▲ Jeju Makgeolli owner, Koh Sang Hoo, brews 90 percent of the liquor drank on Jeju. Photo courtesy Jeju City Hall
The weekend is finally here! After five strenuous days of pushing paper or teaching, it is time to unwind with a drink. Will it be a gin and tonic perhaps? A tall, cold beer or some shots of Soju? If the recent Samsung Economic Research Institute poll of the Top Ten Hit Products of 2009 is correct, chances are that it will be makgeolli, Korean traditional rice wine, which snagged the number one ranking.
“Since June 2009 the sale of makgeolli has increased by 30 to 50 percent,” said Koh Sang Hoo, owner of Jeju Makgeolli. This ancient drink, which dates back a thousand years, has seen a surge in popularity of late which Koh credits to several factors. “In Korea, recently a ban on alcohol advertisements was lifted,” Koh said. “There are no rules anymore.”
Added to the ability to advertize, Koh said that during 2009 there was much research done on the health benefits of makgeolli and evidence was found to suggest that it contains many positive attributes. “Makgeolli is really rich in good bacteria and is similar to yogurt,” Koh said. “One bottle of makgeolli is equivalent to 100 small containers of yogurt. It is rich in vitamin B and is high in fiber.” Koh said those claims are the main driving force behind makgeolli’s revival.
Due to its recent popularity at home, countries including America and Japan are becoming aware of the liquor, but this causes a problem for exporters as fresh makgeolli has a shelf life of only 10 days. To remedy this situation, many sterilize the drink to increase its expiration date to six months, but doing so kills the bacteria, Koh said, which is what makes the drink healthy. The short expiration date has even prevented Koh from shipping his product to mainland Korea. “There is no Jeju makgeolli on the mainland,” he said. “Because of the expiration date there is no point to shipping it there. There is some live makgeolli on the mainland, but it is not shipped to Jeju because of the expiration date.”
However, Jeju makgeolli has made its way to the shores of Japan where it has done quite well, particularly with females, in Tokyo. “To export it to Japan, the makgeolli is frozen, which has no effect on the bacteria,” Koh said. He was vague when it came to specifics about his product in Japan because, he said, Japanese companies “are responsible for the exportation costs and distribution costs.”
When asked if he ever considered making sterilized makgeolli Koh said, “Sterilized makgeolli is inferior. I have never considered selling sterilized makgeolli.”
▲ Live makgeolli in the process of being made. Photo by Darryl Coote
It is a simple process to make makgeolli and takes only 10 days from start to finish. Jeju Makgeolli is made from 30 percent wheat and 70 percent cooked rice and rice flour. The two main ingredients are combined in large vats where they are repeatedly steamed and cooled until a thick paste forms. Then water and yeast are added and the fermentation process begins. Over the next three days, the mixture begins to decompose and the fermentation process causes large bubbles to form. On the third day the waste byproduct is removed, to be used as animal feed, and what remains is a milky off-white liquid that is six percent alcohol. This is the point in the process at which the product can be sterilized by being cooked for a long period of time at 80 degrees centigrade. It is then bottled and shipped. At the Jeju makgeolli plant, up to 50,000 bottles of the liquor can be made each day.
Though makgeolli is now available in an array of flavors, Koh is determined to stay authentic. “I make traditional Jeju makgeolli,” he said. “Only rice makgeolli is being produced in Jeju. Even the tangerine makgeolli is produced on the mainland, but only 10 percent of the ingredients in tangerine makgeolli is tangerines. It isn’t real tangerine makgeolli.”
Currently, Jeju makgeolli, which began 38 years ago, is the only company on the island that makes makgeolli. “My company supplies 90 percent of makgeolli consumption on the island,” Koh said. “The rest comes from the mainland and is all sterilized.” Koh said there were eight different Makgeolli manufacturers on the island but, in 1988, “I combined them all and there is now only one.” Though, this might be the case now, the village of Gyorae and local alcohol manufacturers, with the assistance of bottled water manufacturer Sam Da Soo, plan to build a 300 million won makgeolli production plant.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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