The relatively recent flood of articles predicting a new era for makgeolli, the once-overlooked drink, signaled a shift in the alcoholic beverage`s low profile.
The question is: Is makgeolli`s newfound celebrity status permanent?
Under the din of the press, a movement towards the establishment of makgeolli, or more accurately, takju (unrefined liquor), as an artisanal libation, is underway.
A series of connoisseurs and artisans who are serious about the role they play in the creation of a viable and lasting market and culture for the beverage reveal its merit, charm and beauty.
Well-versed in the history of the drink, documentary filmmaker-turned-makgeolli establishment owner Zhang Ki-chul converted his 19-year old nomadic style Japanese restaurant into a makgeolli bar in early August.
Zhang`s bar, christened Chin Chin, only sells makgeolli made from rice; a fact that takes on significance when Zhang sits down to share his wealth of knowledge.
"Makgeolli must be made with rice," said Zhang, who calls himself jumo - a term used to refer to the women who customarily run makgeolli establishments.
To explain why, he referenced the mid-1960s when the production of rice-based makgeolli was banned by the government because of the scarcity of rice: "One could not even eat rice, so, of course, one could not make makgeolli with it."
"America provided aid. Flour was supplied for free."
According to Zhang, this resulted in the proliferation of the use of flour to brew makgeolli, a method he claims is still widely practiced today; despite the fact that the rice shortage has long since faded into the annals of history.
In order to prove his point and to demonstrate that flour-based and rice-based makgeolli stand at different ends of the taste spectrum, he has a glass of each brought out for a blind tasting.
The flour-based drink is thick and heavy while the one made with 100 percent rice is thinner and lighter in consistency. Whether one is better than the other seems to be a matter of personal preference.
Preference, however, does not seem factor into Zhang`s reasoning. It is about tradition, about returning to one`s roots. Zhang argues that flour is not in keeping with custom because makgeolli was traditionally made with rice.
"What is the identity of Korean makgeolli?" Zhang asks.
"When it is made with Korean agricultural products," he answers. "High quality makgeolli should be made out of Korean agricultural products and Korean yeast."
A majority of Korean makgeolli is made with Japanese yeast, he said. While there are quite a few breweries that use imported rice, says Zhang, there are only a few makgeolli breweries that use domestic ingredients exclusively.
"Out of 800 makgeolli breweries in Korea, there are only two or three," he said.
Amongst his own extensive collection of makgeolli - Chin Chin sports around nine varieties, makgeolli cocktails not included - only two fit the bill: the fragrant and elegant Buja Draft Makgeolli and the sour yet rich Song Myung Sub (a makgeolli made with sticky rice).
"(Song Myung Sub) is made with Korean sticky rice and Korean yeast," the 38-year old connoisseur elaborated. "He farms. His wife makes the yeast. He made his own brewery."
"He is the most independent brewer."
Independent might be an understatement. Flying in the face of the current trend towards sweet makgeolli, Song`s beverage is quite sour. This is because it has no aspartame - an artificial sweetener that, according to Zhang, is commonly used in makgeolli.
Zhang theorizes that the tendency to use aspartame stems from the low alcohol level of the beverage. Makgeolli is a drink made by adding water to takju (unrefined liquor), dropping it from its original 16 proof to a low 6, he explained.
"Because it tastes bland, aspartame is added. There are almost no makgeolli that do not contain aspartame."
Indeed, Song`s makgeolli takes several sips before its nutty richness and pear-like fragrance emerges from its vinegary veil. It is the kind of drink that takes some getting used to.
A kind of maverick jumo, Zhang`s dishes are equally challenging. Chin Chin`s cheese and jeotgal (salted seafood) tapas in particular seem like an odd coupling. But the two ingredients make for a delectable marriage of flavors, especially when paired with makgeolli.
Chin Chin`s makgeolli cocktails are also delightfully innovative. The Indochina Coconut Makgeolli, infused with a hint of lemongrass tea extract, is a great drink for beginners. The slightly yeasty quality of the makgeolli is masked by the fragrant milkiness of the coconut.
"In a cocktail, makgeolli is a shy ingredient," Zhang explained. "It loses its frame but not its essence."
In addition to an extensive list of makgeolli, Chin Chin also sells other high quality takju, leading to an approximate total of 12 varieties.
"Now when people come to our establishment, no one says, `Some makgeolli please,`" Zhang expressed his pride at having heightened an awareness of the diversity of the drink. "They say, `Please give me so-and-so makgeolli.`"
Against the grain
One of the few companies to specialize in upscale takju made exclusively from domestic ingredients, Baehaejung Nurukdoga started making makgeolli before it became big.
"At the time makgeolli`s status was very low," said Baehaejung Nurukdoga CEO Bae Hae-jung.
