In the middle of the Joseon Dynasty (which ruled the Korea Peninsula from 1392 to 1897), there lived a government minister (known only by his surname Lee), who loved to imbibe makgeolli (a cloudy fermented rice wine unique to Korea). One day, his son asked Minister Lee, “Dad, why do you always choose makgeolli over soju (a distilled liquor native to Korea) and other medicinal wines Then, Minister Lee asked his son to go get three gall bladders of cattle. When his son brought home three gall bladders of cattle, Minister Lee filled one with soju, another with some medicinal wine and the other with makgeolli. And Minister Lee hung the three gall bladders from the eaves of his house. A few days later, Minister Lee opened the three spirit-soaked gall bladders and found that the one filled with soju became porous, another with some medicinal wine worn thin while the innards of the other with makgeolli surprisingly thickened. This old-timey anecdote appears in the Five Virtues of Makgeolli.
Korea’s kimchi making culture has recently been included in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Such international recognition is significant in that kimchi, one of Korea’s time-honored staples, is still a fixture in our everyday diet in this 21st century. Following the inclusion of kimchi in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, another traditional Korean asset is about to make the UNESCO list. It is makgeolli. Witnessing makgeolli, which our great grandmothers brewed at their own kitchens, landing on the UNESCO list is nothing but encouraging.
Makgeolli enhances the emotional and physical wellbeing of people.
“Makgeolli is in line with the ever-growing wellbeing trend of today,” makgeolli lovers always say in chorus. Makgeolli, with an alcohol content of approximately 6%, delivers a mixture of various flavors in a harmonious fashion: sweet, sour, astringent, bitter tastes. Its flavors are juiced up when it is served cool. Makgeolli is one of the nation’s oldest agrarian spirits: weary, sweaty farmers used to down makgeolli not solely for getting tipsy but for slaking their thirst. On top of that, approximately 10% of makgeolli is made up of varied dietary fibers, lactic bacteria, yeast, etc. so few people question the health benefits of makgeolli. Makgeolli, which not only tastes good but also brings health benefits, is being made by a slew of makgeolli artisans nationwide. Against this backdrop, Korea IT Times made a field trip to Daeboganseon-ro, Ha-myeon (in Gapyeong-gun, Gyeonggi-do), about a one and a half hour drive from Seoul, so as to meet with makgeolli masters.
The rural landscape of Daeboganseon-ro in Ha-myeon stretched before us. When we arrived, Daeboganseon-ro was covered in snow as it had been snowing since the morning. We headed for Woorisool (a Korea-based makgeolli brewer) on a snow-covered, slippery road to meet with makgeolli master Park Seong-ki, who serves as Chairman of Korean Makgeolli Association and as Chairman of Woorisool. Chairman Park gave a warm welcome to us.
“There are five virtues of makgeolli. First, makgeolli will get you drunk but not hung-over. Second, when you feel a little hungry, you can drink it as a snack. Third, it is a pick-me-up that powers up your battery. The fourth virtue is that makgeolli helps you drown your sorrows in a decent manner. Fifth, when you drink makgeolli with likeminded people, the stress that eats you up will be relieved,” Chairman Park said.
“Thus, unless you drink makgeolli to excess, you do not get wasted. Makgeolli’s low-alcohol content and healthy grain sediments in it make you feel full before you get overly drunk. Makgeolli is a grain-derived, headache-free liquor that helps elevate your mood. That’s probably why our ancestors recited poems while drinking makgeolli.
Makgeolli is a wellbeing spirit because it is rich in protein, dietary fibers and minerals. The combination of dietary fibers and alcohol positively affects blood circulation and gastro-intestinal movements. Besides, Donguibogam (a medical encyclopedia written by royal physician Heo Jun (1539-1615), which is on the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme) also mentions that nuruk (Korean yeast), one of the main ingredients of makgeolli, brings gastro-intestinal benefits; some other studies discovered that the growth of cancer cells injected with draft makgeolli concentrate, rich in living yeast, slowed down.
Makgeolli artisans spearhead the globalization of makgeolli.
The slogan “Woorisool Works for the Globalization of Korean Spirits” is written on the wall of the makgeolli brewery building, located near the entrance to the headquarters of Woorisoo. Chairman Park said he decided to sink his teeth into boosting the export of makgeolli when he took over Woorisool in 2000. Thus, he added the slogan to the wall of the building, as well as to his business card.
