Now Reading
Makgeolli: Korean Rice Wine is the Sool Kid in the Room

Makgeolli: Korean Rice Wine is the Sool Kid in the Room

Pouring makgeolli into traditional cups | Photo Credit: Janice Chung

The year began with a different sort of bubbly – this one all white and fizzy, lychee and bitter melon dancing on my tongue. It looked like a bottle of milk, and one would have been forgiven for mistaking it as such; but, it was wine – rice wine to be precise – yet not the familiar saké hailing from Japan.

And it tasted like nothing I had ever had before.

“Ah, yes, you had the takju,” said Alice Jun, co-owner of Brooklyn-based artisanal Korean rice wine producer Hana Makgeolli, of her signature product, the cloudy, tangy, effervescent drink with which I decided to usher in the new year after having picked up a bottle at my local wine shop. “Takju is full of tropical notes, has some residual sugar, and pairs beautifully with spicy food like Thai or Indian. It’s a real heat quencher.”

My new year drink discovery and flavor reverie led me to a delightful conversation with Jun later in the year, the goal of which was to better understand a category of beverage that I had never heard of: sool.  “Sool is the Korean word for alcoholic beverage,” Jun explains. “But we use it to refer to Korean beverages, and specifically ones that are traditionally made, such as makgeolli.” Makgeolli is a category of rice wine below 10% ABV, although the term is often used interchangeably with takju, and, when pronounced correctly, rolls off the tongue, making it ideal for a business name (Maak-o-lee). 

Under the umbrella term sool fall beverages varying in opacity, flavor, and alcoholic strength.  “The best way to introduce a person to our sool is to have them try takju,” Jun says. Tak meaning “cloudy” and ju meaning “alcohol” is makgeolli made, or “brewed,” in three stages, using organic sticky rice, filtered water, and nuruk, a fermentation starter cake formed from wheat and barley teeming with yeast, bacteria, and mold. The nuruk is the powerhouse, the magic of the rice wine fermentation process, and believed to be an improved version of what was used in Korea since the 3rd century. 

Nuruk is amazing. It is a polyculture starter with incredible functionality and checks so many boxes,” says Jun. It takes about 7-10 days to build the brew, which is then fermented to almost dryness. After fermentation is a coarse-filtration so you are left with swirls of fog, flavors of the tropics, and a beverage ready for a spicy, hearty meal. “Takju 16 (16% ABV) is our heaviest and coarsest brew. It’s nearly 1 to 1 water to rice ratio, and we use 900 pounds of sweet, unpolished rice that we buy from a farm in California. The entire process takes about 28 days, and what you get at the end is a creamy, lactic, delicious drink full of tiny bubbles.”

Hana Makgeolli co-owners John Limb and Alice Jun | Photo Credit: June Kim

Jun runs the brewery with her business partner, John Limb, who co-founded the enterprise with Jun as the first domestic producer to make, promote, and champion this beverage category in the United States. But Hana Makgeolli’s founding did not happen on a whim, nor was it a capricious fantasy to follow a new-found collective interest in all things Korean, like Taekwondo, kimchi, and K-Pop.  

“My dad taught me how to brew, and his very first brew was the year I was born,” says Jun. Her father arrived in the United States from Korea in the 1970s, as did Jun’s mother, first settling in Northridge, CA, an area with a large Korean community and where Jun was born, and later moving to California’s Central Coast.  “Brewing, or making Korean rice wine, was something my family all did at home.  It wasn’t a special thing. We camped, we cooked, we brewed. I learned how to cook rice, watching it break down. All of this observational learning I got then provided the foundational principles for Hana Makgeolli. I never knew it until much later.” 

After graduating from high school, Jun moved to New York to attend New York University (NYU), where she studied business. “At NYU I learned about operations management, building teams, logistics. My mind has always been interested in these kinds of problems,” she says. What Jun hadn’t counted on at NYU, however, was rediscovering her culture. “NYU helped me connect with my Korean culture…feel comfortable in my own skin.” Jun brewed rice wine in her dorm, and found a way to continue brewing during the five years she traveled while working as a consultant for Deloitte. “I relied on roommates to give the brew a stir,” she remembers, laughing.  As word got out about her brews, she scheduled private tastings and parties, later meeting her future business partner, and laid down plans for what would become Hana Makgeolli, opening the brewery in 2017.  

Jun makes specialty takju from different strains of rice – the purple-hued Forbidden Takju from black rice, and the chestnut-colored Hyunmi from brown rice. However, Hana Makgeolli is not merely a takju outfit. In fact, I was surprised to learn the breadth of Korean rice wine.  There’s hwaju, or “flower wine,” made the same way as takju with an additional stage of infusion as flowers and herbs are added to the brew, and fermented to full dryness at 12% ABV. The result is a soft, light, and botanical beverage with a hint of cloudiness, perfect for a cheese plate. Then there’s yakju, or “clear wine,” a five-stage brew that undergoes an additional three-week process to separate the sediment from the liquid, yielding a savory beverage that’s a match for oysters and raw seafood. Hana Makgeolli also makes cuvées and special “one-offs,” and continues to look for ways to experiment while adhering to traditional brewing methods.

But, to get more Americans to drink sool, Jun has a bit of an uphill battle. Ever the optimist, she believes there is market validation to support her mission, as the beverage industry is trending toward such things as spontaneous fermentation, natural wine, and craft beer. “The way people approach wine and beer, for example, is the same way people should approach sool,” she notes. “How does it taste? Are there tannins? Acid? Is it light-bodied? Full-bodied? Is there sugar or is it bone-dry? There is also a real application of sool to food, and I want people to think in terms of sool pairings as they would wine or beer pairings.” 

Fun at Hana Makgeolli | Photo Credit: Janice Chung

According to Jun, young people in Korea are embracing makgeolli. There are over 2,000 rice wine breweries in the nation, with some multi-generational breweries coming back to life, as well as new ones started by young people recognizing a trend. Makgeolli doesn’t match the volume of soju or beer, however, as these two sool continue to dominate the alcoholic beverage market. Soju, Korean’s most famous beverage export, is a clear, neutral spirit distilled from grains, which can include rice. However, unlike makgeolli, soju is not a rice wine. “While sool sommeliers and judges exist in Korea, there isn’t any institutional history for Korean rice wine. No advocates, no trade group. Our mission is to help build this beverage category, but we can’t do it alone,” she says. Jun tells me of a Korean rice wine outfit in Seattle that is set to start production within a year, and a soju distillery that recently opened in Georgia. “It will take those who have no context about makgeolli but are generally curious about drinking something new to take sool to the next level.”Hana Makgeolli operates out of a 2,500 square foot facility in a sleepy corner of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, about a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway stop. Adjacent to the production facility is a bright and airy tasting room, the perfect place in which to  become acquainted with this ancient drink over a plate of bar snacks called anju. Jun hopes to increase production next year, eventually quadrupling capacity, with a possible move to a larger location either nearby or somewhere more rural. She is at work most days, with very few days off. “It’s the intensity of harvest, but it never ends,” she says. “We are brewing constantly. The lifestyle is not conducive to that much balance, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”