Makgeolli: a rice 'beer' revival
Updated: 4 days ago
It was love at first taste when I took a sip of makgeolli from a ceramic bowl at Soon Hee Ne, a stall at Gwangjang Market in Seoul. The stall is famous for its mung bean pancakes, but that is not what I remember it for. In South Korea, pancakes call for the drinking of beer, either local lagers such as Cass or Hite, or makgeolli, their traditional rice beer.
Although I had lived in various countries in Asia for 15 of my adult years, I had never visited Korea, and at Korean restaurants outside of the country I had always opted for shochu, South Korea’s more well-known alcoholic beverage. At my first sip of makgeolli, I realised I had missed out. I always have time for a good beer, especially a rich and chocolaty Belgian or a smooth, perfumed British. I also love rice, particularly the scent of it cooking, from the floral, nutty notes of a Vietnamese black to the sweet hints of Thai jasmine. So to find a drink that combines rice and is akin to beer was a match made in heaven.
Softly sweet, strong on funky bread dough notes, with a hint of pungency, the makgeolli was an ideal pairing with the fried pancakes. I was hooked. For my remaining few weeks in Korea, I tried as many different varieties as I could, hunted out bars and restaurants serving it, and visited a brewery to see how it is made.
Makgeolli is often referred to as rice wine in English, but the alcohol content (usually around 6 to 11 percent) and production process (fermented, often multiple times, and bottled almost straight away) more accurately matches that of beer. It is the nuruk, the fermentation starter that includes lactic acid bacteria and yeast, that is largely responsible for the lightly pungent bread dough notes, and which can result in sharp, sour flavours depending on the production process. As the drink is traditionally unpasteurised, leaving the yeast live in the bottle, it can have a light effervescence as fermentation continues. The liquid ranges from thin and cloudy to thick as pouring cream.
While I first tried makgeolli in a crowded and noisy market, with fans dispersing clouds of steam and frying smoke, it is also served in some of the trendiest and most expensive spots in Seoul. Bartenders across the city are pouring bowls of artisanal makgeolli, instead of glasses of imported wine or beer. Small breweries are proliferating, offering ever more creative varieties, including makgeolli flavoured with fresh strawberries or grapefruit. One brewery, Boksoondoga, is known for its sparkling makgeolli, with bubbles as prominent as in Champagne, including a variety made from red rice that gives a pink tinge.
The liquor is also making it into cocktails, including a Korean take on a pina colada at Charles H, the speakeasy styled bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul that ranks as No. 7 in the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 list. The rice beer is blended with Korean malt gin and house-made bean cream with coconut, and is topped with droplets of citrus and perilla leaf oils and an injeolmi tteok (Korean rice cake).
Restaurants in South Korea are also making their own makgeolli, including Seoul’s Michelin-Green-starred tofu specialist Hwanggeum Kongbat. The house makgeolli is deliciously thick, pungent and sour, designed to complement their food.
In Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district, Seung-hoon Lee runs a makgeolli bar, called Baekkom after his nickname, which translates as White Bear. On weekends, the bar is packed, with a hip young crowd spilling out from the double-storey bar into a glassed-in outdoor space, working their way through the more than 180 varieties of traditional Korean liquors, probably the largest selection in the country.
Lee quit his job as a food safety officer for South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2010 for his passion: traditional liquors. Before opening Baekkom, he travelled to countries across Asia to learn about their alcohol traditions.
Many East Asian countries have traditional rice-based alcoholic beverages, with Japan’s sake a familiar and much-enjoyed example. Other rice-based liquors are much less known, however, and many are no longer widely produced, or have disappeared entirely. Makgeolli is probably the oldest alcoholic beverage on the Korean Peninsula, and Lee hopes to spread awareness of his traditional drink, and perhaps even inspire others in Asia to revive their own.
“Wherever there is rice culture, there have been alcohols similar to makgeolli. I came across rice-based ‘beers’ in mainland China and Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and even in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia,” says Lee, who was formerly secretary-general of the Korea Makgeolli Association, and is a sool (Korean traditional liquor) instructor.