“Since makgeolli is tastier and healthier than any other spirits in the world, it would be highly regrettable if only Koreans enjoy it. When I took the helm of this company, I made up my mind to catapult makgeolli to the global market’s top shelf. Makgeollis produced by Woorisool have been continuously shipped to Japan, China, Vietnam and Europe. In particular, our makgeolli has been well received by Japanese consumers. The biggest strength of makgeolli is its tongue-friendly tenderness. First-time makgeolli drinkers of any race in the world will have no trouble drinking makgeolli because it is tender than whiskey, wines, etc,” Chairman Park mentioned.
“Woorisool has been participating in various international spirits exhibitions to enhance makgeolli’s global appeal. At the beginning, our makgeolli sales had been in the doldrums because we simply displayed our makgeolli products. Foreigners do not take the risk of buying unfamiliar-looking foreign booze since they have no clue whatsoever about what they taste like. Thus, billing makgeolli as a healthy Korean rice wine, we mounted a variety of promotions and makgeolli tasting events so as to introduce our “Tangy Makgeolli” and “Jyusirak” (makgeolli varieties laced with fruit juice). All the foreigners who sampled our makgeollis gave us a thumbs-up. We were emboldened by their responses,” he continued.
“The globalization of makgeolli, however, takes much more than individual efforts. The Korean makgeolli industry should unite in promoting makgeolli globally. Makgeolli artisans working at 800 breweries nationwide should develop a joint brand and rigorously launch marketing campaigns. Also, government support is important. Three years ago, the S. Korean government designated the last day of October each year as Makgeolli Day, but even makgeolli imbibers have been unaware of Makgeolli Day. Whether makgeolli emerges as a globally popular liquor or fades out as a liquor beloved by nostalgia-soaked old timers hinges on the next step makgeolli masters take,” he added.
Bearing in mind that healthy alcoholic beverage makgeolli has universal appeal, Chairman Park has set a goal of expanding exports of makgeollis up to 100 foreign nations.
Hae-jung Bae, CEO of Bae Hae-jung Doga (BHD), follows in her father’s footsteps.
“Makgeolli is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled rice, malted wheat and water for 3-4 days,” said Hae-jung Bae, CEO of Bae Hae-jung Doga (BHD), a Korea-based producer of traditional Korean spirits.
The love of traditional Korean spirits runs in her family. Her late father, Sang-myeon Bae, was a renowned makgeolli master and the founder of Kook Soon Dang Brewery (a South Korea-based manufacturer of spirits). Her late father was a pioneer, who developed the rice-derived Kirin Soju in 1960 and introduced Bekseju (a Korean glutinous rice-based fermented alcoholic beverage flavored with varied herbs and ginseng) to the traditional Korean spirits market in 1991. Honoring her father’s great legacy, CEO Bae has been heading up BHD, which produces numerous makgeolli varieties, made from locally produced ingredients (e.g. eco-friendly rice, purple sweet potatoes, grapes produced in Songsan-myeon, Hwaseong-si, Gyeonggi-do).
“Nearly 800 makgeolli masters nationwide are brewing nearly 1,000 different makgeollis, using local specialties. BHD’s Buja Grape Makgeolli is made from grapes produced by officially recognized grape growers in Songsan; our rice makgeolli is made from recently-harvested, eco-friendly Gyeonggi-do rice. By doing so, BHD benefits the local farming community financially and produces fresh, high-quality makgeollis, made from hazard-free ingredients.”
BHD’s major makgeolli products include “Buja 10 °” (an unadulterated, draft makgeolli offering a sense of freshness and grainy rice sediments), “Ugok-ju”(a premium rice wine made from freshly-harvested rice (less than one year old)) and Citron Draft Makgeolli.” BHD is currently working on the development of a makgeolli laced with ginseng.
Makgeolli is akin to the soul of ethnic Koreans.
Alcoholic beverage makgeolli, which has doubled as a snack, was originally quite popular among farmers, earning it the name “nongju,” which means farmer’s liquor. It quenched farmers’ thirst and befriended our ancestors in times of joy and sorrow. In the 1960s and 1980s, makgeolli grew on our hard-working fathers who labored for the nation’s economic development. In the 1990s, it took a back seat to beers and soju. The job of promoting and protecting makgeolli, which keeps our stomach from growling, elevates our mood, gets drinkers decently intoxicated and alleviates our emotional hang-ups, seems to be something that the entire nation, not just the makgeolli industry, should pay attention to.