In a cozy bar in central Seoul, a long table is lined with people slowly swirling and carefully considering a creamy liquid inside small ceramic cups. “Too sour,” one says. “Not for me,” says another. “There’s a complexity and earthiness I like.” “I preferred the first – sweeter and more balanced.” The cups are filled with makgeolli — Korea’s traditional, fermented, rice-based adult beverage — and the scene is a typical meeting of the Makgeolli Mamas and Papas Korea.
A faceless drink no longer
To dive into the world of makgeolli is to experience a living, breathing example of traditional Korean culture mirrored by the rich, ever-evolving, microbial nature of the brew itself. Makgeolli has weathered Japanese occupation, rice shortages and the rise of the utilitarian cocktail of cheap beer and soju and emerged as one of the few unbroken cultural links tying modern Korea to its traditional past.
MMPK is an organization that celebrates that link by fostering a community of discerning customers, passionate bar owners and innovative home brewers in order to curate information about makgeolli culture for the public domain. Founded on the spirit of free inquiry and knowledge sharing, MMPK brings together makgeolli lovers worldwide to discuss, learn about and drink makgeolli.
The organization is led by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Julia Mellor, an Australian radio personality and self-styled makgeolli activist. She founded MMPK with fellow expat Monica Kluge (who has since returned to Canada) in 2011 after they realized how little substantive information was available online. In a culture where, according to Dan McLaughlin, managing partner of MMPK, “makgeolli is often served quite facelessly as just makgeolli,” Mellor and Kluge “saw the potential to develop a drink similar to something like beer or wine, where you know what type of makgeolli you like, what brand you like and what the taste profile is like.”
To that end, MMPK hosts Saturday night meetings at a variety of bars around Seoul every three weeks. Some are traditional wooden makgeolli houses with dim lights and dented kettles, while others are more contemporary, upscale bars selling premium brews and spirits. “There are so many different kinds of makgeolli atmospheres that are all valid and all worth exploring,” says Mellor. “That’s the exciting thing about the industry — it’s not just going down one path. It’s the bar, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the culture; it’s everything.”
A recipe for the generations
So what exactly is makgeolli? When water and rice are fermented with nuruk (a whole-wheat yeast and enzyme culture) and subsequently filtered, the product is a thick, creamy brew that slowly settles into two distinct layers. The clear, strong top layer is known as cheongju (or sometimes yakju) and is what Joseon-era royalty were fond of imbibing. The thick, cloudy, sediment-rich bottom called takju was more commonly drunk by the lower class, giving rise to the reputation of makgeolli as a farmer’s drink. These days, most regular makgeolli found in plastic bottles around Korea is takju watered down to a quaffable 6-8 percent ABV.
For hundreds of years, makgeolli was a purely homemade affair, with matriarchs passing recipes and techniques down through generations. Many of these traditional methods were lost during the Japanese occupation and subsequent years of turmoil on the Korean Peninsula. Nuruk cultures were banned for a time, and the Japanese rice culture ipguk was consumed in its place. During the rice shortages following the Korean War, brewers were forced to use substitutes such as corn and wheat. Brewing almost disappeared from household knowledge, and consumers increasingly patronized commercial breweries that began using pasteurization and artificial sweeteners to regulate the flavor of their brews, thereby lengthening their shelf lives.
One of MMPK’s greatest concerns about today’s makgeolli industry is its reliance on aspartame, an artificial sweetener with a controversial health record. The group actively encourages breweries to go chemical-free, but many consumers’ palates have evolved to prefer those super saccharine brews. Paik Ung-jae, owner of Tricycle bar in Seoul’s Hapjeong neighborhood, notes that modern refrigeration and storage methods make the need for artificial sweetening outdated, but that older brewers are often loath to change their ways. Those famed makgeolli headaches? The result of drinking chemicals, not fermented rice.
growing number of premium makgeolli brewers have started marketing artisanal brews for customers looking to sip and savor rather than glug. Traditional multistage fermentation gives the higher-percentage makgeolli a depth and breadth of flavor often not present in regular supermarket brews. Paik sees the potential for premium makgeolli and cheongju to create a new generation of connoisseurship, because there is “no such thing as an only-makgeolli drinker — just a lover of good drinks in general.” He is excited for consumers’ growing interest to challenge brewers to continue developing new high-quality products.
Find your flavor
One of the best ways to avoid chemical-laden makgeolli is to make your own. MMPK has teamed up with award-winning brewing instructors Becca Baldwin and Daniel Lenaghan to connect aspiring makgeolli home brewers with the classes and resources to get them fermenting away in no time. Baldwin and Lenaghan lead courses at Susubori Academy, a traditional alcohol education and research institute based at Kyonggi University in Seoul, and are founders of Makgeolli Makers, their own independent brewing venture. They teach both introductory and advanced technique classes, and often partner with MMPK to host special events.
The appeal of home brewing was the impetus for many MMPK members to get involved with makgeolli in the first place. Jeremy Cape, an MMPK regular, says that he had lived in Korea for two years without ever enjoying makgeolli until he tasted a friend’s home brew. He was floored by the complexity and richness of the beverage that tasted nothing like what was in the cheap green bottles. “Making your own (makgeolli), you can tailor it to what you like,” Cape notes. Possessing a passion for loose-leaf tea and a preference for sweeter, balanced brews, he is working on a green tea makgeolli recipe that is perfectly attuned to his palate.
For those with limited patience for brewing, some affordable aspartame-free regular makgeolli is available at E-Mart, Homeplus and even some smaller shops. Baesangmyeon Brewery, one of the largest makgeolli breweries in Korea, makes Neurin Maeul, a flavorsome and balanced session brew. Baldwin and Lenaghan often point to Baesangmyeon’s success at brewing an affordable yet high-quality and all-natural makgeolli as a potential model for other breweries. Another great aspartame-free supermarket makgeolli to look out for is Yetnal, which stands out from its shelf companions for its earthy, dusty taste.
To develop a palate for makgeolli, a good first step is to get to a well-curated bar, and MMPK recommends a selection. For an upscale dining experience, head to Tricycle in Hapjeong. Here you will find some of the most top-shelf Korean alcohols in the world, not just makgeolli but also cheongju and soju. The biggest draw is the owner’s extensive wealth of knowledge and passion for the industry, as well as personalized recommendations. For something more casual, check out Moomyeong Jip in Sangsu. One of the first bars that MMPK ever reviewed, it has great atmosphere and good value and quality products. The space is both comfortable and vibrant, and their selection of makgeolli should have something to please most palates.
In Insa-dong, the hands-down favorite traditional establishment is Story of the Blue Star, nestled in an old hanok house down a back alley. Despite it being a favorite among bloggers, the experience here is refreshingly consistent and queue-free. Expect to be treated to makgeolli in ice-cold kettles and a lively atmosphere. Just next door is MMPK’s favorite all-rounder, Nuruk Namu. With a contemporary feel, it boasts an extensive selection of both regular and premium makgeolli, delicious food and a helpful and knowledgeable owner, a juxtaposition of the old and new that sums up the dynamic world of makgeolli today.