Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sansawon Brewery and Makgeolli Tour

The Makgeolli Mamas and Papas in Korea (MMPK) is a one-stop-shop for makgeolli information in English, as their Facebook page claims, and this is most certainly true. MMPK has established a vibrant and information-packed website which offers more than information. It offers makgeolli tasting meet-ups, descriptions of the many subtle flavors of the wide-expanding makgeolli market, makgeolli brewing classes as well as tours of a makgeolli brewery that has a museum filled with artifacts for making distilled Korean drinks from ancient times up through the present. Founded by Julia Mellor (Australian) and Monica Kluge (Canadian) in November 2011, the Mamas and Papas has grown and now is followed by nearly 2000 members.

But what exactly is makgeolli? Etymologically speaking, it is "rice wine" but sometimes it is defined as "rice beer" because the proof is so low. However, the best (as in most hilarious but on a deeper plane very true) translation offered to honor the common-man drink was "drunken rice" which was published in an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal by a Korean eager to market makgeolli in the US. Needless to say, the description didn't sound positive and neither did it take off with the international audience, and yet, the description isn't un-logical.

Basically, makgeolli is a milky-white drink of low alcoholic content that is made from sticky rice, water and a wheat fermentation starter (nuruk). It was a common-man's drink and was drunk out in the fields when working, drunk when it rained (returning practice to Korea), drunk at festivals and community events, even kids were initiated to the mildly intoxicating drink at an early age. In a 12th-century Chinese Song Dynasty document the beverage was first referenced and attributed to a drink for a commoner: "a thin-tasting alcohol of deep hue that does not cause much drunkenness". (More hilarity on the "drunken rice" translation concept!)

History of Makgeolli

Prior to the Koryeo Dynasty (918-1392) there was no fermentation in Korea. The sojus at the time were more like the present-day ahrak, still typical in steppe cultures. However, with invasion of the Mongols also came introduction of new technology, recipes, ways of farming and warfare methods. One of the things the Mongols brought to the young Koryeo Dynasty was the concept of distillery, which appears to have been widely embraced by the dynasty. The Koryeo Dynasty was particularly interested in trade and through this trade Korean alcohol evolved and spread.

During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), however, family name, status and a hierarchical system became established on the peninsula, and eventually brewing became a status or structure symbol so commoners were forbidden brewing rights, unless of course they were given permission. So the age of home-brewing began, and mothers passed on their home recipes of alcohol, kimchi, etc via word or mouth ... and brewing just wasn't done on the trade scale as in the previous dynasty but more as a private family form of bonding through sharing and drinking. The oldest detailed cookbook written by a woman in Korean history is 음식디미방 which details Korean cuisine, ways to store various foods as well as made entries on home-brewing. The author Lady Jang (1598-1680) was of the yangban class and so had learned the unscholarly Hangeul script deemed suitable for women, and when her son was getting married, she collected her thoughts and compiled her book of mother's love and advice for him.

However, with the collapse of the Chosun Dynasty and the era of Japanese occupation (1910-1945), many home recipes were lost. This was a time when a lot of tradition was lost as the Japanese implemented many kinds of social and educational changes that affected the family structure. Taxes were placed on all approved industries, and supporters of the Japanese were offered these licenses; non-approved industries were not to operate. The brewery taxes were also implemented and this was the first of the Japanese taxes upon the Korean people. Rice was demanded increasingly as a tax payment from the Korean subjects and this loss of key ingredient to the brewing of makgeolli affected the traditional recipe. In result, the ingredient 고지 (sake yeast) was instituted instead of the traditional 누룩 used by the Koreans. While makgeolli could be once again marketed on a more industrial scale, with the substituted ingredient, the flavor was altered as was the overall fermentation reaction.

Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), radical military-coup president, further damaged the traditional brewing of makgeolli by placing a ban on all rice brewing. During this time, there was a lot of experimentation with alternative brewing to satisfy the people's desire for a cheap and yet palatable social drink. Ingredients ranged wildly from (some illegal rice brewing), tapioca, sweet potato, and even wheat flour that had been heavily introduced by the Americans during the Korean War. The ban on making makgeolli with rice lasted until 1999, many years after Park's assassination.

Over time and with the introduction of foreign alcoholic drinks which were seen as more prestigious, especially as makgeolli became associated with farming and the older generation, the younger generation moved on to beers, sojus and other fermented drinks, relegating makgeolli to the older generation. However, in 2008, 2009 and 2010 there was a revival and a boom in the makgeolli industry, which included a boom in international recognition and sales. The boom lasted about three years but in that time, the younger generation saw makgeolli as a drink that could be revised with the times and could therefore be trendy. As a result, some of the "new and improved" makgeolli drinks were even extended beyond just beverage product:

  • A bar in Hyehwa (a trendy off-Broadway type area) makes a makgeolli slushy, which is rather sweet and being cold the alcohol content can't be readily distinguished.
  • Kahlua makgeolli ice cream has been introduced, accepted and locally popularized.
  • Champagne makgeolli comes with a special bottle that the moment it is opened, the champagne and activating ingredient(s) self-mix and give a bubbly reaction. Unfortunately, this makgeolli is known to have a high aspartame content.
  • Fusion "cocktails" with makgeolli are indeed a huge rage with kiwi, raspberry, 오미자 (shizandra), grapefruit, to name a few.
  • Pumpkin makgeolli, an undiluted makgeolli of 10-14% ABV, enjoyed some seasonal popularity also.

