Today I’m going to show you how to make makgeolli, a traditional Korean alcoholic beverage made by combining rice, yeast, and water with a starter culture called nuruk. It’s milky-white, fizzy and refreshing. It’s also called “nongju” which means “farmer liquor” because it’s made with a lot of rice, it’s full of carbohydrates and was traditionally served to farmers as part of a midmorning snack or with lunch, giving them the strength and energy to work the rest of the day.
Korea has a long history of homebrewing, and every family used to make their own booze at home, it was much more common than buying it. These days you can buy makgeolli easily at a Korean grocery store or liquor store but when it comes to taste, it can’t be compared to homemade makgeolli. Homemade makgeolli is thicker, less sweet, and more filling than store sold makgeolli.
This recipe is also in my cookbook, Real Korean Cooking, and while developing the recipe I sent a sample of the finished product to the EMSL Analytical food lab for a full nutritional and toxic analysis to see what is really inside it. They let me know that it is totally safe to drink, 7.4% alcohol by volume, cholesterol-free, fat-free, and contains vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6. It’s high in calories and has a lactobacillus count of 375,500 CFU/mL. Lactobacillus is a kind of lactic acid bacteria that’s good for your stomach and digestion and can boost your immune system. It’s also found in yogurt, but in much higher quantities.
So it’s great for giving you energy and is good for your stomach, but the real reason to drink it is it’s so refreshing and delicious! It’s also a great thing to have at a party, and especially when you make it yourself, your family and friends will love to drink it and have a great time doing it. Making good makgeolli is not very difficult, it just takes a little time and there are a few pitfalls to avoid.
I’ve been making makgeolli for special family occasions and my reader meetups for years. Some of you who came to my meetups and tasted my makgeolli have been waiting years for this recipe. Thanks for your patience!
Make some makgeolli and enjoy life! Let me know how it turns out!
Ingredients (Make 4 quarts)
- 5 cups short grain rice, washed and soaked in cold water for at least 2 hours
- 1½ cups nuruk (starter culture)
- 1 package of dry yeast
- 5 quarts of water (20 cups)
- ¼ cup sugar (optional)
5 cups Korean short grain rice
Written by Chris Buchanan
Chris has been sharing his incredible libations with us for a while, and when we tasted this traditional Korean fermentation, we knew we had to get it down on paper so that more people could make this for themselves! Chris was nice enough to write up his process for this article so that everyone can make this fun and delicious fermentation! You can use white rice, or a wide variety of different rices to accomplish this, and your percent alcohol can be whatever you want it to be! It’s a cool mix of making sake and making sour beer, and not only is it fun, it’s absolutely delicious! We’ll let Chris take it from here! If you want to follow along step by step and make your own makgeolli, check out our Make Your Own Makgeolli Kit!
Creamy, spritzy, and refreshingly tart; this is what makgeolli should taste like. Unlike those green bottles found in your local Asian grocery store, makgeolli is a lively and enjoyable drink. It’s also simple to make at home with 3 simple ingredients: water, rice, and nuruk (sold as enzyme powder). You’re familiar with the first two no doubt, so let’s dive into nuruk first.
Nuruk has been a traditional part of Korean alcohol production for centuries. Nuruk is a pre-fermented starter culture that contains a hodgepodge of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), brewer’s yeast, and koji. Like sake, the koji in nuruk makes the starches in rice grains available for fermentation. The brewer’s yeast and LAB transform the rice sugars into the tart, alcoholic miracle that is makgeolli.
Short grain rice’s starch content is most favorable to the fermentation process. Rice’s starches are unavailable to microorganisms’ enzymes in its dried state so its starches need to be gelatinized before koji’s enzymes can do their work. The traditional method is to steam the rice first and then dehydrate it for a couple hours to remove excess water. If you’re a traditionalist, give it a shot. However, modern conveniences like rice cookers and pressure cookers can expediate the process.
Water considerations are generally minimal. If your water tastes good, it will most likely do the job. Makgeolli fermentation is a biological process, so water high in chlorine or chloramine is unfavorable and should be treated with your preferred method.
This process works best for me. Follow it exactly or alter the general process for your brewery; makgeolli is rather forgiving. This will yield about ½ a gallon.
