Makgeolli 101

Back in April, I was one of twelve lucky people chosen to partake in a special event held by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea and Gastro Tour Seoul, and located in the Korean Food Grand Master Center in the Bukchon area of Seoul. It was entitled “Korean Traditional Alcohol Brewing Culture Experiences” which is just a long-winded way of saying that we were going to be tasting various types of Korean alcohol (called “sool” 술, originating from the words “water” and “fire”) and learning how to make makgeolli, a rice wine.

If you really want to nerd out about alcohol and the various brewing processes, check out this link.

Makgeolli (막걸리) is a rice wine made with three things: water, rice, and a fermentation starter, called nuruk. The resulting brew is milky-white and can be carbonated or uncarbonated, and will continue to ferment if unpasteurized. According to Wikipedia, it was given the name “drunken rice” which I actually adore, although that title would be more appropriate for soju, which is higher in alcohol content.

But first, we had to taste some alcohol. Starting on the low end of alcohol content at 7% is Baeglyeon Misty Makgeolli, a sweet white drink that barely tasted like anything at all (official notes: “rice, white lotus”). Next up was 13% Wangju, a clear orange beverage with more of a kick (“glutinous rice, wild chrysanthemum, matrimony wine, pine needles, plum”). 13% Solsongju, roughly the same kind of kick as the Wangju but with more distinguished fermentation (“rice, pine needles, wheat nuruk”). At 25% is Leegangju, which was like drinking cinnamon-flavored mouthwash (“pine needle, honey, turmeric, cinnamon”). Last was Andong soju at 45%, which was what I expect from a soju: a clean, crisp burn. Apparently Andong soju is so unique it has its own artisans who keep the tradition alive.

Let’s get started! First, we need rice. And not just any rice, but godubap (고두밥), also known as “hard-boiled rice” or steamed rice. We were allowed to taste this rice and it was not very pleasant–chewy and more akin to rice if it were cooked al dente.

Once the rice was cooked, we got to spread it out so it would cool evenly.

While we let the rice cool down, it was time for us to try, first-hand, what would hopefully be the fruits of our efforts. Gloving up, two lucky people got to squish and smash the makgeolli mash through a mesh bag and sample it out.

It was delicious! It didn’t taste alcoholic at all, which makes me think it hadn’t been fermenting for too long. The longer it ferments, the more sour and more alcoholic it will become. For the time being, we just kept slyly passing our cups back to the table to be refilled.

Now the time has come for us to make our own makgeolli! First, we measured out 600 grams of the godubap. Then our helper scooped out 60 grams of nuruk for the mash. We added 300 ml of a base makgeolli, and 500 ml of water.

With gloves on, we squished and squashed and mixed everything as thoroughly as possible, without breaking the rice grains. Then it was ladled into our special disinfected containers, ready for us to take home and continue fermenting.

I left my makgeolli a little too long (because I struggled finding an appropriate filter for the mash) and it was very sour, which means it had a very high alcohol content in the not-pleasant way. I think I fermented all of the sweetness out of it, and need to try making it again.

The venue was really cute and I adored their “photo zone” which was facing a wall of ceramics that was meant to “fill… and spread… the Value of Hansik [traditional Korean food].” They also had traditional cushions and tables along the stairs there so you could sit and chill.

I really enjoyed the experience and the best part was that it was not only free, but also intimate. There were two people who signed up for the event but didn’t come, and to their luck, two people showed up for the event that hadn’t RSVP’ed and were able to secure those spots.

I definitely want to try my hand at making makgeolli again. In the meantime, I wrote this post enjoying a bottle of sparkling red wine makgeolli that I picked up in Busan Station while on vacation there (post forthcoming). Check out this article if you want to see how traditional makgeolli is served. You still get the tin bowls to drink it from even when you buy a plastic bottle of makgeolli at a restaurant.

Have you tried makgeolli? Do you know of any other traditional drinks made from rice?

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