At Boksoondoga brewery in South Korea, makgeolli — an alcoholic fermented rice beverage that’s milky, effervescent, tangy, and sweet — is hand-brewed with a lot of tender loving care. As owner Park Bok-soon enters her brewery’s fermentation room, she greets the onggi pots with a friendly “Hey guys, how have you been?” and is answered by the slight pitter patter of bubbling, fermenting rice. This is just one example of how she treats her product with respect. “Treat even a single grain of rice as precious,” she mutters as her partner pours the grains into a bowl.
Park starts her day hand-washing local rice 10 times before she steams it al dente. The rice is left to cool while she readies the nuruk, or fermentation starter. For the nuruk, wheat flour is fermented for 20 days, and pressed firmly into a square shape that holds together like a cake. Once the nuruk cake, is ready, it heads to a humidity and temperature controlled room where it can flower and produce the bacteria necessary to make makgeolli. “It has a direct influence on taste,” explains Park. “It’s very hard to get the nuruk to flower, so a lot of people use artificial bacteria.” The starter stays in the nuruk room for 15 days before it’s mixed with the cooled rice and water. Then, the entire mixture is added to enormous onggi pots and left to ferment for 15 to 20 days.
Upon entering the fermentation room, the sound of rain hitting pavement can be heard. Except it’s not rain, but the crackling of rice fermenting and bubbling in the pots. After the 15 to 20 day fermentation has finished, the liquid is strained from the rice, and the rice is used as feed for cows, pigs and chickens. The liquid is then mixed with water, bottled, and ready to drink.
“Japan has sake, Europe has wine, but there was no real traditional Korean makgeolli,” says Park. “A lot of love and care go into making makgeolli by hand for it to be delicious”