Rinse your rice several times to remove excess starch and to clean off the grains. Cook your rice in a rice cooker or pressure cooker. Using a 1-1 ratio of rice to water by weight gelatinizes my rice without adding excess water. I use 1 kilogram of rice and 1 kilogram of filtered water. Once cooked, mix the rice with another kilogram of cold water. Cold water cools down the rice to friendly pitching temperatures quickly. You want your rice at around room temperature before mixing in the nuruk.
Transfer the rice to your fermentation vessel. Add 100 grams of nuruk to the room temperature rice for a ratio of 1:10 nuruk to rice. Then mix the rice and nuruk by hand to distribute the nuruk throughout. Nuruk comes out in uneven chunks and will likely remain chunky post mixing. This is normal; however, if you don’t like this you can mash the nuruk into powder prior to mixing.
Mix your rice/nuruk mixture a couple times daily during the first 2 days of fermentation. This helps introduce oxygen and prevents a layer of white koji from developing on the top. This layer is harmless, but you may find it unappealing. Your rice will go from solid to mostly liquid in these 2 days. You can attach an airlock from day one, but I just cover the top with aluminum foil to make mixing easier. Once it’s liquified, I attach a lid and airlock then leave it alone until completion.
Ferment at room temperature. Higher temperatures can lead to off flavors. It takes two weeks for mine to ferment out. Makgeolli is done when it separates into three distinct layers. The top layer will be a yellowish liquid, the middle a creamier liquid, and the bottom rice solids and nuruk leftovers.
Finally, roughly filter your makgeolli. Strain out the bulk of the rice solids and all the nuruk. Filtering takes some effort; here are two strategies. For both strategies, mix up the layers of your makgeolli and use a sanitized container to capture the liquid. If using a mesh bag, you can pour in all the makgeolli at once. Allow to drain. Twist and squeeze the bag to encourage the liquid to come out but be careful not to squeeze out a lot of solids or nuruk. Alternatively, use strainers, starting with a less fine strainer like a pasta strainer. Mesh strainers will clog if used first. Then, ladle your makgeolli over the strainer in small batches. Gently press and move around the mixture to encourage the liquid out. Repeat with a mesh strainer afterwards to filter more finely.
Makgeolli begins with 10-16% abv. It’s often diluted by 3-1 or 2-1 water to makgeolli. However, I like mine richer and dilute 1-1 or even .5-1 water to makgeolli. You can skip dilution altogether and mix to taste in the glass.
Packaging and Consumption
Fresh makgeolli will continue to ferment post packaging. Keep packaged makgeolli in the fridge to slow it down. Priming sugar is unnecessary but can be used. Plastic bottles are good for packaging so that you can feel the pressure build up. I use a 64-oz growler for mine, burping the lid a couple time during the first few days to relieve build up. Refrigerated makgeolli can last a couple months. Flavor will change over time. Long term storage will result in increased tartness and may become unpalatable.
Mix your makgeolli prior to serving to integrate the solids and liquid that settle out. Drink makgeolli over ice for a summer heat-beating treat. Mix it with carbonated water for additional spritz or combine with lemon-lime soda for citrus and spritz. Mix in fruit juice for dandy flavor combinations. Pour from a copper kettle into a bowl for a more traditional approach. Regardless, share and enjoy. Geonbae!
So now that you have a step by step, try it yourself! It’s easy, as you can see, and is ideal for summer! We have an all inclusive Make Your Own Makgeolli Kit to help you get started! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay up to date with all of our fun fermentations, events, all things BrewChatter! Check us out on BrewChatter TV on YouTube to see fun overviews of brewing process, interviews and virtual tours of some of our favorite breweries and distilleries! If you haven’t already, join our newsletter to get specials and updates direct to your inbox!
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Makgeolli is a traditional Korean milky rice wine. My husband and I enjoyed makgeolli once in a while when we were living in Korea (it is especially good, half way up a mountain, fresh and cold), but didn’t think about if often. It’s been a year since we have been back to visit and we really found ourself missing the refreshing taste. My husband set out to make a batch for me (Yay thanks!), and here is what we came up with.
Note : You MUST sanitize all the equipment and tools properly for a good result. Unintended bacteria could cause strange results.
What you need : – 4 lb of Sweet Rice (Medium long grain rice, sushi rice or sticky rice are all fine).
