Makgeolli: How Korean rice wine is stepping out of soju’s shadow

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(CNN) – Kim Kyung-seop remembers going to a cheap bar after class with her friends, where they were binging on McGoly as much as possible.

“You know the saying, ‘Alcohol consumes men?’ That was it. ”

The Korean milky and often sweet traditional rice wine McGeoli was chosen for its price, not for taste.

When Kim entered college in 1989, half a gallon of McGoly cost about 40 cents. He and his friends would sit around a table and pour McGolley from a brass kettle into a personal brass bowl, as is customary.

Kim, who is now an assistant professor at Seoul’s Global Cyber ‚Äč‚ÄčUniversity, has been teaching McGoly brewing techniques for 10 years. Yet he remembers his initial visit with the drink being unpleasantly sour and bitter.

“When we were with the women, we drank beer. But among the boys, we drank McGoly.” McGaully – with her lowly chic reputation – was unworthy of impressing women.

Two decades later, throughout the bar in the South Korean capital, a discouraged drink from Kim’s memory was becoming trendy, this time in the hands of the younger generation of entrepreneurs and brewers.

“We worked very hard to get rid of the established image that people have of McGoly,” says Kim.

Kim Min-kyu (not related to Kim Kyung-seop) is a brewer who was leading the change. He launched his premium McGoly Brewery Boxundoga in 2009.

Min-Quna Titoteller, a devout Christian father, opposed his plan – especially after spending the family’s fortune supporting his son’s five years of training as an architect at Cooper Union in New York City. Her father also angrily smashed a clay pot used to make McGoly.

Min-kyu was not afraid. He believed in the power of his grandmother’s McGoly recipe.

As a kid, he used to visit his farmhouse in the southeastern city of Yangsan. He would mix half-boiled rice with his home-made yeast and water. And he will hear the quiet bubbles of air as the mixture ferments into McGoly. Her fondest memories were of her grandmother generously sharing ready-made snacks with neighbors, who would then sing and dance.

He assured his family that steaming was an extension of architecture for him. Using her training, she created branding, marketing materials, and brewery building, while her mother made the first bottle of Boxundoga, McGeoli boiled. Doga means “brewery” and Boxoon is Kim’s mother’s name.

The timing was contingent. McGeoli was emerging from a century-long Dark Ages.

Kim Min-Q is one of the trailblazers of Korea's new McGoly scene.

Kim Min-Q is one of the trailblazers of Korea’s new McGoly scene.


History of drinks

McGeoli is a combination of the Korean words mac (meaning “almost done” or “a moment ago”) and geoleun (“filtered”).

When the name first appears in “Gwangjemulbo”, an encyclopedia believed to have been written in the 19th century, the opaque alcoholic beverage probably dates back more than a millennium.

A record from the early 20th century claims that it was consumed in every corner of Korea.

“McGoly is an instinct in Korean culture, a drink of the Korean people,” says Kim Kyung-seop.

One reason for its popularity is its simplicity. It is a mixture of boiled rice, yeast and water, which is left to ferment in a clay pot for a few weeks. Many families across Korea made their own drinks with their own unique recipe.

Many cottage industries came to an end in the first half of the 20th century due to Japanese colonization. The colonial government phased out homebrewers in favor of standard, industrial liquor producers. All alcohol-making was taxed and a license was required for self-use.

Some large-scale manufactured beverages dominate the market and, by 1934, homebrewing was outlawed.

World War II and the Korean War devastated the country. The new government continued its policy of strict control over alcohol production. As food shortages worsened in the 1960’s, the use of rice – McGoly’s main ingredient in the production of alcoholic beverages – was banned.

Producers used wheat and barley as substitutes, and McGowley’s popularity plummeted. It was replaced by modern swelling, a clear alcohol made by diluting ethanol. As the economy improved and rice supplies exceeded consumption, the ban on rice alcohol was lifted in 1989 and homebrewing was re-legalized in 1995. But many traditions were lost.

The Pyongyang pub, a North Korea-themed bar, has opened its doors in the South Korean capital – and raised a few eyebrows.

Brought him back home

The recovery of the lost art of McGoly brewing can be attributed largely to leading researchers such as Park Rock-Dam. Park traveled all over Korea for 30 years to collect recipes and recreate old techniques.

The government also reversed its previous policy, recognizing traditional alcohol as a proud legacy – and potentially lucrative – industry.

In 2016, the government allowed small-scale breweries and distilleries to sell their alcoholic beverages, reducing the size of the liquor tank from 5,000 to 1,000 liters. The following year, the unique privilege of selling traditional alcoholic beverages online and distributing them directly to consumers was granted.

