In June, Food Republic is counting the many reasons to love Asian food in America right now. Here’s one of them.
We all have homebrewers in our lives, those IBU-obsessed coworkers, neighbors or relatives who ply us with their poi and poblano pepper IPAs. But how many of us are friendly with DIY crafters of the blue-collar rice wine makgeolli, the fermentable that’s making a comeback in certain circles?
Not many, and that holds true in both America and Korea, makgeolli’s nation of origin. Made by combining water and rice with nuruk, the amylase enzyme responsible for converting the rice’s starch into sugar, makgeolli is not as well known as the green bottles of boozy soju, and trails beer and even imported spirits in overall notoriety. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t drinking it. In Brian Romasky’s case, he’s taught himself how to make it, too.
A Philadelphia native, Romasky was first introduced to the milky, fermented beverage through his wife, Haeyoung, whom he met on a student exchange to Japan. He immediately took to the cloudy elixir, an easy-drinking unfiltered alcohol with an ABV comparable to beer. Traditionally consumed by the Korean working class due to its price point and accessibility — “It’s a commonplace drink for common folk,” he says — makgeolli has come back into vogue in recent years thanks to a number of factors, including celebrity endorsements and marketing that emphasizes its purported health benefits.
In Korea, there are mainstream macro makgeolli labels, many of which are produced with artificial sweeteners, as well as a burgeoning craft-brewing scene — exemplified by destinations like Wolhyang, an artisanal makgeolli bar in Seoul. But upon returning to the States, Romasky discovered that quality makgeolli was much harder to come by here. So he decided to do what any self-respecting American boozehound with an engineering degree would do: learn how to make the stuff himself.
The reality of homebrewing turned out to be a little more complicated than Romasky anticipated. While Koreans are fond of taking on certain at-home processes — every family’s got a fermenting vessel filled with kimchi stashed somewhere in their crib — makgeolli-making is not one of them. He was met with blank stares in his quest for the proper brewing equipment and ingredients, especially nuruk. (He eventually discovered a serviceable brand at a location of Korean grocery chain H-Mart.)
Studying the processes independently and networking with like-minded makgeolli makers online — he was interviewed on the popular website Makgeolli Mamas & Papas — Romasky set out to master the oft-temperamental makgeolli process, chronicling his experiments on his blog. He produces about four liters at a time, following a step-by-step process that sees him mashing soaked and steamed rice by hand with nuruk and yeast in a hangari, a Korean clay pot specially designed for fermentation.
With varying levels of sweet, sour and funky depending on the brewing process, makgeolli can be a complex flavor experience, and in Korea, regional additives often shape the end product a great deal. On the tiny island of Udo, for example, makgeolli makers flavor their stuff with peanuts, since the locals are famous for cultivating the legumes; Jeju Province is known for its tangerine-infused rendition. In that spirit, Romasky has messed around with a number of tweaks — blueberries, nurungji (burnt rice) and, most recently, a version flavored with carrots and pine needles. Bottles are a prized possession among his wife’s Korean-speaking friends, and he’s even impressed American beer-brewing acquaintances with his handiwork.
Romasky has played with the idea of expanding his makgeolli-making into something more than just a hobby, given the sparseness of the American market. But for now, he’ll continue honing his craft in his home brewery, watching as the profile of makgeolli rises Stateside. “I think people are ready for it in metropolitan areas and cultural centers,” he says. “If places can have full sake menus, somewhere can have a makgeolli menu. It’s not that far of a jump.”