– 1 lb of Nuruk (You can buy it online from Hmart or a Korean Grocery Mart near you).
– 1 Tbs yeast (any kind)
– 8 Gallon container (for fermentation) & several big bowls
1. Wash your rice until water runs clear. It’s very important that you wash your rice very clean. You might have to wash it more than ten times.
* if you don’t know how to wash the rice, here’s the tip.
Pour the water and stir it with your hand several times. When water becomes milky, drain the water. Repeat this until water runs clear.
2. After you finish washing rice, soak it in the water about two hours and strain it about 40 minutes before you steam it.
3. Add 3.5 L of water (1 USA gallon is 4L), 1 lb of Nuruk and 1 tbs of yeast to a separate bowl and mix it up well. Set aside for later.
This stage is pre-activation.
4. I used hot water to sanitize the fermenter (8 Gallon container) but you can use any kind of sanitizer that you would use for wine or beer making.
5. Dry the fermenter well.
6. Now, we are making Godu-bap that will be steamed rice. Godu-bap is the booster to shorten the fermenting time and we want it to be really dry rice. Before you steam it, place the cheese cloth on the bottom of the steamer and put the rice on top of it. Wrap the cloth around the rice, cover it up and steam it about 40 minutes.
7. If the rice is not cooked well, you can leave it a bit longer (half an hour more).
After it’s well cooked, you can stir the rice, and let it sit until the inside of the rice is cool.
Caution: If rice is too hot, it could kill the yeast. Even if the outside of the rice feels cold, the inside could still be hot.
8. Once the rice is cool you can put it and contents of step 3 and mix them well using your hand.
9. Cover the fermenter with the cheese cloth and place the fermenter in a warm room, with a temperature between 18 C to 23 C for the best result. It will take seven days of fermenting time.
( I used paper towel because I couldn’t find cheese cloth at that time and placed strainer on top of the fermenter to secure the cover. If you have wine or beer making equipment, I would suggest you to use them for fermenting)
10. Everyday, at least once a day, you have to stir it well to help with the fermentation process.
Don’t forget to sanitize the spoon before using it.
If it is fermenting well, you can see that the makgeolli is breathing like this!:
11. One week later, when the fermenting stage is complete, we have to filter the makgeolli.
Add an equal amount of water to what was used (3.5L) to the fermenter.
Place big bucket (or bowl that is able to hold 7 L, a little less than 8 gallons, of liquid) and filter the makgeolli using the cheese cloth by putting the makgeolli into the cheese cloth and squeezing the precious liquid out.
I know it’s a hard job but it needs to be done and it will be worth it.
12. Now, all you need to do is the bottling. Please don’t forget, sanitize the bottles properly.
(In my case, I have saved several pop bottles and sanitized them with wine bottle sanitizer)
If you want, you can drink fresh makgeolli or you can add an equal amount of seven up or fruit juice if you desire. For even better taste, store in your refrigerator for one week before consuming.
If you’ve ever dreamed of making saké at home but been intimidated by the steps, equipment and precision required, then Makgeolli recipe is for you.
This Korean unfiltered rice alcohol is creamy and sweet, much like nigori saké. It’s fermented, full of healthy bacteria and tastes a little like yogurt, despite being dairy-free. It’s good for simple sipping and can even replace saké in recipes – think nasu dengaku miso eggplant and restaurant Nobu‘s famous black cod. Plus, thanks to its natural bubbles, mixologists are using it as a sparkling wine substitution in their cocktail creations; two-Michelin-Star restaurant Jungsik in New York mixes it with soju and Korean raspberry fruit wine as a drink pairing for the restaurant’s lauded tasting menu.
The main difference between saké and Makgeolli are the yeasts and the fermentation time. Makgeolli recipe is traditionally made with nu ruk, a wheat yeast, while saké uses koji and specific strains of sake yeast. By using koji and following the instructions for Makgeolli, however, you can make a Makgeolli with a saké flavour. The yeasts can all be ordered online (or made at home). Most Makgeolli recipes also call for a pinch of instant yeast, which is available at the grocery store, to kick-start fermentation.
If you strain out the cooked rice and koji – the lees – after fermentation, you can season them with salt or soy sauce and use them in place of miso (think black cod again) or as a breading for fish or chicken. With saké, these lees are called kazu-saké. You can also dehydrate or freeze the lees for later use.