Makgeolli Today

There are many kinds of nuruk. The geumjeonsan flat disks are very common to traditional brewing, but for the ease of home-brrewing, bio-nuruk (the bottom-most picture below) has become popular. It is commercially packaged and comes in short, dried spaghetti-like pieces. Because it is packaged, it makes a quick purchase and can be stored in a cool cupboard for longer than geumjeongsan nuruk can be stored in a dark, cool, ventilated storeroom. 

Typically in traditional brewing the nuruk cakes are formed into large flat molds and then placed in a cool ventilated dark area on straw for removing storage and also sharing natural organisms.

Vessels for holding the powdered nuruk and breaking it down further are called hangari pots. They are porous, which allows the fermentation to leak out but disallows oxygen to enter.

Kanghwado is famous for good rice used in brewing. In fact, the province has historically been called "the king's fields of rice". However, this image of plentitude and abundance is changing. With an increasing population and loss of farmlands to rapidly spreading high-rise apartments, "the king's field of rice" is disappearing. Society is now based on a 빠리빠리 (hurry hurry) attitude, and the slow  and community-embued methods for brewing are disappearing. With the larger population to serve, there is a demand for more shelf-life and a faster-brewing process.

More changes have taken place in the preparation and processing of ingredients. Aspartame (most commonly used), stevioside (from the stevia plant), and erythritol have been added to makgeolli. Aspartame has become a key ingredient for slowing spoilage, which could otherwise take place in 10 days. By adding aspartame shelf-life can be extended to as much as 30 days, and there is a more consistency of flavor because even after makgeolli is bottled it continues to ferment (and very rapidly too). Although refrigeration is key in slowing the fermentation process, aspartame somehow is an enzyme inhibitor and similarly slows the fermentation of the product. Adding aspartame is also a secret ingredient as a flavor enhancer and a disguiser of the underlying fault of an incorrect brew or the gradual spoilage that comes with the extended shelf-life. Today the market has a wide number of makgeolli brands and it is guestimated that 85-90% of them add aspartame to their brew. Julia Mellor, co-founder of MMPK and strong advocate for traditional brewing like that done at Sansawon brewery expressed her opinion on "cheating" the brew by using aspartame, "If you're having to sweeten [the makgeolli], then you're not brewing it right." Seems very logical, especially in light of the fact that there is a big push to remove aspartame from the makgeolli brews as more and more people are expressing their concern over the damages to health that aspartame is known to cause.

Sansawon Brewery

The Sansawon brewery embraces the changing makgeolli industry while striving to maintain traditional brewing standards, which include not adding aspartame or other artificial sugars to the brews. Sansawon has a museum with artifacts on brewery, farming and cultivation as well as a lecture  room set up for teaching makgeolli brewing principles as well as offering tours on the grounds and through a segment of the brewery itself. The brewery has some very innovative ideas regarding the preservation of traditional brewing methods. That is, they retain the methods but continually expand the flavors and uses of makgeolli. Other kinds of liquors made at the brewery include:
  • 탁주 - commercially it is watered down
  • 청주 - also known as yangju; tends to be sweet and have a relatively high alcoholic content
  • 소주 - what is commercially sold is not "good" as it has been quickly manufactured, poor ingredients were used, and is usually about 19-20% alcohol. (Wonju soju, on the other hand, is not watered down.)
The picture below is a collection of huge onggi vats for keeping alcohols. The initial idea of Sansawon was to "sell" a pot to someone and the buyer could fill it with jeongju or soju (not makgeolli because of quick spoilage), and the buyer would let the alcohol ripen/mature over time, coming whenever he or she wanted to dip in and take out some. Unfortunately, the idea was too new and innovative and few pots sold. Those that sold, many still have alcohol continually fermenting in them; however, the majority of pots remain empty ... but they sure do make a lovely conversation setting for visitors who are avidly interested in the vast collection.

For directions to Sansawon, the best way is to take a bus from Dong Seoul terminal to Ildong, and from there take a taxi (about 5-10 mins and W8-9,000). There are public buses to take, and here's a link to the KTO website for details.

Other Makgeolli Information

There is only one said-to-be gluten-free makgeolli on the market known to Julia Mellor, our tour guide and makgeolli-experience host. This particular makgeolli (jutaek chapsall saengju - 주택찹쌀생주) is particularly hard to find but every makgeolli produced by the company is supposed to be gluten-free and is a kick-back to the original traditional brewing. 100% sticky rice, rice nuruk and clean water are the ingredients. For all intents and purposed it is really a cheongju, but as they include a small amount of sediment it is referred to as a takju. Read more on this brand here (in Korean).

Traditionally brewed makgeolli has different flavors based on when in the 10-day-to-spoilage timespan a person is drinking. A stamped date on each bottle tells the production or bottling date and from that date, a person knows he or she has only 10 days to consume the drink before flinging it. Also based on that date, imbibers can assume the flavor that they will be experiencing as the flavors are like the seasons, and labeled as such:

1-3 days
4-6 days
Not so sweet
7-9 days
Becoming sour (gaining carbonation)
10 days
Sour/tart; dry
Can’t sell after this date without aspartame

MMPK has a sister group called the Makgeolli Makers. They specialize in the brewing side of the community.

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