Growing up in Queens, Carol Pak would see makgeolli on the table at Korean restaurants, but the sweet, milky drink wasn't popular among her family and friends. “There was a stigma associated with makgeolli,” she says. “It was for elderly people or lightweights who couldn't really drink.” At less than 7% ABV, this diluted yeast-fermented rice wine is like a low alcohol beer, the base from which soju is distilled.
“In Korean culture, conformity is important and people drink in larger format bottles,” Pak says. “The group will make a decision to drink something for the night. For the longest time, it was always soju.” But with low-ABV drinks en vogue and Americans increasingly interested in new international flavors, it could be time for makgeolli to shine. The New York Times predicted makgeolli will be a new trend in 2020 and Pak is determined to bring makgeolli to the masses with Makku, America's first craft rice beer company. Makku is available for same-day delivery in New York and ships nationwide.
Makgeolli is Korea's original alcohol, dating back to the 10th century, and was the most popular alcoholic beverage in Korea until imported alcohol began flooding the country in the 1970s. Over the past decade, makgeolli has enjoyed a resurgence in Korea among a younger generation, thanks to government intervention to preserve the culture and history surrounding the ancient beverage. “There was a huge push from the Korean government for makgeolli,” Pak says. “It's Korea's oldest drink and it was declining so much they were afraid it would disappear. They incentivized companies and celebrities and pushed it as a healthy drink, a drink for women, with new makgeolli bars and media around it.”
Today, Koreans tout unpasteurized makgeolli as a healthy drink for its high probiotic content, and there are hundreds of craft makgeolli breweries in South Korea along with dozens of makgeolli bars in Seoul. It wasn't until a trip to Seoul with friends in 2017 that Pak began drinking high-quality makgeolli at these bars and discovered an unexpected range and depth of flavor in a drink she'd previously dismissed as too sweet and simplistic.
Back home in New York City, however, her makgeolli cravings could not be satisfied. “The makgeolli in the US is mass-produced and the ingredients have changed a lot from original makgeolli brewing methods,” Pak explains. “During and after the Korean War, there was rice rationing so they had no choice but to change the recipe. Once other ingredients aside from rice were introduced it lowered the quality and the big companies never changed back to the original recipe.”
Brands might use rice flour, rice flavoring or raw rice instead of steaming rice and letting it ferment with nuruk. Pak had previous beverage industry experience as “entrepreneur in residence” at ZX Ventures, a division of Anheuser Busch InBev (an investor in October), and the aspiring entrepreneur saw an opportunity to create an all-natural, modern iteration of makgeolli for an American audience.
Although she is a beverage industry veteran, Pak had no experience with brewing prior to Makku. She joined a Facebook group for makgeolli home brewers (most of whom were non-Korean) and a friend gifted her a DIY makgeolli making kit from Korea, although she couldn't get it to ferment. “The instructions were in Korean and Koreans are not good at writing instructions,” she says with a laugh. Ultimately, with help from her licensed herbologist mom, Pak developed a recipe for makgeolli, which she began producing at Blue Current Brewery in Maine. After receiving an injection of cash from investors, she moved production of Makku's makgeolli to Gapyeong, Korea, a region renowned for its pure spring water.
Pak was brewing makgeolli with sweeter glutinous rice but now in Korea, she's using short-grain rice from Gimpo. She adds cane sugar to sweeten the beverage and pasteurizes it, as is required for imports to the United States. After a series of makgeolli and fruit puree taste tests with friends and acquaintances in New York, Pak came up with her first line of flavors—mango, blueberry and original. The fruit puree is added after the makgeolli is brewed and for future flavors Pak hopes to work with a food scientist.
“Coming from a tech startup background and going through an accelerator program at ZX Ventures, I knew how important consumer testing was for getting a product into the market,” Pak says. She conducted online surveys and focus groups, sampled other makgeolli brands at public parks for consumer feedback, and produced multiple test batches of Makku to hone in on what would resonate with American consumers. “People told me they didn't want to see the white liquid, that there aren’t enough beer alternatives out there and that Makku is so smooth and easy to drink that they’d definitely buy,” she says. “That helped me validate the concept and move forward with branding.”
Pak settled on a clean, minimalist white can to convey modernity. “I wanted to hide the white color of the drink but maybe subconsciously prime the consumer to think the whiteness of the drink was ok,” she says. Once a few restaurants in New York picked up Makku, Pak says she was 100 percent focused on consumer reaction. “I would sit at our restaurants and just observe who was purchasing our product, the reactions on their face after the first sip, how they were drinking it, if they would order another,” she says. “Often, I would approach the customer and ask a few questions.”
She also sponsored events from Asian film and art festivals to Yelp Elite events and holiday shopping events, giving her an opportunity to gauge what kind of person Makku attracted and answer their questions. Pak says the biggest challenge has been explaining what makgeolli is and what category it belongs in. She positions it as a social, casual, sessionable beer alternative and says her target consumer is between 25 and 40 years old with an even split between genders. “We see a lot of interest from Asian-Americans because they have had more exposure to the drink, and our rice flavor is generally not off-putting to their palates,” Pak says. “Outside of Asian Americans, our typical consumer is open-minded, experimental, appreciates tradition, enjoys cooking and high quality food, values word-of-mouth recommendations and is interested in other cultures.”
In the near future, Pak is considering launching a drier style and a higher alcohol premium makgeolli too, with dreams of opening her own tap room in New York one day. For now though, Pak is focused on expanding brand awareness and online sales. Before COVID-19, 80% of her sales were on-premise, but with restaurants and bars in New York closed, she's focusing efforts on digital marketing.