I had one of the most magical dining and drinking experiences of my life in South Korea for $10. It was a veritable feast, with an endless parade of dishes appearing at lightning speed in front of our hungry group—kimchi pancakes, pork belly with two-year-old kimchi and tofu, grilled fish, sesame-fried egg, soy-marinated crab and rice, whole chicken soup with wild sesame. The star of the show, however, was the meal's essential drink, brought to the table in kettles and served in brass bowls. Held within was makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine that's cloudy-milky in appearance and wields a tangy, fizzy, lactic-fermented flavor. It's addictively good.
As you drink, the restaurant—an establishment such as Yetchon Makgeolli in the town of Jeonju where such wondrous feasts are a specialty—serves up a frenetic and intoxicating assortment of delicious dishes. Need more makgeolli? Shake that empty kettle and get it cling-clanging as loud as you can until the staff places another before you.
It's a boisterous adrenaline rush of a meal, and something that any traveler should try at least once. "The Jeonju makgeolli experience is definitely one of the highlights of eating your way through Korea since it is unlike anything else in the world," says Daniel Gray, a food journalist and tour guide who included the meal while designing Intrepid Travel's immersive South Korea Real Food Adventure, an immersive weeklong food crawl he occasionally leads himself.
It was my first taste of makgeolli, and I needed to learn more.
What Is Makgeolli?
Par-cook some rice, add some water and a fermentation starter (generally nuruk, a traditional brick of yeast, lactic acid bacteria, and other microorganisms that convert the rice starch to sugar) and leave it in a clay pot to ferment for a few days or up to a week, and voilà, you have the startlingly simple essence of makgeolli.
"Makgeolli is one style under the greater category of sool," says Alice Jun, who's in the process of building out Hana Makgeolli, a Brooklyn makgeolli brewery. Broadly, sools are (mostly rice-based) Korean alcohols, which are designated with the -ju suffix. She describes an organizational sool chart including wonju, which is unfiltered and can basically be split into yakju or cheongju, which has been filtered or clarified, and makgeolli, which is unfiltered and proofed down with water to under 10% ABV. Takju is also unfiltered and proofed down but kept above 10%. There's also soju, which is distilled, and gwahaju, which is fortified. As you'd expect, there are myriad other subcategories and styles as well.
Makgeolli, a name which basically translates to “roughly filtered,” was the common person's drink. "Makgeolli is called 'farmer’s alcohol' so it would be made using grains and consumed during break time or saecham," Gray says, referring to a traditional communal mealtime. "It was a time to refresh, socialize, and break the monotony of the day. It was also very nutritious so it was a great energy boost. As Jeonju is a farming area, the makgeolli meal is saecham on overdrive."
According to Jun, when sool was made the wonju would be separated and divvied out in different tiers. The higher rungs of the world got the yakju, while the lower classes got the leftovers. "The remaining unfiltered sediment would be watered down into makgeolli and given to those of working, or lower socioeconomic class," she says. "As a result, makgeolli was known to be the farmer's drink—a bowl of makgeolli in substitution for a bowl of rice."
The history of sools stretches back millennia in Korea. "Sools have a long, beautiful history within the Korean peninsula, the earliest having been documented during the Goguryeo kingdom," Jun says. The kingdom was founded in 37 BC and fell in 668. "Advancements in Korean sool-making and methodologies were driven by home brewing practices, which were women-led, the influence of Confucianism, and Mongolian distilling practices."
Alas, much of the commercially produced makgeolli readily available today is of a lower quality than it used to be. Wheat is often used in tandem with rice, or in place of it. "War, occupation, famine, rice shortages, government regulations, all of this had a significant impact," Jun says.
With homebrewing being banned in Korea during the 20th century, production was condensed into fewer, larger factories. The ban not only impacted overall quality, with emphasis shifting toward speed and efficiency, but also the diversity of what was available, eliminating what had been an abundance of local and regional specialties. After that, the use of rice in alcohol production was banned due to rice shortages. That's why even to this day, most soju is made with a starch such as sweet potato or tapioca. The use of rice in alcohol production and homebrewing have only been legalized within the past few decades.
With makgeolli, the use of wheat remains as a standard practice, as well as a way of keeping costs down. "Almost all of the commercial makgeolli are mixed with wheat flour due to costs of rice," Gray says.
Along the way there were other shifts in production and process for similar reasons, and with similar results, including the use of aspartame as a sweetener. "Over the years, production has changed from local or ambient spontaneous fermentation to more factory-produced yeasts," says Victoria James, beverage director of the Korean steakhouse Cote in New York. James and the Cote crew recently took a trip to Korea and did their own on the ground exploration of makgeolli, among other subjects. "And the traditional clay pots that were originally used for production were mostly replaced with stainless steel, large tanks."
Makgeolli fell out of favor, in part thanks to reduced quality, as well as bearing a stigma of sorts, being viewed as an old-school, poor man's drink, but it's beginning to rebound now with upstarts in Korea who are renewing focus on proper production methods and quality ingredients. "There are artisanal places that make it with organic rice," Gray says. "And depending on where it's made, some producers add in other grains or nuts such as corn, black bean, peanut, and sweet rice."
James points to Mr. Ahn's Craft Makgeolli in Seoul, where she had her best makgeolli experience. "We were able to compare different styles of makgeolli, including even one style that was really just the mash or paste used pre-fermentation," she says. There are dedicated bars such as Wolhyang, with several outposts, and even an operator in Seoul called The Sool Company, which offers brewing classes and tasting tours.
With Hana Makageolli, Jun is working toward bringing the movement here as well. "I think the emergence of makgeolli and Korean sool is inevitable in the US," she says. Hers isn't the only stateside operation, either. It's not even the only one in New York. There's also Rosalyn Kim' DudukJu, which brews NY Saeng Mak in small batches on a farm in Shawangunk Ridge. True to historic form, it's women taking the lead.
Several other projects though have come and gone in the past few years. In Chicago, Slow City Brewery opened in 2013 and was backed by a major Korean player, Baesangmyun, but has since closed. Seattle's Korean steakhouse and brewery Girin was also making its own makgeolli, but shuttered this spring.
Hopefully this time, with quality producers as well as believers in the restaurant and bar world, makgeolli is here to stay. "The problem with importing makgeolli from Korea is that it has to be pasteurized and stabilized with chemicals for the long journey," James says. "If the brew were made locally, higher quality could be the focus. And producers like Hana Makgeolli are making a traditional style that is naturally higher in ABV, and not diluted with water and chemicals." She plans on offering Jun's products once they're commercially available.
"Our goal is to help establish sool as a category of alcohol in the US by showing its breadth and complexity, which can only be done by using high-quality ingredients and adapting brewing technologies to maintain traditional methodologies," Jun says. "Makgeolli can be a beautiful drink that pairs well with a wide range of cuisines and on any occasion."
Perhaps an abundance of American-made makgeolli will soon be within reach. Of course, you should still hop on over to Jeonju, too. There's nothing else like it.