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All About Makgeolli, Korea’s Oldest Brew ~ Try It At Gopchang Story Korean BBQ in Glenview, IL!


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Do you know what Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage is? No, it’s not soju – it’s makgeolli! Makgeolli is a milky, fermented Korean rice wine and Korea’s oldest brew, believed to have originated sometime during the Three Kingdoms Era during King Dongmeyong’s reign, sometime between 37 to 19 BCE. It is a drink with over 2000 years of history!



Makgeolli’s Origins

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Also called nonju (meaning “farmer’s alcohol”) and takju (meaning “cloudy alcohol”), makgeolli is a combination of the Korean words “mak” (meaning “roughly done,” or “just done”) and “geolleuneun” (meaning “filtered”). True to its name, makgeolli was originally made quite rustically: by simply allowing a mixture of cooked rice, yeast and water to ferment in a clay pot for a few weeks, then pouring the resultant alcoholic beverage out to strain out the solids while retaining some milky sediment. 


Makgeolli was the quintessential alcoholic drink of Korean farmers, peasants and the working class for over a millennium; in fact, historically, makgeolli and soju were seen as symbolic dividers between social classes. Often made from surplus crops, with low alcohol content and refreshing natural carbonation, makgeolli was the favored beverage of farmers and the working class. Until relatively recently, it was even customary to serve makgeolli to laborers during their break times.


Because makgeolli is fairly simple to brew using cheap, readily available ingredients of rice, nuruk (a Korean fermentation starter), yeast and water, many Korean families brewed their own makgeolli at home. Makgeolli was undisputedly the most common alcoholic beverage in Korea for several hundreds of years, and makgeolli brewing became a very significant and widespread cottage industry throughout the country, with many households developing their own unique methods and traditions of brewing makgeolli, passed down through generations.



Makgeolli’s Struggles

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Japan’s colonization of Korea during the first half of the 20th century dealt a massive blow to many of Korea’s industries, including homebrewing. Under Japanese rule, all alcohol-making was taxed and required licenses, even when only made for self-consumption. By 1934, homebrewing was outlawed throughout the country, and though makgeolli still enjoyed some popularity among professional brewers, it crippled the country’s previously extremely widespread cottage industry of makgeolli brewing.


Korea was further devastated and poverty stricken due to World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953). Makgeolli producers attempted to rebound after the end of Japanese colonial rule over the country, and in 1961 there were a documented 2680 licensed makgeolli breweries in Korea. However, ongoing food shortages became so severe that in 1965, the government banned the use of rice to make alcoholic beverages. Alcohol manufacturers switched to using ingredients like potatoes, wheat and barley as substitutes, and other methods and types of alcoholic beverage production began gaining in popularity. 


As the country’s economy improved, the rice alcohol ban was lifted in 1989, and homebrewing was made legal again in 1995 – but much of the makgeolli-making tradition was lost. The Korean peoples’ tastes and preferences in their alcoholic drinks had shifted as well. The latter half of the 20th century saw South Korea undergoing incredibly rapid modernization and industrialization as well as the adoption of many western influences, especially during and after the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Alcohol preferences began skewing towards light lager beers and clear soju liquor, and the once beloved makgeolli swiftly gained a reputation for being an old, unfashionable, cheap and harsh tasting drink. By 1990, the number of licensed makgeolli brewers in the country had shrunk to about 1340 (halved compared to1961!), reflecting the beverage’s plummeting consumption and sales. By 2002, makgeolli sales were barely limping along at a mere 4% of total alcohol sales in Korea.



Makgeolli’s Resurgence

2009 saw makgeolli making a sudden and unexpected comeback, thanks to a new generation of Korean drinkers seeking lighter, healthier, and lower-alcohol-content alternatives to soju and beer. New/old craft makgeolli recipes began spreading and finding new/old popularity once again, aided by a growing interest in reviving old cultural traditions. 


Clever marketing schemes celebrated makgeolli’s health benefits, and also rebranded makgeolli as an elegant beverage, complete with sophisticated makgeolli bars complete with extensive craft makgeolli lists, makgeolli samplers and flights, and beautifully plated modern bar food pairings - all of which appealed to a new generation of drinkers and social media fans. 


And as far as makgeolli’s health benefits – it is not a marketing tactic or a gimmick, but quite true! Makgeolli is 80% water, naturally lightly carbonated, typically just 6-8% alcohol content, and is a good source of protein, dietary fiber, vitamin B, vitamin C, lactic acid and lactobacilli – the latter two found in makgeolli at levels higher than found in yogurt. Studies have found that moderate consumption of makgeolli can help aid digestion, reduce inflammation, improve the body’s antioxidant status, improve immune function, and slow the aging process!


In 2017, there were over 760 licensed makgeolli breweries in Korea producing over 2,000 types of makgeolli, each with a unique blend of ingredients and profiles. Makgeolli’s domestic and international sales have continued to grow every year, and the drink is no longer considered the farmer’s or old timer’s drink. Koreans now largely associate makgeolli with a sense of valued history, pride, integrity, heritage and tradition – once nearly lost but rediscovered, revived and embraced anew.



How to Enjoy Makgeolli!

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Milky and lightly sparkling, makgeolli is slightly sweet and tangy with savory after-notes, which make the drink a wonderful pairing with many types of Korean food, including Korean barbeque! Makgeolli’s natural carbonation and smooth taste and mouthfeel make it a deliciously refreshing complement to hearty and flavorful barbequed meats, as well as sides like Korean pancakes (such as kimchi, mung bean, and seafood pancakes). Traditionally poured from a brass kettle into smaller brass cups, today, makgeolli is usually served in a large serving bowl and ladled out into ceramic or clay cups. 


Enjoy makgeolli – the once and again beloved beverage, chock full of nutrients, milky light sparkles, and over 2,000 years of Korean history – with your Korean food, here at Gopchang Story Korean BBQ in Glenview, IL!





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