(For a better reading experience, we translated and edited the original article to fit this blog. The original article was published on June 11, 2019, in Oh My News, Korea’s largest online newspaper.)
During my visit in New York in the beginning of a chilly January, I had a chance to participate in a rice wine brewing event with New Yorkers.
Makgeolli, aka Korean rice wine is much easier to brew than beer at home. Simply prepare the yeast, steam the rice and mix in the appropriate amount of water. It was not difficult to make while in New York, considering it was easy to get yeast at a local Korean mart in Manhattan, New York.
The makgeolli brewing event was a 2-day event, January 2nd in Flushing, Queens and January 3rd in 32nd St in Manhattan. The Korean Food Globalization promotion committee went out to Korean newspapers with an article about recruiting people to participate in the “Makgeolli Brewing in New York” event. The very next day, the 100 slots were already filled up with participants. The event was so popular that the event coordinator complained that he had been constantly on the phone after the slots filled up. I arrived in NYC 19 days before the event and made about 100 liters (around 25gal) of alcohol to taste during the event. I made the alcohol in advance so participants can taste the finished product after the makgeolli fermented.
The second day of the event was held at Soju Haus on West 32nd Street in Manhattan. The event was attended by more than half of New Yorkers who were not Korean. Shin-Jeong Kim, who runs a cooking studio in Manhattan, gave simultaneous interpretations. Unlike at Hamjibak from the first day of events, I emphasized more about the Korean sentiment in makgeolli making and the competitiveness of makgeolli in Manhattan.
“Makgeolli is a natural drink with yeast and lactic acid bacteria alive. Makgeolli is an excellent alcoholic beverage that you can make yourself at home, it is easy to manage, you can make it in little batches such as kimchi, and it is a wonderful home-brewed drink that is ready in about 15 days.”
As I make makgeolli once again in Manhattan, I felt the wonderful, magical experience once again. Wearing disposable gloves on my hands, I mixed the yeast and water in a stainless, steel bowl and bubbles rose up. I put the mixture in a container, and everyone was excited. Many people from different lifestyles came to the event. A representative of “The Kunjip”, a famous Korean restaurant on West 32nd Street, came to drink. A foreign couple who happened to have a chance to participate in the event. In addition, an American woman who is the owner of a cooking school.
I was curious about the American woman’s reaction, due to having a sophisticated palate due to owning a cooking school. In the evaluation of the rice wine tasting, she grabbed the microphone and said, “It was good because it was easy to drink and fresh, and banana makgeolli was too processed. It was good to drink the rice wine lightly from the rim of the jar,” she said.
How can makgeolli coexist in New York Manhattan where it is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural? It was a question that persisted in my head while preparing for the makgeolli brewing event. Looking at Koreans and New Yorkers delightfully making rice wine together, I thought of two things. One is to find a way to keep stable taste as long as possible, and the other is to localize the makgeolli production.
Although Kooksoondang, a brand of makgeolli, has surpassed 10 million bottles of rice exported to the United States with raw rice wine, it is difficult to cultivate in the US. Sukhee, another makgeolli brand, is sold at few Korean marts, but its presence was weak. West 32nd St Korean restaurants and bars were reminded of the dismissal of makgeolli because of the short circulation period. So how can makgeolli find its way into New York?
The way to increase the circulation period of alcohol is to sterilize the alcohol. Sterilization is introduced in the modern brewing process, and makgeolli is introduced in the same way. However, the makgeolli has a lot of sediment, and the taste of raw rice wine and sterilized makgeolli is quite different. However, if you reduce the rice sediment in makgeolli, the taste of makgeolli becomes lighter. If makgeolli has retained the weight of the taste as sediment, various recipe methods should be introduced to maintain the density and depth of the flavor while reducing the sediment.
The other way is to accept the fate of raw rice wine silently. It is not uncommon for raw milk and fresh produce to have a short shelf life. The raw rice wine is alive with yeast and lactic acid bacteria, when the good bacteria has killed the taste and aroma are disturbed. The fact that the makgeolli ‘s distribution period is short reveals that the makgeolli’ s freshness and naturalness are authentic. Because of its short shelf life, makgeolli should be made close to the consumer. It is possible to combine the motive and the raw rice wine to form a diet with ingredients that are not sterilized without refrigeration.
We must think that the spread of makgeolli technology is spreading to the world rather than technology leaking. Food or alcohol is for those who enjoy it. And when makgeolli is widespread, you should be able to say, “To taste authentic makgeolli, you must go to Korea where the makgeolli brewery spreads all over the country!”
My two days of makgeolli brewing ended and my 23-day schedule at NY was over. The makgeolli that is held in gallon barrels is going to be fermenting in 100 New York homes. 100 New Yorkers who participated in makgeolli making will think of Korea once more when their drink ferments. It is because alcohol has the power to bring people together and reminisce the good times.