Fun with Rice and Yeast
“Sweet Jesus, this makgeolli has aspartame in it?”
I smacked my lips in distaste. In front of me, a row of cups filled with milky white liquid sat atop a pile of tasting notes. I was sitting in the basement lab space of Susubori Academy, an outpost of Kyonggi University, in a makgeolli class led by American brewers Becca Baldwin and Daniel Lenaghan. As part of the class, which cost 60,000 won for all instruction, materials and dinner, they had lined up a varied array of rice wines, ranging in taste from tangy sour to sudsy sweet, for us to try. (The tasting portion of the class was just one reason I was happy to be there.)
One of the cups contained “danyangju”, the simple makgeolli we would be making in class today over the course of a few hours. A rough-and-tumble homebrew short on sugar and long on alcoholic aftertaste, danyangju is only fermented once; to make a sweeter, more complex brew, one only has to add sugar at well-timed weekly intervals. According to Baldwin and Lenaghan, you can ferment makgeolli up to five times.
Another cup contained Slow Village, an all-natural makgeolli made by Seoul-based Baesangmyun Brewery, available in some supermarkets and through a handful of Baesangmyun's walk-in “microbreweries” posted around Seoul. That one tasted like sweet yellow melon and would, we were told, expire in less than a week.
And one of them contained a chalky shot of the ubiquitous rice wine sold in 7-11s across the city for a chunner and a half. Ironically named “Longevity,” this makgeolli is one of the many commercially-produced drinks on the market containing aspartame, a chemical much maligned by health food aficionados as posing potential health risks. It also contains a cocktail of preservatives?giving it more longevity on the shelf, to be sure, but few health benefits. Even though aspartame's been approved for human consumption by governments the world over, I just don't like it; it tastes flat and metallic, and more importantly, it's cheating. A few more go-rounds in the “balhyoshil” (fermentation room), we were told, and the homemade stuff would taste plenty sweet, without the questionable additives.
Makgeolli may seem to have less complexity than the European wines Western drinkers are familiar with: after all, it's fermented for days, not years. But stack a few different kinds up side by side like this, and it's amazing how unique each brew can be. My favorite place to do this is at the popular H Makgeolli on Haebangchon-ro, near Noksapyeong Station, where you can peruse well-written English or Korean histories of various regional makgeollis, then order a sampler of five for 2,000W.
To be sure, fermentation in all its forms is a magical process, one that lies at the heart of Korea's most iconic foods and beverages. There's something about allowing your food to be infested by alien organisms that obliges you to trust in Mother Nature?which may be harder for Westerners like me. According to Lenaghan, Asian cultures are “micophilic,” meaning they have a long tradition of working in harmony with fungi and yeast to produce healthy foods. Meanwhile, most Western cultures are “micophobic,” meaning that cooks from that side of the world have less exposure to fermented foods, and must often work to get over their mistrust of mold.
Baldwin and Lenaghan have certainly evolved past this point: as former winemakers who also make kefir, they refer to their yeast's behavior as if it were a beloved household pet. My friend Jason Lindley, a Seoul-based beermaker, feels similarly about the little beasties he uses to make his ports and ales, comparing them to “a bunch of tiny little cows, grazin' on sugar.” And indeed, having a bit of something fermenting in your kitchen is much like having a houseplant or a goldfish. Whether you're making wine, kimchi, kombucha or kefir, the process is basically the same: you put a bunch of living organisms into a controlled environment, feed them a bit of something sweet, keep 'em warm and happy, and they'll agreeably transform your food into a delicious new substance full of healthy bacteria and vitamins. And of course, varying amounts of alcohol, which is the universal byproduct of this process. This fact alone, in this writer's humble estimation, makes a jar of homebrewed makgeolli far superior to a fern on the windowsill.
So, in pursuit of greater health, a bit of fun and plain old curiosity, I went to Susubori to make the stuff myself.
As we learned there, the homemade stuff will knock you on your ass: at about 13 to 15 percent, it contains about twice the amount of commercial makgeollis. However, in contrast to the store-bought stuff, it only contains three simple ingredients: rice, yeast, and water.
Makgeolli has long been the drink of choice among rice farmers in the countryside, where it's sometimes referred to as “nongju” (farmer's liquor). As Lenaghan puts it, makgeolli was traditionally “a rainy day drink,” something that could be made easily with ingredients close at hand. In fact, according to Baldwin, “nuruk” the yeast that turns rice into makgeolli, is traditionally cultivated by leaving straw out to collect morning dew in mountainside pastures. (Romantic, eh?) These days, nuruk can occasionally be bought for a song at Baesangmyun Brewery's outposts around Seoul, or otherwise obtained by contacting Susubori Academy.