“For many reasons, most of these liquors are no longer made. It’s amazing that Korea has still maintained this culture. In recent years, exports of makgeolli to other Asian countries have been increasing. I hope this trend continues and makgeolli cultures of other countries will be regenerated.”
But makgeolli has not always been popular with a younger crowd of drinkers. In fact, until recently, the liquor was dismissed as a cheap drink for old men, the poor quality leaving drinkers with a fierce hangover. A range of factors had led to the beverage’s lowly reputation.
Until 1987, the year prior to the Seoul Olympics, makgeolli was the most consumed liquor in South Korea. Then, imports of alcohol increased, and local producers began to make a wider variety of alcoholic beverages to compete. Makgeolli was produced mainly by small local breweries rather than large companies, and as consumption began to drop, quality plummeted. After a long period of stagnation, only cheap, low-quality varieties of makgeolli remained. Many breweries disappeared.
It was around 2009 that Korean consumers began to turn back to traditional liquors. As domestic rice harvest increased the nation’s inventory, with mandatory rice imports adding to the surplus, the government began to promote rice-based products. Makgeolli production took off and high-quality makgeolli, with prices matching those for wine and sake, were produced. Visitors to South Korea also became interested in makgeolli, and new styles emerged using regional ingredients.
“The scene exploded,” says Lee. “Between 2009 and 2011, makgeolli was hugely popular in Korea, probably for the first time since the establishment of the Korean government.”
The trend ran out of steam a few years later, but picked up again in around 2016. Today, the passion for makgeolli continues to be fuelled by the Korean Wave, the phenomenon of the growing global popularity of Korean culture, led by K-pop bands Blackpink and BTS, and K-dramas such as Squid Game, which has inspired interest in all things Korean, in foreigners and locals alike.
Makgeolli itself has also become more diverse, which appeals to today’s drinkers. For many decades, the ingredients and alcohol content of makgeolli was government controlled, stifling diversity and leaving the beverage uniform. But restrictions have lifted, allowing brewers to experiment with fermentation and brewing processes, alcohol content, and ingredients.
“In the past year or two, the state has offered small-scale liquor manufacturing licenses,” says Lee. “And while previously brewers often resorted to additives including artificial sweeteners, these days, natural-style makgeolli is starting to gain the spotlight as many good ingredients are available.”
One brewery that is keeping their production strictly natural is Hangang, based near the banks of the Han River, the imposing waterway that bisects Seoul. Makgeolli has essentially three very simple ingredients – rice, water, and nuruk. At Hangang, they use only newly harvested Chuchung rice that has been grown within the city limits. They include no additives or artificial sweeteners, relying instead on their brewing process. They ferment the rice three times, which takes about eight days, and ensures an indulgent sweetness. Next, the liquid, milky white and smooth, will rest for a week, before being bottled. As the liquor is not pasteurised, the shelf life is limited to about a month.
The short use-by date means that it can be difficult to find unpasteurised makgeolli outside of Korea, although bars and restaurants in nearby countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore do import it.
I returned home to London from South Korea with two bottles of Hangang makgeolli in my suitcase. When I had finished those, I tried a few of the pasteurised varieties that can be found in Korean grocery shops. For me, the health benefits of live cultures and the depth of taste in unpasteurised makgeolli are key, so I started looking locally.
It turns out that natural, small-batch, unpasteurised makgeolli is available in London. Taeyeol Kim, who won a range of bartending awards in Korea before he relocated to London, makes a range of makgeolli at a brewery in Bethnal Green. He serves his brews, along with top-notch cocktails using Korean alcohols, at Ogam Tapas Bar on Chapel Market, Islington. The classic is smooth and light, while the chestnut variety has more funky, earthy notes. He also makes rhubarb makgeolli, and a variety with corn as its base.
I was thrilled to find Ogam. No longer a long-distance affair, my romance with makgeolli could continue unfettered here in my home town.
Victoria writes about food, wine and whisky for the Wall Street Journal Asia, South China Morning Post, BBC, Travel + Leisure, Nat Geo, Vogue India and more. After 15 years in Hong Kong and India, she's now based in London.