While the Covid-19 epidemic prevented people from going to bars and restaurants, McGowley’s online and offline sales soared. According to a 2021 report published by the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation (aT), McGoly Market, a government-run company promoting agricultural products, grew 52.1% while the total liquor market fell 1.6% in 2020.

Kim Kyung-Siop McGoly teaches a steaming course.

Kim Kyung-Siop McGoly teaches a steaming course.

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Kim Kyung-seop

In Kim Kyung-seop’s McGoly class, half the students are entrepreneurs, many of them women in their 30s or younger. Ten years ago, almost everyone in the class was over 50 and wanted to brew McGolley as a hobby in their retirement.

According to data from the National Tax Service, the number of McGowley Brewing license holders has increased by 43% since 2009.

Kim says opening a McGeoli brewery is easier than any other type of alcohol. While equipment for setting up a beer microbrewery is approximately 200-300 million won ($ 155,000-233,000), equipment for a McGowley brewery can be obtained for 10 million won (7,800), says Kim. Additionally, he adds, the Mass Market takes only four 3-hour classes to create something better than McGoly.

Going global

Julia Mellor, an Australian citizen originally from South Korea, came to teach English. Then in 2009, she had an affair with McGowley.

Now, her business, The Soul Company, offers McGoly classes and counseling for those interested in opening their own brewery, but most of its clients are overseas. She says her business quadrupled during the epidemic.

Its customers are from countries like US, Singapore and Denmark. Many of them are members of the Korean Diaspora. “They see the Korean people enjoying themselves here and they are motivated to bring it back to their country,” she says.

“It was very different, very interesting. It’s rare to find something the people of the world haven’t heard of.”

She organized meetups with fellow enthusiasts and eventually taught herself Korean as most of the resources were not available in English.

07 McGeoli Korean Rice Wine

Participants wear their spectacles at The Soul Company’s testing session.

Soul Company

Mailer believes McGoly will attract a foreign audience.

“It’s very easy to make homebrew. All you need is rice and nuruk (yeast).”

And for that, McGowley’s propaganda has another level.

“This is saving something that was on the verge of disappearing,” says Mallor.

Kim Min-Q says his McGoly will be sold in the US and Austria this year and other Western buyers are approaching him. Its McGoly is already a hit in Japan, where it became popular during the Hullu, or Korea-Wave in the mid-2000s, a period when the success of K-drama and K-pop opened the door to other cultural exports, such as kimchi. Traditional drinks.

“For foreign consumers, this natural yeast is considered healthy, organic and clean. And it’s a kind of alcohol they’ve never seen before,” says Min-Q.

Korean “soft power” has expanded beyond Asia in recent years. He believes McGoly can ride this wave.

Let it cool

Despite McGoly’s rapid progress, the South Korean alcoholic beverage market is still dominated by semolina and beer, which account for more than 80% of sales.

Min-Q says the biggest challenge facing McGoly manufacturers is that the drink is for the elderly. Much of their advertising and marketing focuses on changing this perception. In one ad, a sharp-looking male model with a shaved head and eyebrow holes delicately pours McGoly into a champagne flute.

Another obstacle is changing the perception of food that is best associated with McGeoli.

In Korean culture, alcohol is almost always drunk with a set meal or snack. For McGioli, this is Zion, a Korean savory pancake made by frying meat or vegetables in a batter of baked flour.

“A cold sip of McGoly’s after a bite of Savory Scalian Zion acts as a palate cleaner that prepares you to enjoy another delicious bite to the fullest,” says Kim Kung-seop.

Combos are especially popular on rainy days. A report from the Ministry of Economy and Finance states that sales of components for McGoly and Zion grew rapidly on major convenience store chains on rainy days.

But the premium McGeoli, with its wide spectrum of flavors, performs well and the body can pair well with any type of food, Min-Q says.

“I drink it with jajangmyeon (Chinese-Korean noodle dish) and it also combines very well with ice cream. Because it is a fermented drink, it tastes very good with other fermented foods. I think it Delicious with kimchi and really delicious cheese, “Min-kyu added.

Boksoondoga makgeolli was recently the main offering at a vaguely located gastropub in Seoul’s trendy Hepjeong district. The stylish bartenders deftly poured the drink into a stemless wine glass. Consumers, mostly young professionals, tasted drinks while relaxing to hip-hop music. In the leather-bound menu, Beef Tartar was being offered along with an array of other premium McGeoli brands.

At the table, more women than men filled the seats. After each pouring, the bartender explained the taste and origin. They laughed. They listened carefully to every note hidden in the drink and lifted the glass to their lips.

Jihai Yun and Minji Song contributed to this report

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