With foreign brewers having helped propel a demand for quality craft beer in Korea, a growing number of expats are hoping to have a similar effect on Korea’s makgeolli scene.
Not only are expats looking for craft makgeolli, but they are also learning to make their own.
Susubori Academy, a brewing school run by professor Jo Hyo-jin of Kyunggi University, provides classes in both Korean and English from beginner to expert levels. The academy prides itself on being the only place where English speakers can learn the proper way to brew makgeolli.
Daniel Lenaghan and his wife Becca Baldwin moved to Seoul from Seattle in 2006 but say it took time before they acquired a taste for the brew. They set up the English arm of Susubori Academy’s makgeolli program in 2010 after seeing a gaping hole in the market.
Instructor Becca Baldwin checks a selection of makgeolli brews at Susubori Academy in Seoul. (Eun Kyung Jun)
“We decided to pursue makgeolli more fully after hearing so many stories of incompetent YouTube videos, or frankly just poor brewing advice given at makgeolli expos that was exposing people to cheap brewing kits that have subpar results,” Lenaghan said.
James Seo, an expat chef from California, who attended the brewing classes to find out more about makgeolli with a view of pairing it with his food.
“It showed me that makgeolli is more than just a ‘farmer’s drink’ and learning to make it is going to provide a platform for me to start experimenting with my own flavors and ideas,” he said.
Lenaghan said hundreds of people perhaps as many as 1,000, had taken the beginners’ class.
“What we’re hoping is that every person who comes to the classes continues in some way and becomes a teaching hub themselves, getting their friends and family into the kind of mindset we’re trying to cultivate,” he said.
Lenaghan and Baldwin now even have plans to start their own brewery.
Working alongside Susubori is Makgeolli Mamas and Papas Korea, an expat organization that runs English-language networking events and makgeolli tastings.
Julia Mellor of Mamas and Papas, from Australia, admits that when she first got involved in the organization, she knew “slim to nothing about the drink.” She describes herself as having been one of the many who just hadn’t had the chance.
“I think there was, and still is, an untapped community of people who want to know more about makgeolli, but just don’t have the resources or opportunities to do so.
“We were quite shocked at just how little information there was online about makgeolli in English, and we wanted to fill that gap,” Mellor said.
Lenaghan said expats had a strong voice as leading advocates for quality makgeolli, which he attributed partly to Korean culture.
“I think that it has to do with the outsized attention many in Korea give to what foreigners think,” Lenaghan said.
“Those driving the craft makgeolli scene who are Koreans often fall victim to being perceived as stuffy traditionalists. So when foreigners express an interest in that, it provides a kind of refreshed light, a new context.”
James Seo said a foreign attitude could help explain why expats are so active in the area.
“I think there’s a curiosity that drives this,” he said. “When you’re not from a culture you want to explore more of it, whereas you can be complacent with the standard if it is your own culture.”
The makgeolli industry faces problems that extend far beyond information. Both Mellor and Lenaghan say there are deep-seated problems in the industry that have a negative impact on the quality of the product.
Lenaghan says that there is a common perception that because makgeolli is a “poor man’s drink,” it should be cheap. A bottle of makgeolli typically costs around 1,500 won ($1.40) and a limited range of brands can be found at most convenience stores.
The pursuit of this low price can lead to cutting corners at the cost of quality.
Aspartame, an artificial sugar substitute, can be found in almost all common brands and is plaguing the makgeolli industry, according to Mellor and Lenaghan.
Traditional makgeolli has a short shelf life and is usually consumed within days of bottling. The use of aspartame first and foremost gives the drink a sweeter flavor, but it also increases the shelflife, which keeps the price low.
But they argue that the sweet taste overpowers the other flavors in makgeolli and make most commercial offerings taste the same.
Mellor points out that aspartame-free makgeolli doesn’t necessarily go bad, but just becomes sourer. There is even one smaller company that embraces the change, providing consumers with a timeline on the bottle that designates “seasons” for the different degrees of sourness.
Lenaghan says that there is a need for greater transparency in the industry as misleading claims are rampant.
“Plenty of makgeolli pretends to be traditional while using aspartame, or ‘koji’ (a fermenting agent used in sake); plenty of makgeolli pretends to be local but uses entirely imported grain. There are a lot of troubling contradictions in the industry,” he said.
Despite these negatives the community built around these two groups is getting stronger, shining a light on more and more quality craft brewers.
On Jan. 24, Mamas and Papas held a New Year’s event at Mulwinda Makgeolli Bar in Seodaemun-gu for all their supporters.
For both Mellor and Lenaghan the turnout at the function encapsulated how far the makgeolli community has come since they got involved.
“When we see the support and genuine interest from the people who attend our events, it reminds us how important it is to keep going.
This was our first event where we invited some of the best craft brewers in the industry to meet guests, and we were definitely worried about how it would all sync together,” Mellor said.
James Seo said the event showcased just how much the mainstream market is missing out on.
“The quality of the brews on offer honestly really surprised me. You are always offered good beer, good wine and good whiskey, but hardly ever good makgeolli,” he said.
For more information visit mmpk.wordpress.com (Mamas and Papas) or susubori.ac.kr (Susubori Academy).
By Elliott Brennan (firstname.lastname@example.org)