Better brew

Back in the summer of 1971 I got a job assignment working at a Peace Corps training site on the big island of Hawai`i. It would involve preparing a group of new volunteers to come to work in the field of public health in the Korean countryside.

The staff there had decided that they wanted to introduce the trainees to as many realistic aspects of Korea as they could during the three-month stateside training. Obviously they couldn't do much about the fact that the climate of a tropical island had nothing in common with a sub-Siberian peninsula, so they decided to concentrate on creating realistic situations where the trainees could practice what they were learning about the Korean language, Korean-style living, Korean etiquette, and so on. This was to include feeding them genuine Korean food as often as possible, and there were to be a couple of big bashes at which makgeolli (막걸리) would be served. My reputation as a makgeolli connoisseur earned me the dubious honor of being appointed official brewmaster for these parties. Don't get the wrong idea. This was in addition to my regular duties as the writer of the technical language manual and a teacher of cross-cultural skills.

It's a good thing they warned me about this before I left Korea, because although Hawai`i has the other fixings you need for makgeolli, there's one indispensable ingredient you can't get there: nuruk (누룩). Nuruk is grain that's been malted and allowed to rise and harden into a big cake, which is broken up into small pieces before going into the brew. The nuruk helps create the distinctive taste of makgeolli and is also home to the yeast that will eventually produce alcohol during the brewing process. The problem was that at that time only breweries were allowed to purchase nuruk; it was illegal to sell it to the public.


A hardened cake of nuruk before it is broken up to be added to the brew.

I asked around and through a friend of a coworker who lived in a fairly big country town, I managed to get some "black market" nuruk — in a quantity to make enough makgeolli to get 40 or 50 people feeling pretty good on two different occasions. To make the nuruk easier to carry, we had it broken up into small pieces before I packed for the trip.

You can imagine me at Gimpo (the only international airport serving Seoul at the time), standing in the check-in line, breaking out in a cold sweat because there were two big plastic bags of nuruk in my baggage. Thank God they didn't ask me if I was carrying any "illegal substances," because I'm the type of person whose forehead breaks out in red welts that spell "Liar!" if I say no in such a situation.

At the customs inspection in Hawai`i, the officer asked me, "What's that stuff?" and I said, "A kind of herbal medicine." Well, it wasn't really an outright lie. The ingredients of nuruk are herbal, and yakju (약주), which is in fact one of the products of makgeolli brewing and also a polite term for booze in Korean, means 'medicinal drink.' Besides, there isn't enough room on my forehead to spell "prevaricator."

Since the nuruk was clearly not drugs and it looked dead (you can't bring live agriculatural products into Hawai`i), he let me through without confiscating it. What he didn't know was that the little yeast cells actually were alive, hiding in there, going "Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah!" at him in their little yeasty voices as we left the airport.

Besides the nuruk, I had also brought with me some carefully written out instructions on making proper makgeolli that had been dictated to me by an expert on the subject. I was also lucky enough to discover that a Korean-American lady who helped out at the training site had had the experience of brewing makgeolli at home a couple of times in the past.

Makgeolli served the old-fashioned way

Makgeolli served the old-fashioned way

She helped me cook the rice just right — it must not be done enough to eat, but you should be able to break the grains in half with your fingers. Then we let the rice cool off and mixed it with just the right amount of water and nuruk in a largish vat we found in the training site kitchen. We wrapped the whole thing in a blanket and put it in a shady corner with an incandescent light above it to keep the temperature constant at all times, even at night when the weather cooled down a lot. We listened carefully to the bubbling sounds coming from inside, and when they stopped, we wrung out the dregs with cheesecloth and let the brew settle. Then we carefully poured off the clear, yellowish yakju from the top into separate containers, and the milky takju (탁주 濁酒) was left.

The first batch was just so-so, but when we did this again for the final party, it was a huge success. The trainees mostly preferred the yakju, but the old Korea hands on staff guzzled down the takju.

A few brands of bottled makgeolli

Nowadays there are dozens of different brands of makgeolli sold in bottles or cartons at covenience stores and supermarkets. Some of the brands stick to more traditional brewing methods and provide the genuine, old-timey taste while others strive to appeal to a younger crowd with sweeter flavors and even fruity or flowery aromas.

By now you're probably wondering, "What is the point of Rector's revealing his shady past like this?" Well, I guess what I really want to say is this: if a couple of rank amateurs can make really good makgeolli on their second try, why can't the breweries of Seoul? Why does the makgeolli in those plastic bottles they sell here taste saccharine and watery? Even the more recent brands that claim to follow tradition and use "natural recipes" taste too urban, if I may use that term when speaking of the taste of liquor—some of them even have a "floral" scent. And what about the so-called dongdongju (동동주) in those places with "traditional atmosphere"? In one of them, I happened to catch someone in the kitchen emptying a bottle of soju (소주 燒酒) and a bottle of Coke into a 20-liter container of makgeolli. Rumor has it that some places even add MSG.

Remember that old advertising slogan, "I want my Maypo"? Well, for a couple decades I was saying "I want my makgeolli!"—and I mean the real thing. Well, now, thanks to today's nationwide fast delivery systems, I can order good old-fashioned makgeolli from my favorite brewery in the countryside and have it delivered right to my home. I'm glad those country folk realize that makgeolli is a tradition worth keeping.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 26 February 2000.