The weekend is here and it is time to melt your woes and stress away with a glass of wine, a draft of beer or, if you are in the Land of the Morning Calm, a bottle of your favorite Soju. Soju is the first thing foreigners try when coming to Korea and they quickly fall in love with the variety, taste and low pricetag of Korea’s most famous alcoholic beverage. But have you tried Soju’s predecessor, the true farmer’s beverage, Makgeolli (막걸리)? Did you know there is a family owned Makgeolli brewery in Southern Pyeongtaek and it’s super close to Camp Humphrey’s, Paengseong and Anjung residents?
Makgeolli is a rice mash beverage with an alcohol content slightly lower than Soju. Have you been to a bar or restaurant with Korean friends and joined them in drinking a white drink out of a small bowl? Were you surprised by the tang and bubbles that you would normally expect to find in fermented drinks like Kombucha or home brewed ginger-ale but not in your shooters? That, sir, was Makgeolli! It is the alcohol that comes from the initial stages of Soju brewing, before the rice mash and grains are strained out. If you buy the really good Makgeolli, it is a living, breathing beverage full of healthy bacteria working hard at fermentation. Because of this, it is a popular alcohol for those who experience stomach troubles after a night of drinking or who are looking slow down for the night with a tasty, lower alcohol content drink.
Makgeolli used to be a staple at every table and was the farmer’s choice of drink, since it was easier and cheaper to make, but it fell out of popularity among younger Koreans in the 80’s. Now Makgeolli is enjoying a resurgence thanks to a Makgeolli bar that opened in the culturally rich and innovative Hongdae area of Seoul in 2010. Read more about Makgeolli’s growing popularity here.
When my friend Breanne invited me to a Makgeiolli tasting, at a local brewery named Joeunsul, I had flashbacks of wine gatherings I’d been to in the states: me standing there with a puckered face trying not to be rude and failing, agreeing with friends that the older vintage was totally worth the extra $50 and finding wine bottles in odd places around the house during spring cleaning because of a misplaced notion that I would finally join my friends and become a wine drinker.
But wine just isn’t for me and as far as my experiences in Korea were, neither was Makgeolli with the convenience store brands I’d tried. When I arrived at Joeunsul, fashionably late of course, I didn’t have a chance to nurse my trepidations for uncomfortable wine tastings as I already had three beautiful glasses of Makgeolli waiting for me before I even sat down.
With a full Korean Thanksgiving Chuseok banquet in front of me, of vegetables, meats and baked goods, I tried my first glass of Makgeolli. You know when you try a bottle of wine and you wish you had started the night off with something else to make it easier? Instead of my classic whine response, spelling of whine was intentional, I was surprised to find a smile on my face. My first taste of Joeunsul Makgeolli was a thick and rich. As it went down the hatch, I was taken aback by the smoothness. There was very little tang and the drink was slightly sweet and full of flavor. The evening only got better from there as I sampled different Chuseok foods and tasted each flavor of Makgeolli with ever increasing alcohol contents. We ended on a high note with a rice vodka at 40% alcohol. It would take a true connoisseur to tell me the differences between this vodka and other brands but the aftertaste was wonderful once the burning stopped.
Joeunsul is a family owned business in Oseong-myeong, Pyeongtaek in South Korea and I was taken aback by their generosity and humbleness for Breanne and company. This was so different from the business like wine tastings back in the states, there was no pressure to make a big sale but I felt that they were working hard at creating life-long friends and customers. It was so relaxing and comfortable. I felt at home with the Kim family as Momma Kim continued to cook in the little kitchen and replenish the table, Pappa Kim went to the store room to bring out new flavors to taste and their daughter, Dam Hee hosted the table dressed in a traditional Hanbok and offering great conversation and insights into Korean culture and the world of Makgeolli. I can’t thank Joeunsul and Breanne enough for an amazing event. The food was beautiful, the drinks were beautiful, it was heaven.
I asked Breanne where she had heard of Joeunsul and how she arranged this event for her friends. Turns out Breanne has never done anything like this before, she’s never even had the pleasure (torture?) of a wine tasting. She was attending a PIEF trip and noticed Dam Hee giving out free Makgeolli samples and she made a beeline for the Joeunsul table. After trying a few drinks, she asked how to buy more and the rest is history. I asked Breanne if she is normally so brave and willing to jump in to new adventures like this but apparently Korea is a world of firsts for her. This is a country of exploration and experiences and Breanne is jumping in feet first to make her time here in Korea as memorable as possible. I hope she remembers to invite me to her next adventure, especially if it involves food and drink!
Joeunsul beverages are purchased by appointment only and tastings are available for a fee. They have a variety of alcohols available as well as gift boxes. Their beverages are made with local grown rice and yeast, have no extra additives or sugars and are not pasteurized. They plan to expand into the overseas market soon and I wish them lots of success, everyone needs to give the Joeunsul brand a try! The Joeunsul website can be found here.
Joeunsul is in the South of Seoul app! Download it today on the Google Play or Apple store.
Remember, this is a family owned business and there is no official store at the farm so please call before heading over. They are about fifteen minutes from Pyeongtaek AK Plaza and for Paengseong residents, they are a quick drive over the bridge to Osan near the Twosome Place Tower cafe. Just type their phone number, (031) 681-8929, into Naver maps and it will take you directly there.
Don’t live in Korea? Makgeolli can be hard to find in overseas market and it’s often prohibitively expensive. But when there is demand, eventually there will be supply. For now, check out this food blogs references to breweries in New York City and Seattle.