We took our first sip of makgeolli back in late September on the first night of our farming adventure with Wooriwa, pouring from enormous drums like the kind my Grandpa once used to fill up the pontoon with gas at the cabin. Since then, we have become enamored with the beverage, and perplexed by its composition. About a month ago we had the pleasure of learning how the beverage is brewed by the people who knew it best: fifth generation professionals.
Foreigners often call makgeolli a rice wine. In fact, makgeolli is not wine at all, as numerous food bloggers around Seoul have pointed out. It is not made like wine, and it does not look or taste like wine. Some may argue over what the proper genre makgeolli belongs in, but regardless of what it should be, makgeolli is delicious, and a must taste for all visitors to the Land of the Morning Calm. With its white color, don’t make the mistake a friend did on his first week in Korea and douse your cerial in the opaque white substance. It may look vaguely like milk, but it tastes nothing like it. The milky-hued, slightly sweet beverage is a perfect addition to any meal of pajeon and bossam, or just to sip through an outdoor concert in Hongdae. It is traditionally sipped from bronze bowls, and served from a kettle to match. Like the drink itself, the brewing process is at once straightforward and mysterious.
The first step is to acquire a lot of rice. The main ingredient by far, there is a special variety of rice that produces the best makgeolli, but in a pinch a long grain rice you can buy at the grocery store should get the job done. When we brewed our makgeolli the exact proportions were unclear because we were brewing a lot of makgeolli as a large group, but the quantity was more than you could make in a rice cooker at home. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 4 parts. Before you start the cooker, soak the rice in water (10 parts) for about an hour, then stop the cooking process before it’s cooked all the way. Let the rice cool down and then taste it. After your taste test is over, spread the rice out on your counter top. You may want to put down a sushi mat, or something else that will keep the rice from sticking to the counter.
After rice the second most important ingredient in this process is called nuruk. It was described to us as whole wheat yeast cake but that’s not particularly helpful, and we suspected there was more to it than that. According to The FAO, Nuruk is “wheat, rice, barley (whole grain, grits or flour)” with the fermenting microorganisms “Aspergillus, Rhizopus, [and] yeasts” packed together into a large cake, and then incubated for about three weeks, dried for two, and aged for about two months. We had seen these nuruk cakes around grocery stores and markets in town, but never really knew what they were. To the untrained eye, they look almost like a strangely shaped bird’s nest. To make makgeolli, the nuruk (one part) is added to mineral water and broken into tiny pieces with the hands until it is a muddy color and consistency. Once the mixture is at a proper consistence, add in the rice, and mix it in thoroughly.
Korean cooking values working with your hands, and a lot of things that people elsewhere would use tools for, Koreans do with their hands. When making makgeolli, even though it would probably be easier to do this mixing with a large spoon, or a pair of cooking chopsticks, or even maybe a blender to break up those giant chunks of nuruk, you should use your hands. When all the mixing is done, jar it. We suspect traditional Koreans did not use plastic jars, but if you don’t have a kimchi pot laying around, it’ll do in a pinch. Like beer, the longer it sits, the more alcoholic it gets; though, the FAO shows the alcohol content plateaus around 16% after 4 days. We were told to first cover it with a paper towel so that the drink could breathe—the more air those yeasts get the harder they work—and then after two days cover it and let it ferment covered for two more days. Stir the whole mixture twice per day, again to keep the yeast working hard. After four days your makgeolli is ready to drink.
After we uncovered it and took our first sips, we were a bit shocked at the sourness of the makgeolli, as were many of the people with whom we brewed. Our friends who brew beer here, and a Twitter follower of mine suggested we add sugar to the mix to both cut the edge out of the drink, up the alcohol content, and add a little more carbonation, and this seemed to do the trick. The drink was a bit strong as alcohol goes, but it can easily be watered down to taste. Friends who tried it said it tasted like makgeolli. Mission accomplished.
Thanks to some commenters below (Steve Schultz and Glenn Thomas) I recently learned that Nuruk is available for purchase at Korean Grocery stores here in the states. It goes by the name Powdered Enzyme Amalase and can be purchased at H-Mart.
To brew your own:
- 1 nuruk cake, powdered (see here for how to make a nuruk cake)
- 10 parts water
- 4 parts rice
- Soak rice in tepid water for 1 hour
- Cook the rice until it is about 80% cooked.
- Allow the rice to cool
- While rice is cooling break nuruk cake until small pieces and mix into water until it turns a mud-like color.
- mix in rice
- transfer mixture to an earthen jar (if unavailable a plastic jar will do just as well)
- cover jar with a paper towel, or light cloth and allow it to ferment for two days
- cover jar with lid and allow to ferment another two days
- stir the makgeolli twice per day throughout the whole fermentation process.
- Add one tablespoon of sugar per liter of makgeolli to each bottle
- Filter makgeolli mixture through a cheesecloth and pour through a funnel into each bottle
- seal bottles if possible, and refrigerate until ready to drink
- To be traditional, transfer your makgeolli into a kettle, and pour into a small, bronze bowl
- Add water to taste