Once fermented, you can dilute this Korean moonshine with water to a lower alcohol level if desired, or sweeten to taste with honey.
How to Make Makgeolli Rice Wine
Makgeolli Recipe: Ingredients and Step-by-Step Preparation
1) Rinse the rice at least five times, or place in a colander under running water, moving the grains around until the water runs clear, about 2 minutes. Soak the rice in 6 cups of water for 30 minutes, then bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for 12 minutes. Reduce the heat to its lowest point and simmer 3 minutes more. Remove pot from the heat and let stand, covered, for 30 minutes.
2) Sanitize 2 cloths large enough to fit over the top of 2 large bowls (you can boil them, use sterilizing solution, or wet them and microwave them for 2 minutes). When cool, use a cloth to wipe a spatula, a small bowl, a large bowl, a spoon and your hands with about 1 cup of vodka or with sterilizing solution, trying not to waste too much vodka, clearly. Ring out the cloths.
3) If your koji is not in powdered form, grind 1 cup of it and measure 100 g. Combine the koji in the small bowl with the instant yeast and enough water to make a paste. Add 1 l of water and half the cooked rice to each large bowl. Re-sterilize your hands with vodka and when the rice is cool enough, break up any clumps.
4) Add the koji and mix together. Wipe the rim of the bowls with a cloth or paper towel soaked in alcohol and cover the bowls with the sterilized cloths. Hold the cloths in place with elastic bands, string or cord. Place the bowls in a dark area between 20-25˚C. Stir the liquid every morning and night with a sterilized spoon. Leave for 3-5 days. Add more water if drying out.
5) Over the course of the fermentation period, rice particles will start floating up and down in the liquid and you’ll hear activity from the gases. The Makgeolli is ready when most of the grains have fallen to the bottom of the bowls and only a few grains remain on top. The liquid should no longer be bubbling away. If the room is hotter than 25˚C, fermentation might only require 2-3 days.
6) Decant the liquid by pouring through sterilized cheesecloth into sterilized glass bottles, plastic bottles or mason jars. If desired, dilute with water to reduce the alcohol level or thin. Add honey to taste (it might be sweet enough already). Don’t tighten the lids too much, as some of the unpasteurized lees are still present and gases may build up. If using plastic lids, poke holes in them to release gases. You can also siphon the liquid from the lees before bottling, or bring it to 70˚C to pasteurize it if you wish the fermentation to stop completely and the Makgeolli to be shelf stable. Store in the fridge for a few days to mellow before drinking.
How to make Makgeolli recipe at home: check out the step-by-step recipe for a creamy and traditional Korean rice wine.
To make Makgeolli recipe at home start rinsing the rice at least five times, or place in a colander under running water, moving the grains around until the water runs clear, about 2 minutes.
Soak the rice in 6 cups of water for 30 minutes, then bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for 12 minutes. Reduce the heat to its lowest point and simmer 3 minutes more.
Remove pot from the heat and let stand, covered, for 30 minutes.
Sanitize 2 cloths large enough to fit over the top of 2 large bowls (you can boil them, use sterilizing solution, or wet them and microwave them for 2 minutes).
When cool, use a cloth to wipe a spatula, a small bowl, a large bowl, a spoon and your hands with about 1 cup of vodka or with sterilizing solution, trying not to waste too much vodka, clearly.
Ring out the cloths.
If your koji is not in powdered form, grind 1 cup of it and measure 100 g.
Combine the koji in the small bowl with the instant yeast and enough water to make a paste.
Add 1l of water and half the cooked rice to each large bowl. Re-sterilize your hands with vodka and when the rice is cool enough, break up any clumps.
Add the koji and mix together. Wipe the rim of the bowls with a cloth or paper towel soaked in alcohol and cover the bowls with the sterilized cloths.
Hold the cloths in place with elastic bands, string or cord. Place the bowls in a dark area between 20-25˚C. Stir the liquid every morning and night with a sterilized spoon.
Leave for 3-5 days.
Add more water if drying out.
