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[Weekender] Makgeolli School, only for the devoted

Every Thursday evening, a group of 20 people gather at a hands-on food lab on the 10th floor of a quiet building in Jongno, central Seoul. 

The lab of Makgeolli School is clean, with five smooth countertops surrounded by barstools, and earthen pots and ingredients stacked against the walls. There are huge sinks for washing rice, pots for steaming it, huge earthen jars for fermentation, and smaller jars and bottles labeled with the names of herbs and medicinal ingredients for flavoring.

Students hear a lecture on makgeolli while waiting for their rice to steam. (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)
Students hear a lecture on makgeolli while waiting for their rice to steam. (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)

The students of the 10-week course are of all ages, with the youngest in his 20s and the eldest men with graying hair. They have little in common except their interest in learning about makgeolli, a Korean liquor made with rice, beyond what they can learn through common knowledge and searching the Internet.

“Some people come here to study and eventually open their own brewery, but most of us come here just as hobbyists,” said Jeon Sang-gil, one of the students. He said that he had been with Makgeolli School since level 1, and now he is a level 2 student. In level 1, a separate 10-week course, the students gain general knowledge about makgeolli and taste different kinds to experience different flavors and textures. In level 2, students start to create their own recipes for makgeolli and make them.

When The Korea Herald visited Makgeolli School, the level 2 students were getting ready to create a type of makgeolli called samdoju, which was apparently enjoyed by the poet Cho Chi-hun, according to the students who leaned over and whispered information at every chance to help me keep up.

While steaming the rice to make the mit-sul (the mixture for the first stage of fermentation, which can later be added to for more complex brews), instructor Lee Han-suk began giving the day’s lecture on the ingredients of makgeolli. 

The students received a background lecture each week on different aspects of making makgeolli, before getting to the hands-on process. The lectures provide crucial information that help the students choose ingredients for their own creative recipes. According to the instructor, past students had made concoctions like apple makgeolli, banana makgeolli and coffee makgeolli.

The day’s lecture covered the different kinds of rice that could be used to make makgeolli, and how different kinds of rice yielded different levels of alcohol content and nutrients in addition to flavors and textures, and stopping occasionally to answer questions from students who had done previous research online or wanted more details.

Students measure out ingredients for makgeolli (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)
Students measure out ingredients for makgeolli (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)

Once the rice was fully steamed, it was time to make the mit-sul. Each group collected their choice of rice (they could choose from regular rice, glutinous rice or glutinous rice powder) and massaged in the nuruk, which helps the fermentation process.

In addition to the rice type, each group had the freedom to decide how much water and nuruk they would use, as well as any herbs for flavoring. Heated discussions erupted at one or two tables about the effects of adding more or less of each ingredient.

“Put your back into it! Make it wild!” said one student passing my table, apparently displeased with the vigor I was putting into the rice. After a few minutes, the mixture was poured into an earthen jar and labeled with the ingredients.

“It takes a week for that to be ready,” said 27-year-old Lee Jun, who was chosen to be the class representative simply by virtue of being the youngest. “We add the second layer next week, and wait another week for the makgeolli to be ready.”

Finished mit-sul is labeled with the date and ingredients used (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)
Finished mit-sul is labeled with the date and ingredients used (Won Ho-jung/The Korea Herald)

After labeling the jar, we chatted some more while other tables finished up and decided on what to put in their makgeolli next week.

“I had originally signed up for classes here because I wanted to pursue it as a career, but now I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I talked to the principal about it, and we decided it was too hard to make a living of it.”

“It’s great as a hobby,” said Lee Jae-yeong, another student. “I get to make what my grandmother used to make, what our ancestors made. It’s wonderful.”

The session lasted about three hours, which seemed long, but what I mostly heard as I left was “we ended early today,” and chatter about plans to make more makgeolli at home. 

“Everyone here is really devoted,” said Lee Jun. “We all find it very interesting, and we take it seriously.”

The Makgeolli School recruits new students every three to four months for their 10-week classes. Fees are 550,000 ($453) for the whole course. For more information, visit www.soolschool.com, or call (02) 722-3337. 

(hjwon@heraldcorp.com)
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