Obtaining this yeast is the hardest part of making homemade makgeolli; after that, it's rinsing and steaming the rice, which was step one in our class. Jo Hyojin, a professor at Kyonggi University who works with Susubori, said that the rule was once “one hundred rinses,” ‘til the water in your bowl of rice runs clear and free of chaff. However, after rinsing our rice (standard Korean short-grain, for those playing along at home), we moved on to soaking the rice. After two hours in a lukewarm bath, it's off to the steamer.
Unfortunately, we learned that you can't simply use your handy rice cooker for makgeolli making: the grains should be a few shades firmer than al dente, rather than cooked soft. Susubori uses a special industrial-sized steamer for this step, but a home brewer might steam the rice using an expandable metal steamer, available for cheap at most dollar stores, or by rigging up an impromptu steamer a la Mark Bittman: place a few mugs or ramekins in a deep pot, put a plate on top, and fill the pot with water til it reaches the top of the mugs and the bottom of the plate. Then place your rice inside, turn up the heat, and put the lid on tight. (Google “Mark Bittman steamer” for more on this MacGyver-style trick.)
When the rice was just starting to stick together but still fairly firm, we pulled it out of the steamer and placed it in front of a fan, which cooled and dried the rice so that it didn't kill the yeast upon contact.
Then, we added an amount of water equal to the amount of cooked rice, also heated only to the lukewarm point to keep our nuruk alive and happy. In our class, we used about 1 kilogram of rice and about a liter of water, which yielded enough makgeolli to fill a large water bottle from a convenience store.
Finally, we added about 100 grams of nuruk, or one-tenth the amount of rice. Susubori Academy has a small kitchen scale for this purpose. We mixed it all together, and poured it into jars to take home.
The Academy provided us with the jars and porous nylon sacks necessary for fermenting and then straining the rice mixture, which they told us would take a week to properly ferment. (Baldwin also sent us home with some kefir beads, a nice bonus.)
I put my proto-makgeolli under my sink for the week, stirring it a few times during the first few days to fuel the aerobic fermentation process, whereby the yeast uses oxygen to break down the sugar in the rice.
If I stopped at this point, I'd have “shikeh”, the popular rice drink served in jimjilbangs across South Korea. A tempting thought, but of course, I kept going, screwing the cap on tight so that the yeast would begin the anerobic process of pumping out alcohol. After a few days, the rice had separated into striking layers of bloated short-grain rice, brown nuruk, and a thin, golden layer of liquid on top which, if I had the capability to distill it, could become soju.
Unfortunately, things got busy at work that week, and I waited a day longer than I had planned to strain out the alcohol from the rice mash. Lenaghan warned me that makgeolli fermented past its prime tastes like “death in your mouth,” a literal graveyard of dead yeast, and it wasn't that bad?but the resulting brew was still a sour kick in the mouth with a monster of an alcoholic aftertaste. I couldn't drink it straight without wincing.
I immediately started thinking about how I'd ensure that none of it went to waste, and decided to make makgeolli sherbet. With a little sugar dissolved in water, a squeeze of honey, a half a cup of coconut flakes, a generous dash of cinnamon, a few bananas and a blender, the moonshine was completely transformed into a frozen dessert that could give the Pina Colada a run for its dinero. (Baldwin also advised me to save the leftover rice mash for “mochu”, a tea made with rice malt, ginseng, ginger and cinnamon.)
The makgeolli sherbet had one serious downside: I consumed so much during my initial tasting process that I went to bed tipsy and hallucinating, wondering if my DIY rice wine could cause moonshiner's blindness, and I woke up with an all-too-familiar hangover.
The final step was to call some friends together to consume the makgeolli sherbet and what was left of my first batch of pure homebrewed rice wine. It started semi-scientifically, with everyone, you know, trying to taste things and also think about them?but things quickly devolved into a dance party once the stuff hit our systems. As we stumbled out the door at 3 a.m.?on a school night, we groaned?I pressed my now-empty jar into the arms of my friend Josh, placing my hands on his head ceremonially like an unholy Mormon missionary passing on the priesthood. “Lisshen, my friend. You must now make the next batch,” I told him solemnly. “You must carry on the noble tradition. But if you need to learn how to do it, I think you should probably take the class ... because right now, I don't even remember how to get home.”
So it goes with fermentation experimentation: not yet an exact science, but that's the appeal.