Tired of hazy IPAs and cloudy natural wines? The answer: Makgeolli, a 2,000-year-old knuckleball of a drink from Korea.
"Makgeolli is an alternative to craft beer, natural wine and sake," Alice Jun, co-founder of craft makgeolli brewery Hana Makgeolli says. "And really it's at the intersection of those three categories."
Makgeolli, pronounced "mahk-oh-lee," is a lightly filtered rice-based drink that clocks in anywhere between 5 percent to 8 percent ABV. Usually sold for under $10, the rice-based drink is characterized by its milky-white appearance, full-bodied, slightly fizzy mouthfeel and a sweet, tangy flavor profile. In terms of price, ubiquity and ability to get you black-out drunk, it's the Colt 45 of Korea.
Making makgeolli is simple enough, as Jun explains. Mix water, rice and nuruk, a cake-like Korean fermentation starter made of yeast, grains and microorganisms, and you're there. Traditionally, the beverage is served out of a kettle and poured into rounded, shallow bowls to help prevent the rice from separating.
For centuries, makgeolli has been the go-to drink for farmers. It's easy to make, filling and somewhat healthy, or as healthy as an alcoholic drink can be. Because makgeolli is largely unfiltered, the drink maintains high levels of lactic acid and lactobacillus bacteria, like that found in yogurt, and a decent amount of dietary fiber. Today's mass-produced versions of the beverage, however, are packed with sugar and artificial preservatives, so drinking it is more like drinking a bottle of Gatorade.
The rice brew quickly lost its popularity in the 1980s as Korean drinkers were introduced to imported alcoholic beverages. Drinkers were put off by makgeolli's reputation as a low class drink, and it didn't help that a food shortage led to the rationing of rice so makgeolli was being made with wheat or barley instead. Nowadays, makgeolli is sort of like Smirnoff Ice, a sweet and cheap way to get really drunk really fast. But thanks to independent producers, makgeolli is making headway once again — and it's coming over to the US.
Makgeolli has had a presence in America for a while, usually relegated to Asian supermarkets or Korean restaurants. But like in Korea, people are looking for better and better-for-you drinks, even in the booze section.
"While I was in Korea, I noticed that makgeolli was having a renaissance kind of movement in terms of going back to its roots," Carol Pak, founder of canned craft makgeolli brand Makku, says. "[A younger generation] is launching new brands and paying more attention to producing higher quality stuff. I noticed that a lot of fundamental characteristics about the drink was very similar to what was trending in the US."
Since launching in 2019, Makku has drastically changed the way those familiar with makgeolli view the rice drink. Gone is the wine-sized plastic bottle, replaced by a 12-ounce can. As Pak mentions, the larger bottles were suited to Korea drinking culture, in which people would drink collectively. Pak found that cans, on the other hand, appealed more to an American and Asian American audience.
Pak knew when launching Makku that she didn't want to make a drink just for those familiar with makgeolli. Because makgeolli is made with rice, Pak says people would assume it's like sake, a Japanese spirit. If someone didn't like sake, she says they'd immediately discount makgeolli. Luckily hazy is hot right now. New England-style IPAs are currently the commanding style of beer; natural wine normalized finding sediments at the bottom of a wine glass; and non-chill filtered whiskey is keeping things cloudy in the brown liquor world. The consumer's palate is expanding, and makgeolli is there for a change of pace. It also so happens the drink's rise is in tandem with a general come-up of Korean culture in everyday American life.
K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink are dominating Billboard charts while movies like "Parasite" and "Minari" are either winning or being mentioned for Academy Awards. Then there's the undeniable surge of Korean restaurants opening throughout the country.
"I thought that it would make sense to introduce a Korean alcohol, pairing with the rise of Korean cuisine, because sake really hit it off in America when Japanese food was on the rise," Pak says.
Sake, however, did not have to face a pandemic. As Jun of Hana Makgeolli explains, the pandemic has made it harder to help people learn more about the Korean beverage. Jun and her business partner John Limb launched Hana in November 2020 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as both a brewery and a taproom. The taproom, however, hasn't been used as the two had hoped.
"That's the biggest challenge with coronavirus. What we're seeing is that even though a lot of people stopped by the brewery, we don't have the time and the luxury to be able to talk to them the way we wanted to talk to them," Jun says. "The taproom really was for the community, and to bring people together to teach them about this wonderful category of beverages."
Jun and Pak don't want to let the pandemic rain on their parade. There's no point in wondering what could've been, Pak says. Instead, the two are just glad that people are welcoming makgeolli into their drinking lineup. So much so that Jun is ready for Hana to launch a few more products into the lineup in 2021. And hopefully, she says, Hana can expand its distribution reach so that craft makgeolli could be in your future very soon.