Over the course of the fermentation period, rice particles will start floating up and down in the liquid and you’ll hear activity from the gases. The Makgeolli is ready when most of the grains have fallen to the bottom of the bowls and only a few grains remain on top. The liquid should no longer be bubbling away. If the room is hotter than 25˚C, fermentation might only require 2-3 days. Decant the liquid by pouring through sterilized cheesecloth into sterilized glass bottles, plastic bottles or mason jars. If desired, dilute with water to reduce the alcohol level or thin. Add honey to taste (it might be sweet enough already). Don’t tighten the lids too much, as some of the unpasteurized lees are still present and gases may build up. If using plastic lids, poke holes in them to release gases. You can also siphon the liquid from the lees before bottling, or bring it to 70˚C to pasteurize it if you wish the fermentation to stop completely and the Makgeolli to be shelf stable. Store in the fridge for a few days to mellow before drinking.
By Zoe Stephens
Whether you know it as Makgeolli, 막걸리, Nongju, or Fight Milk, this Korean alcohol is a beverage you need to know more about.
Makgeolli (막걸리) is traditional Korean alcohol. It’s a kind of sparkling rice wine that is cloudy in appearance, sweet in taste, and good for you. It’s a perfect partner to many Korean foods and is also pretty simple to make yourself at home.
In other words, it’s one of the best drinks around. So why have so few heard of this Korean alcohol?
Makgeolli is the oldest Korean alcohol drink dating far back to the Koryo Dynasty (918-1320). Traditionally home-brewed and drunk by farmers, Makgeolli is making a well-deserved comeback in Korea and over the world. Together with beer and soju, Makgeolli is one of the most popular Korean alcohols in both North Korea and South Korea.
Makgeolli also goes by the name of Makkeoli, Nongju (lit. ‘farmer’s drink). By the Brits it’s nicknamed ‘Drunken Rice’, and also goes by the bizarre name of ‘Fight Milk’, as christened by Scottish band Colonel Mustard & The Dijon 5 in 2018.
Whether you know it as Makgeolli, 막걸리, Nongju, or Fight Milk, this Korean alcohol is a beverage you need to know more about.
Makgeolli has a distinctive, complex taste that is unique to Makgeolli. There’s really nothing like it.
Drinking it for the first time can be quite the experience. Milky, sweet, and fizzy, this Korean alcohol is a drink that confuses the senses.
Makgeolli can have a range of tastes, and indeed your drinking Makgeolli experience will likely go on a unique taste journey through many of them. Sweet, sour, tangy, creamy, bitter, fruity, floral, notes all topped off with a bit of a chalky dusting. Your first time drinking Makgeolli will have you questioning its cloudy appearance produced by chalk sediment, and have you wonder if indeed there is any alcohol content in it due to the sweetness.
The best way to truly understand the taste of Makgeolli is by trying it yourself. If you’re deterred by the thought of fizzy milk, do make sure to close your eyes on your first sip to truly appreciate the experience.
Makgeolli Alcohol Content
Don’t be tricked by this Korean alcohol’s sweet and ease-to-drink-ability. (The mistake I made at first. My guess was around 2-3% alcohol – let’s gulp it all down shall we!)
Makgeolli can contain anything from around 6-18% alcohol. Nowadays, however, commercially produced Makgeolli sticks in the middle around 6-9% alcohol content.
How to Drink Makgeolli
Makgeolli is served in small cups. Not soju style small glass shot glasses, but rather rounded cups made from a variety of materials.
This Korean alcohol can be served as an everyday drink, but also on special occasions like weddings.
It’s best served cold. If you’re drinking it from a bottle, remember it’s fizzy. But also there will be sediment in there that needs shaking up. So give it a shake – a gentle one – leave it for a minute, and open the lid slowly.
Makgeolli is the oldest Korean alcohol. It dates back to the Koryo Dynasty – and some say it even dates further back than this to the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC – 668 AD).
It was originally called ‘nongju’, or ‘farmer’s drink/farmer’s alcohol’, because it was a drink of farmers and peasants due to its high nutritional content and also high carb content.
Due to its stigma of being a farmer’s drink, Makgeolli fell out of favour for many years, with drinks like beer becoming more popular.
Nowadays, it’s made a comeback in Korea, with many companies mass-producing it. Makgeolli is readily available in bottles in almost every convenience store in South Korea, and in various different flavours and variations. Since it’s commercially produced, it has, of course, lost some of its quality – and indeed also some of its alcohol content. Originally, this Korean alcohol would be around 12-18%. In order to fit a wider market, many companies stick to 6-9% alcohol content.
