Food News

Is ‘Rice Beer’ the New Natural Wine?

What's unfiltered, delicately fizzy, sessionable…and has an ancient history?

December 18, 2019
Photo by Kathryn M. Sheldon

"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."

Carol Pak, founder of Makku, markets makgeolli as "rice beer". Photo by Kathryn M. Sheldon

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.

In addition to the original flavor, there are a few rotating ones like mango and blueberry. Photo by Kathryn M. Sheldon, Kathryn M. Sheldon

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 scriptwas 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.

Is there a food or drink you liked long before it became trendy? Tell us about it in the comments.
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    Brinda Ayer
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.


Jennifer December 18, 2019
Gotta ask, a coupla things:
1. Could someone define "sessionable"? The article seems to equate "sessionable" and (physically) "crushable." I would have said, "low alcohol." Opinions?
2. Ummm, where does the comparison to "natural wine" come in? Maybe "natural wine" is a stand-in for "trendy," except... for the deeply committed growers and happy bibbers for whom it means something else...
3. As so often on Food52, I wonder--was this post sponsored? IF SO, THAT'S OKAY; I'd just like to know it. Many of my favorite bloggers accept paid product placement; they explain their policies; sometimes I go with their recommendations, other times, not. (Wild guess--huh, maybe this product is sold where legal at Trader Joe's?)
Brinda A. January 6, 2020
Hi Jennifer! Thanks for these Qs! Going to attempt to answer them here, hope it's helpful—

1. "Sessionable," "crushable," and "low-alcohol" are all synonymous in this context. "Session" ales, for example, have a lower ABV so you can enjoy multiple servings in one "session." "Crushable" here means "easily drinkable."
2. The comparison to natural wine in this article refers not to natural wine (or makgeolli's) trendiness, but rather the cloudy, funky properties of both makgeolli and natural wine, and the often lower-ABV qualities (take Pét-Nat, for example, which is typically 10 percent alcohol, versus Champagne's 12+ percent) of the two drinks.
3. Nope, not sponsored! We always indicate at the very top of the article (in the "tag" section, where it currently says "Food News" in this article) as to whether or not the article is sponsored. A few of us actually found/tried this beverage independently (I, myself, being one of those people!) and genuinely loved the taste and the story behind it, so we wanted to recommend it to our readers. Makku sent us product to further sample after we'd already tried it out in the wild, enjoyed it, and approached the company for an interview. (And FWIW, I don't think it's available at Trader Joe's just yet—if it is, I've definitely missed out!).