing ladies.

20 years later, in bars throughout South Korea’s capital, the lackluster drink from Kim’s reminiscence was turning into stylish, this time within the arms of a younger technology of entrepreneurs and brewers.

“We labored very arduous to do away with the established photos folks maintain of makgeolli,” says Kim.

Kim Min-kyu (no relation to Kim Kyung-seop) is one brewer who had been main the change. He launched his premium makgeolli brewery Boksoondoga in 2009.

Min-kyu’s teetotaler, religious Christian father opposed his plan — particularly after having spent the household fortune supporting his son’s 5 years of coaching as an architect in New York Metropolis’s Cooper Union. His father even smashed a clay pot used for brewing makgeolli in a match of anger.

Min-kyu was not deterred. He believed within the energy of his grandmother’s makgeolli recipe.

When he was a baby, he would go to her farmhouse in Yangsan, a city within the southeast. She would combine half-steamed rice together with her do-it-yourself yeast and water. And he would hearken to the quiet effervescent of air because the combination fermented into makgeolli. His fondest reminiscences have been his grandmother generously sharing the completed brew with the neighbors, after which they might sing and dance.

He satisfied his household that brewing is an extension of structure for him. Making use of his coaching, he designed the branding, the advertising and marketing supplies and the brewery constructing, whereas his mom brewed the makgeolli, creating the primary bottle of Boksoondoga. Doga means “brewery,” and Boksoon is Kim’s mom’s identify.

The timing was fortuitous. Makgeolli was popping out of a century-long darkish age.

Kim Min-kyu is one of the trailblazers of Korea's new makgeolli scene.

Kim Min-kyu is without doubt one of the trailblazers of Korea’s new makgeolli scene.


The historical past of a drink

Makgeolli is a mixture of the Korean phrases mak (that means “roughly executed” or “a second in the past”) and geolleun (“filtered”).

Whereas the identify first seems in “Gwangjaemulbo,” an encyclopedia presumed to have been written within the 19th century, the opaque alcoholic drink doubtless dates again a millennium.

One early 20th century document claims that it was consumed in each nook of Korea.

“Makgeolli is inherent to Korean tradition, it is the drink of Korean folks,” Kim Kyung-seop says.

One cause for the recognition is its simplicity. It’s a combination of steamed rice, yeast and water, left to ferment for a couple of weeks in a clay pot. Many households throughout Korea brewed their very own drinks with their distinctive recipe.

The Japanese colonization through the first half of the 20th century introduced the tip of many cottage industries. The colonial authorities phased out homebrewers in favor of standardized, industrial liquor makers. All alcohol-making was taxed and licenses have been required, even for self-consumption.

Just a few mass-produced drinks dominated the market and, by 1934, homebrewing was outlawed.

World Conflict II and the Korean Conflict left the nation devastated. The brand new authorities continued the coverage of tightly controlling alcohol manufacturing. Because the meals scarcity worsened within the 1960s, utilizing rice — makgeolli’s key ingredient — to supply alcoholic drinks was banned.

Producers used wheat and barley as substitutes and makgeolli’s reputation sunk. It was supplanted by fashionable soju, a transparent liquor made by diluting ethanol. Because the economic system improved and rice provide outstripped consumption, the rice alcohol ban was lifted in 1989 and homebrewing was made authorized once more in 1995. However a lot custom was misplaced.

Pyongyang Pub, a North Korea-themed bar, has opened its doorways within the South Korean capital — and it has raised a couple of eyebrows.

Bringing it again residence

The restoration of the misplaced artwork of makgeolli brewing can largely be credited to pioneer researchers like Park Rock-dam. Park traveled throughout Korea for 30 years gathering recipes and recreating previous methods.

The federal government additionally reversed course on its earlier coverage, embracing conventional alcohol as a proud heritage — and doubtlessly profitable — trade.

In 2016, the federal government allowed small scale breweries and distilleries to promote their alcoholic drinks by reducing the brewing tank measurement requirement from 5,000 to 1,000 liters. The subsequent yr, conventional alcoholic drinks got the distinctive privilege of being bought on-line and delivered on to shoppers.

Whereas the Covid-19 pandemic prevented folks from going out to bars and eating places, on-line and offline gross sales of makgeolli soared. In accordance with a 2021 report printed by Korea Agro-fisheries and Meals Commerce Company (aT), a government-operated firm that promotes agricultural merchandise, the makgeolli market grew by 52.1% whereas the whole liquor market shrank by 1.6% in 2020.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli brewing course.

Kim Kyung-seop teaches a makgeolli brewing course.