Much of the Makgeolli you’ll find made for export is pasteurized, and therefore has lost lots of its health benefits, and also flavour. This is due to the short shelf life of unpasteurized Makgeolli.
Health Benefits of Makgeolli
Makgeolli has a range of benefits if it’s made in the traditional way, i.e. with no pasteurization.
This Korean alcohol is high in fibre, vitamin B, C and low in cholesterol.
The sediment at the bottom, however, means it’s high in carbohydrates which results in about 54 kcal for 100 ml. You can get around this by not shaking it before you drink it, and therefore only drinking the clear drink at the top.
Makgeolli in North Korea
Makgeolli dates back from the Koryo Dynasty, pre-separation. Its foundations and culture are deeply rooted in Korean culture and society – including both North and South Korea.
You can find Makgeolli in many restaurants in North Korea, as well as commercially produced bottles in supermarkets.
The best Makgeolli is home-made Makgeolli made in the traditional way. You can find this in the Folklore Park in Kaesong. If you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted by an old Korean couple and here you can purchase a bottle of their home-made Makgeolli, or have a small cup to taste first. A bottle of this special brew costs less than 1 USD.
How to Make Makgeolli
Makgeolli is fairly quick to make. Its fermentation process takes only 7-10 days.
This Korean alcohol is brewed from rice and ‘nuruk’ as a fermentation starter.
It is a simple combination of cooked rice, water and nuruk. Of course, recipes and ratios of this content vary, and you can also add in various other ingredients for different flavours or varieties.
See how Park and her son make the milky and slightly sweet alcoholic drink
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At Boksoondoga brewery in South Korea, makgeolli — an alcoholic fermented rice beverage that’s milky, effervescent, tangy, and sweet — is hand-brewed with a lot of tender loving care. As owner Park Bok-soon enters her brewery’s fermentation room, she greets the onggi pots with a friendly “Hey guys, how have you been?” and is answered by the slight pitter patter of bubbling, fermenting rice. This is just one example of how she treats her product with respect. “Treat even a single grain of rice as precious,” she mutters as her partner pours the grains into a bowl.
Park starts her day hand-washing local rice 10 times before she steams it al dente. The rice is left to cool while she readies the nuruk, or fermentation starter. For the nuruk, wheat flour is fermented for 20 days, and pressed firmly into a square shape that holds together like a cake. Once the nuruk cake, is ready, it heads to a humidity and temperature controlled room where it can flower and produce the bacteria necessary to make makgeolli. “It has a direct influence on taste,” explains Park. “It’s very hard to get the nuruk to flower, so a lot of people use artificial bacteria.” The starter stays in the nuruk room for 15 days before it’s mixed with the cooled rice and water. Then, the entire mixture is added to enormous onggi pots and left to ferment for 15 to 20 days.
Upon entering the fermentation room, the sound of rain hitting pavement can be heard. Except it’s not rain, but the crackling of rice fermenting and bubbling in the pots. After the 15 to 20 day fermentation has finished, the liquid is strained from the rice, and the rice is used as feed for cows, pigs and chickens. The liquid is then mixed with water, bottled, and ready to drink.
“Japan has sake, Europe has wine, but there was no real traditional Korean makgeolli,” says Park. “A lot of love and care go into making makgeolli by hand for it to be delicious”
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Well obviously one of the best ways to learn to appriciate this drink is to learn how to make it. At its root it is really simple to make but like any great drink professional brewers have found ways to extract the very best flavors from the rice. You can learn here how to make a simple homemade makgeolli and how the pros use their creativity and resources to mold these amazing drinks.
* I still haven’t made my own Makgeolli, but Greg Boone has. Check out his blog! http://www.harmsboone.org/homebrewers-guide-makgeolli
A makgeolli producer, whose family has been producing makgeolli for five generations.
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.
Mashing up the nuruk Korean style: with our hands.
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 TheFAO, 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.
Almost done with the process, the mix up nuruk, water, and rice is transferred from the bowl into the container it will ferment in for four days.
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.
The magkeolli stays busy while it ferments in its shady lair (the closet for the air conditioner). The yeast keeps it bubbling for days, eating up sugars and giving us alcohol.
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.
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