Guardians Of Heritage Striving to Upgrade Makgeolli

Baekgom [White Bear] Makgeolli Bar and Brewery, located in the heart of the Gangnam district of Seoul, is more than just another traditional liquor bar. It has a brewery on the premises and hundreds of kinds of local alcoholic drinks on offer. The bar’s CEO and founder Lee Seung-hoon tries to breathe new life into makgeolli to shed its time-worn image of a cheap, crude drink.

Lee Seung-hoon started the interview by passing on the news of a bar specializing in traditional drinks that had recently gone out of business in a small town. The proprietor had decided to close after repeated scuffles with drunken customers who complained about paying 10,000 won for a bottle of makgeolli (a lightly sparkling rice wine), considerably higher than the standard 2,000 to 3,000 won for the store-bought variety. “The price gap must have been unacceptable to the customers. The bar lost in a head-on clash with the perception of makgeolli as a cheap drink for working-class people.”

Although its market share today stops at five to six percent, with the rest mostly dominated by beer and soju (clear, distilled liquor), makgeolli was the most popular alcoholic drink in Korea until the late 1980s. Middle-aged Koreans probably remember their father coming home from work with a black plastic bag carrying a bottle of makgeolli and a block of tofu, a humble reward at the end of a hard day’s work. And everyone recalls sitting with friends in a shabby, old bar seeking relief from the worries of life as a yellow metal kettle was constantly emptied and refilled with the opaque, milky liquor.

But this traditional drink is changing. “Up until a decade ago, every regional market was dominated by a major local-brand makgeolli, leaving consumers with no choice,” Lee said. “Things are different now. My bar, for example, carries over 60 different kinds of makgeolli at a considerably higher price, ranging from 15,000 to 25,000 won per bottle. They’ve sold so well that we have daily sales limits on some products.”

Baekgom Makgeolli, located in the center of Apgujeong-dong in Gangnam, reported record sales in July even amidst the surge of COVID-19. This isn’t just because it’s one of the largest traditional liquor bars in the country, offering over 300 kinds of alcoholic beverages. Rather, the bar’s unusual success reflects consumers’ changing preferences for makgeolli of higher quality and wider variety, like the shift in taste from factory-brewed to craft beers.

Baekgom Makgeolli’s symbol and logo. “Baekgom” (White Bear) is the nickname of the CEO, Lee Seung-hoon.

Higher Quality, Wider Variety
Now, there is an ever-increasing array of options for drinkers, including “champagne makgeolli” with added effervescence, “cotton candy makgeolli” with added fruits and yogurt and topped with a ball of cotton candy, and “premium makgeolli” brewed with higher quality ingredients. The fact that upscale bars offering traditional drinks, once found only in major business districts of Seoul, are appearing in all corners of the country is another meaningful change. Lee is riding this tide, trying to provide momentum for further development.

“Makgeolli should be seen in the larger context of Korean food culture,” Lee said. An indigenous, grain-based alcoholic drink, makgeolli is made from rice, glutinous rice, barley, wheat or other grains, but plain rice is the most favored. The chosen grain is steamed, mixed with water and then fermented using a natural starter called nuruk. After fermentation, the solution is separated, with a clear liquor called cheongju rising to the top and the grain sediment settling at the bottom. The turbid liquid obtained by straining the sediment is makgeolli. It is important to note that for Koreans, for whom rice is a staple food, alcohol home-brewed from rice was more than just a drink. It was a part of their living culture.

Lee explained, “Japanese sake has been produced at breweries ever since the Edo period (1603-1868). It’s not that we didn’t have professional breweries, we just preferred to brew our own alcohol at home, each one slightly different, like the kimchi and fermented condiments made in every household.”

Indeed, home brewing was common in this country until about a century ago. Every household produced its own alcohol with distinct scents and flavors according to their skills and secret family recipes. Brewed with only rice and nuruk, some of the drinks had mysterious aromas with flowery or fruity overtones. They were used for family occasions like ancestral rites or weddings, and the recipes were handed down over generations. Sadly, however, this age-old practice was discontinued during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, when only licensed breweries were allowed to produce and sell alcohol and new liquor taxes were imposed. After liberation, there was a general shortage of rice, and the Grain Management Act prohibited the production of traditional grain liquors altogether.

“For almost 30 years beginning in the early 1960s, making alcohol with rice or other domestically grown grains was banned. Brewers started to use imported wheat flour or corn starch instead,” Lee said.

