Makgeolli, why you so sweet?
When it comes to Korean alcohol, there is no denying that there is a tendency for it to be on the sweet side. For the most part, makgeolli, cheongju, and even our familiar green-bottled friend, soju, swing to the tunes of sugary. In the booze pantheons of beer and wine, there is an array of flavor profiles that can satisfy the thirsts of even the pickiest of palates, but makgeolli inevitably gets labeled as the ‘sweet’ drink. But why is makgeolli consistently sweet, and is there a way to navigate through the maze of plastic bottles to find a rogue dry gem? If you’re someone on the quest for the latter, stay tuned for the coveted roadmap.
First of all, we need to put something out on the table. The vast majority of makgeolli is artificially sweetened, predominantly with aspartame or alternative sweeteners such as stevia or erythritol. Now before you spit out your drink and cry makgeolli foul, it’s equally important to understand why sweeteners dominate the current market.
Makgeolli is a watered-down product of rice fermentation that can reach alcohol percentages of between 12 and 19% upon filtration. In its diluted state, makgeolli has the much more quaffable friendly ABV of around the 6% mark, satisfying the consumer demographic looking for light-bodied refreshment. But this low alcohol percentage is precisely what puts makgeolli in its sweetener predicament.
Due to the nature of its live fermentation, the taste of makgeolli will continue to change over the course of its short shelf life. If there are high temperatures that might occur during transport as bottles travel from brewery to bar, makgeolli is then prone to spoilage, and nobody likes the taste of an off-brew. And of course, adding water doesn’t just dilute the ABV, but it also compromises the flavor. So how do breweries sidestep these landmines of commercial production? The use of sweeteners is an inexpensive solution to producing a consistent taste for their loyal consumers.
Artificial sweeteners were originally introduced during the post-Korean war period when a ban on using rice for brewing was in place and access to quality starches was restricted. Fast-forward to current times and not only is quality rice once again available but so too is high tech refrigeration and cold storage transport. Yet for the most part, commercial makgeolli breweries continue to use aspartame and other additives to keep their brews sweet. The reason for them doing so is more complex than you might think.
For one, the consumers are hooked. After decades of drinking alcohol with a predominantly sweet profile, the association sweetness and makgeolli has become expected. The current makgeolli market is so completely saturated with sweetener use that finding brews that do not contain them is considered rare. Not only that, many makgeolli drinkers are long time loyalists to their favorite brands, and as such they expect a certain consistency when ordering a bottle. For a brewery to change their recipe to no longer contain sweeteners, the change in flavor would be so dramatic that they risk losing their long-running consumer bases in an already small market. Not using sweeteners would also likely mean a longer fermentation time with higher volumes of rice, which would set off financial alarm bells for the brewery accountant. Most breweries are not large money making machines, makgeolli only making roughly 4-5% of total alcohol sales in Korea yearly, so such a decision would be a costly one.
"For a brewery to change their recipe to no longer contain sweeteners, the change in flavor would be so dramatic that they risk losing their long-running consumer bases in an already small market."
Yet there is hope. Five years ago, finding makgeolli without aspartame was usually limited to two or three brands. Yet now we are seeing a growing awareness and breweries are taking on the challenge of returning a sense of quality to the fermentation process by creating all-natural makgeolli. Perhaps one of the most inspiring stories is of a relatively small operation, Hyechang Brewery, that has consciously made the choice to convert a recipe previously dependent on sweeteners to a completely sweetener-free brew. Not without struggles, the brewery continued to experiment, test, and tweak its flagship makgeolli, and is now is currently one of the more popular brews around.
"Yet now we are seeing a growing awareness and breweries taking on the challenge of returning a sense of quality to the fermentation process by creating all-natural makgeolli."
And of course we should not forget one of the pioneers of artificial sweetener-free makgeolli, Baesangmyeon Brewery’s Neurin Maeul. A mainstay of accessible makgeolli, found in many bars and larger supermarkets, Neurin Maeul doesn’t just acknowledge the fact that makgeolli changes its taste throughout the shelf-life, they embrace it. Choosing to refer to those progressive changes as ‘seasons,’ the brewery educates its drinkers by describing what to expect depending on what day you might be drinking it. Whether you like the sweeter banana notes of freshly filtered spring, or the more mature and more carbonated winter, a visit to one of their brew pubs means you can get a pitcher of your favorite ‘season.’
So now we know why most makgeolli errs on the sweet side, but what of the aforementioned key to the promised land of non-sweet brews? They are small in number, but their following is growing. The aforementioned Hyechang makgeolli is certainly making its name as a reliably balanced brew without the heavy sweet notes. Also one of the longest running and well-known dry-style brews is Song Myeong Sub makgeolli. Even more easily found in bars than Neurin Maeul, Song Myeong Sub boasts an ingredients list of purely rice, water, and the wheat based fermentation starter called nuruk.
Korean traditional alcohol certainly has roots in sweetness, but there is a broad range of dry, sour, tangy, fruity, and floral flavor profiles possible simply from the fermentation process. The tide of artificial sweeteners is slowly turning and that can only mean more depth, variety and quality on the horizon for our favorite rainy day brew.
Tips: To find out if a brew contains sweeteners, check the label for the following:
Aspartame: 아스파탐 Stevia: 스티비아사이드 Erythritol: 에리스리톨