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A toast to makgeolli, Korean traditional wine

Dr. Shin Woo-chang, 41, of Kooksoondang Brewery Co. Ltd., is busy these days conducting research on makgeolli, a Korean traditional rice wine.

Makgeolli is the latest addition to Korea’s list of food products to be promoted abroad and also in line with the government policy to increase rice consumption. Neighboring Japan, which is the biggest exporter of Korean rice wine, has already created a unique cocktail out of it.

“I used to drink a lot of makgeolli back in my college days. But never did I guess that I would be making such a broad study on the beverage,” said Dr. Shin, who has been working on the particular liquor for the past 11 years. “Now I can’t imagine my life without it.”

Back then he was majoring in Molecular Genetics and was set on making a career in that field. But then he came across a special lecture made by chairman of Kooksoondang Brewery Bae Sang-myun. Impressed by the chairman’s passion for his work, he joined the company in 1999.

“There are over 700 makgeolli manufacturers in Korea, all with varying flavors. In the early days of development I had to drink dozens of different makgeolli types every day. It was all part of my job,” Shin said. He has become an ardent advocate of makgeolli since then.

First and foremost Shin highlights the health benefits of makgeolli. The yeast and microorganisms like lactobacillus that are produced during the fermentation process of the rice wine not only contain anti-cancer agents but also slow down aging. Furthermore the non-digestible fibers within makgeolli are good for digestion and diet as well. This last bit of information had young Japanese women running for the stores.

It was Dr. Shin who developed and patented the unique technology of preserving carbonated pressure inside draught makgeolli. Draught makgeolli, the basis of all varieties, is far better in taste and nutrition than makgeolli that is sterilized. The only problem was that its nutritional content didn’t last more than a week or so. The draught makgeolli that Dr. Shin developed stretched that period to about a month. Moreover, he underscores that makgeolli is liquor that is ingrained deep in Koreans’ collective psyche.

“When we ask people what the representative alcoholic beverage in Korea is, most would say it’s soju (Korean distilled liquor). That saddens me. Not that they are wrong, but rather because soju is only some 600 years old, while we have makgeolli, whose tradition dates back millennia. It’s a part of Korean culture. That’s why it’s so easy to enjoy makgeolli.” 

There are some people who blame makgeolli for headaches and other side effects the next day. Dr. Shin again explains that this is all a misunderstanding.

“Makgeolli’s popularity reached its peak in 1975, making up 60 to 70 percent of the total liquor market with some 1.4 million kiloliters produced nationwide. The suppliers had trouble keeping up with demand. That made some makgeolli manufacturers resort to using chemicals like carbide to speed up the fermenting process. That was the reason for headaches, not makgeolli itself. You don’t have to worry about that in the case of makgeolli that is being made nowadays.” It was in the 1980s that makgeolli’s popularity started to wane.

These days there are definitely signs of coming back. The Kooksoondang Brewery, for one, saw its sales for the first half of 2009 jump 10 times that of the same period last year. President Lee Myung-bak’s policy to encourage rice consumption cannot be overlooked either, as he prepares the country to open its agricultural market for to free trade agreements. Increasing the production of rice wine was one of those measures. There are even talks of suggesting makgeolli as a main beverage for the dinner party at the next G20 financial summit meeting, scheduled for next year in Seoul.

“Of course I’m happy to see makgeolli becoming popular again. But I wish people would truly appreciate the worth of makgeolli. Right now we sell a 750ml makgeolli bottle at only 1,000 won. That’s almost cheaper than water. Most people just go right past it if we try to inch up the price. That makes it hard to use better ingredients or packaging."
"Although we manufacturers will continue to work to improve the quality of the drink, it would be of even greater help if people would do away with the notion that makgeolli is a cheap drink. It would also accelerate the process of popularizing makgeolli overseas as well,” he added.

Meanwhile Shin’s wife is also a geneticist. She succeeded in developing golden-colored rice by adding carrot pigmentation to the grain. Dr. Shin said his dream is to make a golden makgeolli from the rice bred by his wife and make makgeolli as popular as French wine or Japanese sake.

How to drink makgeolli

1. Makgeolli must be shaken or stirred first before drinking. There are some who purposefully let the thick, white layer sink before drinking. That’s the best way to miss out on all the good nutrients that makgeolli has to offer, including yeast, lactic-acid bacteria and fiber.

2. The whiter the makgeolli, the better – that’s a complete hoax. The difference in color comes from different varieties of yeast. The Japanese-style rice yeast is closer to white in color, while wheat yeast, which is made in a typical Korean style, is somewhat yellowish in color. Rice yeast gives out a clear, simple taste and wheat yeast a richer and heavier taste. The choice is yours.

3. Sterilized makgeolli was made to enjoy the scent so it is best to keep it at around 5–10 degrees Celsius. In contrast, draught makgeolli is made to savor the refreshing feeling of a carbonated drink, and so needs to be kept around 0–5 degrees Celsius.

Source: Weekly Gonggam Magazine

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