The ban on makgeolli production was finally lifted when rice yields increased and consumption decreased due to changes in dietary habits. But the old recipes and practices were almost forgotten by then. It was not until 1995 that private homes were permitted to brew the rice wine again, by which time the home brewing tradition had already almost vanished. What was still available at the time was cheap, mass-produced makgeolli made by a handful of breweries using a mixture of grains, 70 to 80 percent of which were imported rice. They contained artificial sweeteners and were fermented with artificially cultured yeast instead of nuruk, and consumers grew accustomed to the taste.

Lee opened the traditional liquor bar Baekgom Makgeolli in 2016 in Apgujeong-dong, Seoul, to expand the consumer base for traditional alcohol and support local breweries.

What Lee ultimately hopes to do is to change people’s nights so that they won’t end in a drunken stupor induced by half a dozen bottles of cheap makgeolli.

Before COVID-19, there were more foreigners than locals visiting the bar. Local customers are mostly young people in their 20s and 30s, who consider drinking traditional alcohol a new and fun experience.

Offering over 300 kinds of traditional drinks, including 60 kinds of makgeolli, Baekgom Makgeolli is the largest traditional bar in Korea in terms of the variety of drinks. It does not carry most of the mass-produced alcohols in order to maintain the quality and variety of the drinks on offer.

Toward the end of the 2000s, the market began changing as regional brewers started to increase their shares, ending the dominance of a few major brands. A so-called “makgeolli craze” began among Japanese tourists. As the atmosphere was ripe for rediscovery of the old beverage and its taste and value, people started to learn how to make it themselves, taking home brewing courses at training facilities.

Lee explained, “Retirees or those planning for a midlife career change started making their own alcohol. And it’s notable that they weren’t satisfied with just brewing and enjoying their own drinks at home, but rather tried to spread the home brewing culture. There appeared a number of noteworthy products brewed with traditional methods, not perfect in quality perhaps but with the potential to compete with sake or regular wine. Some of the people opened breweries, traditional liquor bars and restaurants.”

The trend for craft drinks peaked around 2016, the year Lee opened Baekgom Makgeolli, the outcome of his efforts to promote traditional alcohol since 2010, crisscrossing the country to visit over 400 breweries. He finally found a way to help those obscure brewers who “hadn’t realized what excellent drinks they were producing” or “hadn’t thought of how to sell them.”

When he did open his store, he used it as a base camp for efforts to revive and popularize traditional alcohol. First, he expanded the range of choices by offering a wider variety of products. He would also meet with people who sought his comments on their homemade alcohol, and when he found one with promise, helped the brewer find a way to commercialize it using his personal and material networks.

Lee also uses his store as an institute to train workers for the industry. The bar’s staff is well-known for their expertise and experience, winning almost all the medals at national contests for traditional liquor sommeliers. Their skills have been honed through constant on-site education, dealing with a diverse clientele and many different kinds of drinks, but Lee’s extraordinary educational support has also played a crucial role. He gives all possible assistance to employees who apply for further training: courses provided by colleges, programs for the Academic Credit Bank System, as well as overseas professional training, like Japan’s certified sake sommelier courses. He is doing all he can to train competent professionals, including brewers, researchers, sommeliers and entrepreneurs.

Consumer Needs
For a person who must have tasted and analyzed all the drinks within his reach, Lee has a simple vision for the ideal taste of makgeolli.

“Rather than dwell on the profound or subtle matter of flavor, I’d like to emphasize the point of contact between the bar and the consumer. I think more about how to draw closer to my customers than my own preferences, because I want to identify products that can sell, that will appeal to the wider public. I try not to fall into the expert’s paradox,” he said.

In the same vein, Lee has his own views on attempts to reproduce traditional liquors exactly as mentioned in historical literature. He said, “Complete adherence to traditional methods would produce a drink that might taste a bit sugary by today’s standards. Of course, it’s important to preserve tradition, but we also need to reinvent it to satisfy the needs of contemporary consumers.”

His previous job as a merchandiser of seafood and livestock products at CJ Freshway took him to every corner of the country in search of quality products, and this experience opened his eyes to food and drink pairings based on, most of all, locality.

What Lee ultimately hopes to do is to change people’s nights so that they won’t end in a drunken stupor induced by half a dozen bottles of cheap makgeolli. He wants to make nights a time to relish the simple, natural sweetness of a makgeolli that is similar to what might have been sold at a road-side tavern during the Joseon Dynasty. 

Kang Shin-jae Freelance Writer
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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