The daughter of Bae Sang-myeon - the genius behind the popular ginseng-based liquor Bek Se Ju and founder of prominent brewery Kook Soon Dang - Bae first established her business in 2000.
Bae started off by designing high-end glass bottles for her revolutionary Buja, a radical departure from the customary plastic bottles that makgeolli was packaged in.
Essentially an undiluted makgeolli grouped under the category of takju - to clarify, the term takju, according to Bae, applies to cloudy liquor - the 16 proof Buja was not well received in the beginning.
"People said all sorts of things, like `What kind of alcohol is this? Is it soju? Has soju been added to the makgeolli?`" the 53-year old CEO recounted from when she released one of the first undiluted versions of makgeolli in Korea.
Made from rice from Gyeonggi Province and domestic yeast, Buja possesses a strong butterscotch profile, a quality that makes it an excellent companion for the sweet and heavily seasoned bulgogi, a dish recommended by Bae herself. Replete with nutrients - including fiber - the drink itself is highly addictive, a quality that seems to have played a role in making it one of their hit products.
"I think, recently, now, it is finally gaining recognition," Bae said with a laugh.
According to a representative of Baehaejung Nurukdoga, domestic sales for the company`s products have been going up and sales for exports to Japan and America are increasing an approximate 30 percent every year.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Bae is busy releasing new takju - her company currently carries approximately six varieties. After introducing a sweet potato-based takju this year, Baehaejung Nurukdoga will be releasing Ugok LeeHwaJu Makgeolli - a revival of a high quality takju once imbibed by Goryeo Dynasty royalty and Joseon Dynasty nobility - in early October and an ume-based takju in November.
"What I want to do is upscale makgeolli," said Bae.
"Our company`s basic concept is to go in a completely different direction from standard makgeolli."
Bae has certainly succeeded in going against the grain. Her Buja Draft Makgeolli - called draft because it has not been pasteurized reportedly making it more nutrient-rich - is made from raw rice, a unique method employed on all her products.
"We ferment with raw rice," Bae explained. "In general, in Korea, steamed rice is used. If you look at our makgeolli it is very white, like milk."
To achieve fermentation, a special yeast was developed for the raw rice which is soaked in water and then ground to further aid the process. According to Bae, the use of raw rice helps prevent one from getting hangovers.
The resulting draft makgeolli itself is fragrant, fruity, slightly fizzy and silky, great for both connoisseurs and beginners alike.
Under the direction of prominent Korean liquor expert Heo Shi-myung, a class of around 35 kneads yeast into a mixture of water, cooked rice and raw spirits. The sweet scent of makgeolli, in its infancy, pervades the air.
As part of an ongoing lecture series on traditional liquor and herb medicine that is being held at the Seoul Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum, Heo is teaching students how to make yeast and makgeolli.
"Well-made liquor is not sweet," the 47-year old expert explains before classifying the alcoholic beverage dongdongju as makgeolli in its premature state, when the rice floats to the top. "When the rice completely sinks, then it is liquor."
Students nod, for some, it seems, this all very new, from the kneading of yeast, to the mixing of matured bits of yeast with rice, to the actual lecture itself.
For Heo, however, making makgeolli looks like second nature. While explaining the process, he expertly demonstrates it and even after the class has ended, he is still busy completing the initial stages of the makgeolli-making process.
As he mixes the yeast with the rice, water and spirits, he divulges the charms of makgeolli.
"It does not just end with the consumption of alcohol," he expanded upon its legacy as a farmer`s drink of choice. "After you sweat, it quenches your thirst and takes away the exhaustion you get from hard labor."
"As a laborer`s companion I think it is very attractive."
Makgeolli, according to Heo, was a commoner`s drink: "In the past, because clear rice wine rose to the surface, it was used for jesa (ancestral rites) and was a precious wine. To filter the lower cloudy part, where the residue had settled, some water was added, leading to a lower alcohol level and to an increase in quantity. With the increase in quantity, it became a drink for the masses, a drink for commoners."
"Now, it has the code of a commoner`s drink but it also has a new code as a drink that is good for your health," Heo alludes to the current increase in interest in the nutritional value of the fermented drink.
The author of several texts on Korean liquor, Heo is slated to teach an eight-lesson series called "Makgeolli School" starting in mid-October.
A writer, expert and educator, Heo possesses a deep understanding of the various faces that makgeolli wears; as a home-brew and a laborer`s source of refreshment and as a commercial and regional product.
"The market`s makgeolli is quite sweet," he said, differentiating between home-brewed and commercial makgeolli. "The liquor we make at home has a slightly bitter taste and gets sweet later on."
Heo describes the taste of a home brew eloquently: "The degree of bitterness is just enough to feel like a slight bite on the tongue."
By Jean Oh