Even foreigners living in Korea cannot help but notice how makgeolli has taken on a new air of respectability. As a long-time imbiber of the brew - we are dubbed “makgeoholics” - this is good news!
I once was a Peace Corps volunteer who lived on a monthly stipend of 43,000 won for lodging, food and entertainment. That meant beer and other Western beverages were beyond my budget. So, during most after-hours events, my choices were pretty much limited to soju and makgeolli. But after some forgettable evenings and unforgettable mornings after, I soon realized that the soju of the 1970s was not healthy for living things.
Fortunately, I learned that makgeolli was not only cheap but even good for you. As an Irish-American, I have reverently believed that Guinness stout beer is good for you. In fact, the Irish say that Guinness is a meal in a glass. So, I was overjoyed when I heard from Eumseong townspeople that it is possible to survive a full two weeks on nothing but makgeolli. Having imbibed the stuff for over three decades, there is no doubt the creamy, tangy stuff is full of nutrients - and who knows what else.
And as a rural Peace Corps volunteer, I came to respect Korean farmers and small townspeople. These were real people, doing real work and drinking a real beverage. To me, soju was something akin to poison for a quick drunk, but makgeolli was a real man’s drink with which one can enjoy like a real man while not getting so drunk that the rest of the evening is only a hazy memory.
And, I might add, any woman who tells me she, too, loves makgeolli is immediately regarded by me as a superior sort of female. And that leads to my old friend from our shared Peace Corps days, the former U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens.
She has appreciated makgeolli for decades, and often served it at her official residence. While I cannot say her high regard for makgeolli is responsible for her success, I will say a woman who drinks it is likely to be up for any job.
All of which leads us back to the current fad, rediscovery and new ideas for exporting makgeolli. Frankly, I’m pretty excited about all of this. First, it opens the doors for further improvement of makgeolli. Back in the 1970s, under the Park Chung Hee regime, the amount of rice used in makgeolli production was curtailed as part of the nation’s efforts for grain self-sufficiency: a wise move since everyone knew how many Koreans would allocate their limited rice reserves towards the production of makgeolli.
Later on, as Korean agricultural production improved, the controls were removed and pure rice makgeolli became common. That was a major step forward and now makgeolli may be about to take the next important step in upgrading its quality.
When we order makgeolli at a restaurant, usually we really don’t know which type we are drinking. The stuff is served in a generic ceramic pot. In other words, unlike every other beverage on the menu, makgeolli is devoid of branding. As a result, one goes to those restaurants that serve “good makgeolli,” which means a beverage that is made by one of the better brewers and is fresh. Even good makgeolli sours relatively quickly, even when kept at optimum temperatures.
As a marketing professional, I see these negatives as allowing for future positives to be developed. First, by exporting abroad by brand, more competitive pressures will be placed on makgeolli brewers for consistent quality. Tetra Pak Korea, for example, is providing cartons to be used for the export of makgeolli, but so far, there has been no demand for these containers for domestic distribution. Rather, makgeolli is normally distributed only near the brewer’s facility.
But, when exporters fully master the means to deliver makgeolli abroad and as foreign consumers develop a thirst for the beverage, more Koreans will try to make money by exporting. And in so doing, branding will become more important. Furthermore, as brands become stronger, we may see the best brewers doing wider distribution domestically, taking advantage of new packaging - and possibly applying new refinements in brewing.
And that leads me to the second, likely development of makgeolli - new investments in improving the production of makgeolli so that it sours more slowly. In the past, there was regular soju and superior “tourism soju,” and I believe the Korean economy has outgrown that kind of product differentiation.
But I should add a word of warning. Given this upsurge in the creamy stuff’s popularity, I have been sometimes horrified as the unacquainted (usually female) imbibers shake the bottles to stir up the contents prior to uncapping. Frankly speaking, watching that kind of experience is only one level lower in anxiety than watching a sweet young thing pull out the pin from a hand grenade and ask what’s the purpose of the pin.
Should you see a well-meaning dining mate start shaking the bottle, immediately grab away the makgeolli bottle for everyone’s safety. Rather, hold the bottle by the top and slowly swing the bottle in downward arcs, almost as if you were ringing a chime or bell. The beverage deserves respect and your guests deserve to drink it, not wear it.
So next time you are out with your friends, lift your cup of makgeolli and toast what it once was and what it has become. Then dream of what makgeolli may soon be: a real beverage for real people around the world.
by Tom Coyner. This article appeared in the Korea Joonang Daily.