The Rise of Makgeolli
Makgeolli is one of Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage, dating back 2,000 years ago. It is a viscous, milky, creamy off-white liquid made out of rice wine. It’s slightly sweet, tangy, bitter, with a cloudy appearance because of the presence of sediments. It is also called nongju, meaning an agricultural or farmer’s liquor. It was the beverage of the peasantry, farmers or field workers, hence historically meaning that it was symbolic of a divide between social classes.
Makgeolli uses three simple ingredients – rice, water and nuruk, a fermenting agent that contains bacteria, wild yeasts and koji mould spores. For about a week the nuruk acts to break down starch into sugar and then alcohol, producing a strong, sweet mixture called wonju. Allowed to settle, the top clear liquid is separated. The remaining settled sediment is diluted with water and strained to make makgeolli. The low-alcohol drink is around 6 to 8 percent only.
Under a Confucian culture then, Korean families brewed their own alcohol, seen as an essential part of ancestral memorial rites. It is still so today for that purpose. It allowed for regional diversity, but due to the sheer numbers of family-owned microbreweries around, control became more difficult for the government in the later part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). Common people were using up too much rice to brew liquor and have not enough saved to eat. A Liquor Tax Act in 1909 and Grain Management Act of 1964 became measures against unlicensed brewing and agricultural shortage, and together put a stop to rice-based brewing.
In the 1980s, this tangy-sweet rice wine lost its status as South Korea’s favorite alcohol. This might be due to makgeolli’s association with peasantry amidst the growing development of South Korea, or it might be that the burgeoning new generation is turning to stronger alcoholic drinks.
By the 1990s, drinkers were looking for a lighter, healthier alternative to stronger soju and beer, and the makgeolli experienced a resurgence. On top of this, federal campaigns began to raise interest in traditional culture, including use of alcohol. In the hospitality industry, chefs noted that makgeolli’s acidity and slight carbonation pair especially well with the spicy, sweet, and sour flavors of Korean cuisine. Ando so from then, the come-backing makgeolli has been gaining quite a following at home and abroad.
A Farmer’s Drink in a Trendy Spot
Enjoy our Mak-guhl-li. Yes, that’s makgeolli, South Korea’s vintage beverage we serve here at Seoul Hot Pot. It goes well with many of our hot classics.