Makgeolli, Korea's master brews

Makgeolli, Korea's master brews

Known as one of Korea's unrefined liquors, the rice beer makgeolli can be roughly divided into two categories. There is unpasteurized makgeolli with live yeast, called saeng, meaning "live," makgeolli. Then there is pasteurized makgeolli, where heat has killed all the yeast, called salgyun, meaning "killed germs," makgeolli.

Unpasteurized makgeolli has a short shelf life due to the live yeast and tends to change in taste even after bottling. The expiration date tends to be a week to a month with refrigeration, a comparatively short period of time.

Since the carbonation from fermentation is retained, the taste tends to be refreshing. As the fermentation process continues with each added day, the palate sours, a downside to the drink, if there is one.

To make up for this aspect of makgeolli, pasteurization extends the shelf life by eliminating the yeast involved in fermentation, allowing the makgeolli to be stored at room temperature without any change in taste. It is also less tart.

At the 2014 Korea Liquors Contest held last November, the grand prize in the pasteurized makgeolli section went to Jirisan herb rice makgeolli. As can be told from the name, Jirisan herb rice makgeolli is made with fresh spring water from Jirisan Mountain and domestically grown rice, adding subtle hints of pine-scented rosemary and lavender though a patented technique.

As an agricultural cooperative, the Unbong Brewery has been running for three decades, passing through two generations. The brewery is situated at the highest possible altitude on the slopes of Jirisan Mountain, compared to surrounding breweries. Its product line includes unpasteurized Jeongdam rice makgeolli as well as Unbong dongdongju and herb leave sul, sul meaning liquor.

For more information about the company, please visit the company's Korean website (http://www.herbsul.com/). There is an expression that says that, "Water determines the liquor's taste." The runner-up in last November's competition was Jijangsu hobak makgeolli, with hobak meaning "pumpkin." The brewery places a strong emphasis on its water as a key ingredient.

Located in Donghae, Gangwon-do, a representative of the Nakchun brewery explains that the makgeolli's taste is determined by the quality of jijangsu, the natural water that flows beneath the yellow clay bedrock common to the region. The water is clear, with traces of minerals from the yellow clay.

The "Dongeuibogam," a Joseon-era guide to traditional medicines, says that jijangsu has "cold" traits, while being able to neutralize poison from wild mushrooms and other such toxins. Today, the particularly absorbent nature of the water makes it ideal for boiling medicinal herbs, washing fruit and vegetables, preparing tea, cooking and brewing liquor.

Jijangsu hobak makgeolli, unlike regular rice makgeolli, has a yellowish tinge due to the added pumpkin, and has a smooth and dense taste. The bottle design adds functionality with a cup-shaped cap.

Nakchun also manufactures unpasteurized rice makgeolli, unpasteurized hobak makgeolli and a premium pasteurized makgeolli, called Cameo.

Jijangsu hobak makgeolli is available in the traditional liquor section of most major department stores. For more information, please visit the company's website (http://nakchun.theione.kr/) or call the customer center at +82 (0)33-522-1163.

The recent popularity of the bittersweet black raspberry wine bokbunja has also influenced the makgeolli market. Two out of four of last year's award winning pasteurized makgeollis lay proof to bokbunja's popularity.

Third place went to Nature's bokbunja makgeolli of the Kooksoondang Gochang Myungju brewery. It produces a top-grade bokbunja from black raspberries grown in fields freshened by the sea breeze and using Kooksoondang's patented technology to ferment raw rice. The drink has a strong fruity taste and color and like most pasteurized makgeolli, its less carbonation helps it go down smoothly.

One standout trait is that some 400 local black raspberry farmers have invested in growing and harvesting quality berries, with the best of the crop making it into high-end makgeolli, wine, the fruit spirit Myungjak and into the mullbery spirit Oderang. These products were all entered into an international liquor contest held in San Francisco and Dallas, winning prizes for both their taste and their bottle designs. Entries into local sommelier contests have also been fruitful for the brewers.

Other products made by Kooksoondang include Bekseju, Daebak, Wookooksaeng and others. The company's Bekseju Village provides an opportunity to sample traditional liquors with complimentary dishes. There are branches in Seoul at Jonggak Station, Sinchon Station, Gangnam Station, Gyodae Station (the Seoul National University of Education Station), in Busan at both Nampo and Seomyeon stations and in Ulsan at Samsan Station. There is even one in Paris, France, at Les Gobelins Station.

Nature's bokbunja makgeolli is exported to the US, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Questions, including purchases, can be directed to the following numbers: US +1-323-869-9100; Malaysia +60389488002; Hong Kong +85-29-138-7756; Taiwan +88-695-890-4325; and Singapore +65-9834-7592. More information can also be found at the company's website (http://www.bokbunjaju.kr/).

The final award went to Jusirak raspberry makgeolli made by Woorisool, which also makes pine nut makgeolli, a local specialty from Gapyeong-gun in Gyeonggi-do. Milky pink bokbunja makgeolli replenishes the carbonation lost during the pasteurization process as it adds a refreshing taste.

Woorisool tries to ensure its quality by purchasing rice specifically tailored for makgeolli, and has obtained Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification from the local authorities, a first in the industry. It exports to some 20 countries, including Japan, China and Australia. Its representative products are Gapyeong pine nut draft makgeolli, Daetongju bamboo rice wine, Me3 Green, sparkling rice makgeolli and Jusirak raspberry makgeolli, among others. Many have won awards in both domestic and international liquor competitions.

Besides the winning black raspberry bokbunja, various other ingredients and tastes are also used while making makgeolli, like apple, pear, yuja, otherwise known as yuze, deoduk, the root of a type of bellflower, and millet husk. All of them bring choice and variety to the customer.

These drinks are sold at many grocery stores, including Homeplus, Kim's Club and Grand Mart, and boxed units can be purchased online or by phone from local wholesalers. Woorisool's website is in English, simplified Chinese and Japanese (http://woorisool.kr/woori/en/).

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