Kim Kyung-seop

In Kim Kyung-seop’s makgeolli class, half of the scholars are entrepreneurs, a lot of them ladies of their 30s or youthful. Ten years in the past, virtually everybody in school was over 50 and trying to brew makgeolli as a pastime of their retirement.

Since 2009, the variety of makgeolli brewing license holders have elevated by 43%, in accordance with Nationwide Tax Service information.

Kim says that opening a makgeolli brewery is far simpler than every other kind of alcohol. Whereas gear for organising a beer microbrewery is round 200-300 million received ($155,000-233,000), gear for a makgeolli brewery will be acquired for 10 million received ($7,800), Kim says. Moreover, it solely takes 4 3-hour courses to brew one thing that is higher than the mass market makgeolli, he provides.

Going world

An Australian citizen, Julia Mellor initially got here to South Korea to show English. Then in 2009, she encountered makgeolli.

Now, her enterprise The Sool Firm supplies makgeolli courses and consultations for these serious about opening their very own brewery, however most of her shoppers are from abroad. She says her enterprise quadruped through the pandemic.

Her shoppers are from international locations just like the US, Singapore and Denmark. Lots of them are members of the Korean diaspora. “They watch Korean folks having fun with it right here and they’re impressed to convey it again to their nation,” she says.

“It was so completely different, so attention-grabbing. It’s uncommon to find one thing folks on the planet have not heard of.”

She organized meetups with fellow fans and ultimately taught herself Korean as a result of most assets weren’t accessible in English.

07 makgeolli korean rice wine

Members in a The Sool Firm tasting session maintain up their glasses.

The Sool Firm

Mellor believes makgeolli will enchantment to overseas audiences.

“It is very simple to homebrew. You merely want rice and nuruk (yeast).”

And for her, propagating the makgeolli carries one other layer.

“That is saving one thing that was on the point of disappearing,” says Mellor.

Kim Min-kyu says his makgeolli shall be bought within the US and Austria this yr and different Western patrons have been approaching him. His makgeolli is already successful in Japan, the place it turned well-liked throughout Hallyu, or the Korea-wave within the mid-2000s, a interval when the success of Okay-dramas and Okay-pop opened the door to different cultural exports like kimchi and conventional drinks.

“To overseas shoppers, this pure fermentation is taken into account wholesome, natural and clear. And it is a kind of alcohol they’ve by no means seen earlier than,” Min-kyu says.

Korean “smooth energy” has expanded past Asia previously few years. He believes makgeolli can journey this wave.

Making it cool

Regardless of the fast advance of makgeolli, the South Korean alcoholic beverage market continues to be dominated by soju and beer, which account for greater than 80% of gross sales.

Min-kyu says the best problem going through makgeolli makers is the general public notion that the drink is for previous folks. Most of his promoting and advertising and marketing focuses on altering this notion. In a single advert, a sharp-looking male mannequin with shaved head and eyebrow piercings delicately pours the makgeolli right into a champagne flute.

Altering perceptions regarding the meals finest paired with makgeolli is one other impediment.

In Korean tradition, alcohol is sort of all the time consumed with a set meal or snack. For makgeolli, that is jeon, a Korean savory pancake made by frying meat or greens in seasoned flour batter.

“A cool sip of makgeolli after a chew of savory scallion jeon acts as a palate cleanser readying you to totally take pleasure in one other savory chew,” Kim Kyung-seop says.

The combo is very well-liked on wet days. The sale of makgeolli and substances for jeon climbs sharply on wet days throughout main comfort retailer chains, in accordance with a report by the Ministry of Economic system and Finance.

However premium makgeolli, with its large spectrum of taste, effervescence and physique can pair nicely with any kind of meals, Min-kyu says.

“I drink it with jajangmyeon (a Chinese language-Korean noodle dish) and it pairs very nicely with ice cream too. As a result of it is a fermented drink, it tastes nice with different fermented meals. I believe it is scrumptious with kimchi and actually flavorful cheese,” Min-kyu added.

Boksoondoga makgeolli was lately the principle providing at a gastropub inconspicuously nestled within the stylish Hapjeong district of Seoul. Trendy bartenders deftly poured the drink into stemless wine glasses. The shoppers, principally younger professionals, savored the drinks whereas stress-free to hip-hop music. In a leather-bound menu, beef tartare was being supplied alongside an array of different premium makgeolli manufacturers.

On the tables, extra ladies stuffed the seats than males did. After every pour, the bartender defined the flavors and the origin. They smiled. They lifted the glass to their lips, fastidiously listening to every observe hidden within the drink.

Jihye Yoon and Minji Music contributed to this report

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