Drink Your Makgeolli

For my second Airbnb experience, I decided to book a makgeolli tasting and dinner hosted by John who is a Makgeolli School graduate and a makgeolli blogger.  Makgeolli (막걸리 pronounced MAH-go-lee) is a traditional Korean fermented rice beverage with history dating back thousands of years.  I was surprised to know when I arrived at the metro stop to meet John that I was the only person to book his experience that day.  That meant that I would get a personally tailored experience with John.  John led the way to a friend’s restaurant, and we sat down in a private room where he had set up all of his materials.

First John gave me a history of makgeolli and how it is made.  It is usually described to westerners as rice wine, but it is not quite as high in alcohol content, as it ranges from five percent to around eight percent ABV.  Unlike wine made from grapes, Makgeolli is milky in appearance.  Makgeolli is traditionally made from only three ingredients: water, cooked rice, and nuruk. Nuruk (누룩) is a traditional Korean fermentation starter made from coarsely ground wheat that has been moistened, packed into a brick, and left to ferment in a container filled with straw.  John described nuruk as similar to the Japanese fermentation starter used to make sake.

After the history lesson, John gave me a short lecture on the science behind the multiple parallel fermentation process of makgeolli and the difference between single-step fermentation of fruit wines and independent two-step fermentation of beer.  Simply put, enzymes convert starch to sugar and yeast converts sugar to alcohol simultaneously.  As someone who took many science courses in college, I really appreciated learning the science behind this specific type of fermentation.

Next, John had me make my own makgeolli.  In larger groups he makes it himself, but since I was the only participant on this particular day, I got to make the makgeolli!  The process that John taught me is probably the simplest method of makgeolli production, but John really wanted me to be able to make it at home later if I wanted.  We added cooked rice, water and nuruk to a bottle, and I shook it for four minutes to mix everything.  That mixture would then be kept for five to seven days in a spot between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and then it would ‘ripen’ in the refrigerator for one to two days before it is ready to drink.  Pretty easy, right?  John also gave me the traditional recipe to try at home, too. It is ever so slightly more difficult but should yield better results.  In this recipe you steam the rice yourself, and instead of shaking the water, nuruk, and rice mixture, you massage it until the rice absorbs all of the water.  Since my makgeolli had to ferment and would not be ready for over a week, I got to taste a makgeolli that another group had made a couple of weeks prior.  Theirs was really bitter!  This was my first taste of makgeolli, so I was really wondering what I was getting myself into at this point.

After my first dabble in makgeolli production, we began the tasting.  John had brought six different makgeollis for me to taste initially, and we tasted two more very different makgeollis after dinner.  John wanted me to really be able to distinguish the different tastes of these makgeollis, so he gave me different tasting criteria to be cognizant of.  The tasting criteria included the smell (good to bad), sweetness (dry to sweet), acidity (flat to sour), aftertaste (good to bad), and my overall impression (good to bad).  All of these criteria were on a scale of 1 to 5, and he gave me an example template of his opinion of the first makgeolli, Jang Su, the most popular makgeolli in Korea. During the tasting, John also gave me a questionnaire about the six makgeolli varieties, asking which I thought smelled the best, which was the sweetest, which three contained no artificial sweeteners, which was the most acidic, which had the best aftertaste, which had the highest alcohol content, which was the most difficult to drink, which was the easiest to drink, and what was my choice makgeolli.  John gave me twenty minutes, and I began tasting.  I pride myself on being able to distinguish flavors in normal wine (I’ve been on quite a few wine tastings), but I wasn’t sure that this was going to be the same thing.

I took the entire twenty minutes that John had allotted to complete my tasting.  I was determined to correctly choose which had the highest alcohol content, and which three did not have artificial sweeteners in them.  I didn’t get all of the questions completely correct, but I did get about 85% correct.  I can live with that.  After I told John what I thought about the makgeollis, we re-tasted all of them while John explained the different tasting notes for each one.  I was able to understand more about the different flavor profiles of the makgeollis with John’s guidance.  John also explained which specific makgeollis were considered to be the best in competitions, and they were not the ones I expected.  I even thought that the makgeollis he said would win tasted worse than most of the others.  John explained they win competitions because they are made using only the traditional three ingredients: water, rice, and nuruk. Many makgeollis now contain additives, including artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and sometimes flavors.  The most popular makgeolli in Korea has artificial sweetener added to it, and since I hate artificial sweetener from a health standpoint and from a taste standpoint, I did not enjoy it.  It tasted mostly like artificial sweetener to me, and the real taste of the makgeolli was masked by that.  John was very knowledgeable about makgeolli, and his passion for it showed.

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Completing my makgeolli tasting

After we had finished the tasting, John and I had dinner.  We ate haemul-jeon (해물전), a Korean style savory pancake with seafood, chili pepper, and green onion in it; miyeok guk, (미역국) seaweed soup; and a spicy seafood stew with rice cakes in it (I couldn’t find the name of this dish when I searched online).  We also drank some of the makgeolli, but not before John taught me Korean drinking etiquette.  There were six rules:

  1. Always pour and receive drinks with two hands.
  2. Turn your head when drinking with someone who is older than you.
  3. Always bottoms up on the first and last round of drinks.
  4. Don’t let others’ glasses become empty; glasses must be continuously filled.
  5. Never fill your own glass yourself.
  6. If someone offers you a glass, drink it.

The underlying tones of respect for your elders and everyone around you interested me because in American culture we do not have that.  We do not turn away from our elders or always pour drinks for the other person.  The other aspect of the rules that I found interesting is the volume of alcohol that must be consumed based upon these rules.  Koreans must always be ready to have a good time whenever drinks are involved, especially with friends, because these rules seem to promote high consumption.  We only had two bowls of makgeolli during dinner, but I could see how a gathering several friends could make for a good time.

After dinner, John made me guess which makgeolli was in a non-identifiable bottle, and I answered correctly!  We also tasted two more makgeollis that were very different before we finished dinner.  John had me try a makgeolli called Ihwaju (이화주), which is a very thick form that has to be eaten with a spoon.  The second interesting makgeolli I tried was cheesecake-flavored!  It was really creamy, and sweet.  I normally don’t enjoy very sweet things, but that makgeolli would have paired well with desserts.  After I tasted the two very different makgeollis, the experience was over.  John walked me back to the metro station, and we parted ways.

John’s Experience was a wonderful introduction into makgeolli.  His program was informative, and his passion for this traditional beverage was evident.  Later in my trip I kept remembering the drinking etiquette John taught me.  I had so much fun during this experience, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an introduction to Korean alcohol and makgeolli.

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John and I posing with a soju model before parting ways

Here is the link to John’s Experience and his contact information:

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