"I used to explain it as 'nigori beer.' But that’s not even really right. Makgeolli isn’t rice wine, nor is it sake, nor is it beer. It’s its own thing," says Carol Pak, founder of Makku, America’s first canned craft makgeolli.
Brewed with the type of rice typically reserved for royal meals, rich with live cultures that keep it fermenting in the bottle, and clocking in at around 6 percent A.B.V., makgeolli feels primed to become the craft-beverage trend’s new cloudy and delicately fizzy poster child. But, just as 21st-century producers didn’t invent the piquette, rosé spritzers, and batched cocktails now so ubiquitously found in cans (though, spiked seltzer is definitely a product of our time), makgeolli has been around since 1 B.C.E.
Makgeolli is traditionally made by fermenting rice with water and nuruk (a dense cake of rice, barley, and wheat that’s been inoculated with wild micro-organisms and lactic acid bacteria) in a ceramic crock for about a week. Sound familiar? Makgeolli is similar to sake, especially nigori (unfiltered) sake. But, there are a few key differences: Sake relies on koji to makgeolli's nuruk, is passed through a fine filter while makgeolli is passed through a coarse one, and ferments for double the time that makgeolli does. Consequently, sake sports an A.B.V. at around 15 percent, to makgeolli's 6 to 8 percent.
As Carol emphasizes, “makgeolli is not sake. Makgeolli is not Japanese."
With such a humble ingredient list, simple enough fermentation method, and quick turnaround, makgeolli, also called nongju (“farmer’s alcohol”), was considered not only Korea’s national drink, but during scarcer times, a suitable replacement for a meal.
The ‘80s ushered in a time of rapid development and modernization, and with that, of course, the import of non-Asian booze. A taste for (and stash of) imported spirits signified modernization and cachet. Makgeolli producers, unable to compete with changing tastes and preferences, re-marketed the drink as one to be enjoyed in large quantities, not for its quality—which is why many of the versions we see in America continue to be heavily sweetened, artificially flavored, and sold in huge plastic bottles at insanely low prices.
Nongju not only fell out of fashion, but became unfashionable because it was cheap and accessible, unrefined and young, homemade in small batches and unpredictable. Characteristics now celebrated in our natural wines and craft kombuchas, these buzzwords have become a substitute for knowledge and for owning one's own preferences.
Interest in craft makgeolli has been renewed in Korea in recent years, with more and more microbreweries and tasting rooms opening (30 in the past few years alone, all in Seoul, all headed by young entrepreneurs under 40). But Makku is one of the few, if only, brands of craft makgeolli available in America.
Instead of the more commonly used plastic liter bottles with crackly labels, Makku comes in crushable (“sessionable”) cans, with a design so minimally elegant, they feel like a parody of themselves and the trend they represent. Carol’s chosen to call Makku a “rice beer”—not because its A.B.V. categorizes it as one (a myth), nor out of a desire to capture part of the beer market, but because the descriptor is technically right. Makgeolli is a drink of fermented grain, and being a “beer” means Makku can be purchased in grocery stores and bodegas in N.Y.C.—accessible and casual settings where Carol believes makgeolli truly belongs.
Last weekend, I handed out a few cans, nervous that my guests would gravitate to one flavor. But there was, truly, something for everyone, and the differences between flavors kept us passing cans among us. Mango was an intense tropical rush, rich and creamy, like a mango pudding. Blueberry reminded me of a yogurt swirled through with jam. Original was, well, original-tasting, and in the best way possible. Why mess with a drink with ancient history, when you can just can it?
After geeking over soju giant Jinro’s new bespoke-seeming bottle featuring old Korean script—was it an attempt to portray Jinro as “authentic,” to confirm its place as a historical, national drink?—I asked Carol what Makku’s future might hold.
“I was thinking about adding a soju-spiked seltzer,” she laughs.