This Ancient Brew Has Retro Appeal in South Korea

SEOUL — Jeong Mi-hee, a South Korean businesswoman, used to buy a lot of whisky in airports. When the coronavirus pandemic brought her travels to halt, she started paying more attention to local booze she had overlooked.

The best drink she found was makgeolli, a cloudy Korean rice wine with a slightly sour taste. Ms. Jeong liked it so much that, after studying ancient fermentation techniques with a master brewer, she decided to start her own label.

“My makgeolli life started with corona!” Ms. Jeong, 41, said recently at a Seoul liquor store dedicated to traditional Korean alcohol.

Ms. Jeong is among a growing number of South Koreans who have started brewing makgeolli for the first time, and one of many people around the world who developed an interest in homebrewing during the pandemic.

South Korea’s craft makgeolli revival has been underway for at least a decade, but the drink’s popularity took on new dimensions during Covid lockdowns as people ordered small-batch labels online and swapped brewing recipes on social media.

“Making makgeolli helped me pass the time when I couldn’t leave the house much because of Covid,” said Lee Young-min, 35, a makgeolli aficionado in Seoul who posts about traditional foods and liquors on Instagram. “Learning the ingredients of traditional foods and makgeolli is part of understanding the world that our ancestors inhabited.”

Makgeolli, also known as makkolli, is made from fermented rice and nuruk, a doughlike starter. The brewing process can be as complex as that of Belgian-style beers or natural sake, said Alice Jun, a makgeolli producer in New York City who has studied the craft in Seoul.

Koreans have been brewing makgeolli at home for centuries. The drink was banned during a brutal, 35-year Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula that ended in 1945. Some makgeolli production resumed after fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953, but it was suppressed again as the government in Seoul grappled with postwar grain shortages.

In the 1950s, officials urged producers to use potatoes, not rice, to make soju, another type of traditional Korean liquor, according to a recent book on soju by Hyunhee Park, a history professor at the City University of New York. In 1965, they banned grain-based alcohol entirely, further suppressing traditional distillation methods.

Mass-produced makgeolli began appearing in South Korean grocery stores after the government fully lifted its restrictions on makgeolli brewing in the 1990s. But by then, many people in the country had forgotten how traditional rice wine was supposed to taste.

“For the people that grew up in postwar Korea, their understanding of makgeolli and soju is very different from what the general population of Koreans understood in prewar,” said Ms. Jun, 28, who studied with a master brewer in Seoul before opening her Brooklyn-based label, Hana Makgeolli, during the pandemic.

“It’s not that we’re taking a new approach to things,” she said of her brand and the makgeolli start-ups that are proliferating in South Korea. “It’s that we’re appreciating the traditional things, and calling attention to them in the world of the internet and social media and brands.”

South Korea had 961 registered makgeolli businesses in 2020, up from 931 the year before and 898 in 2018. People in the industry say that overall production has been growing steadily, partly because the government allowed online sales of Korean traditional alcohol beginning in 2017.

Some Korean e-commerce sites have reported spikes in makgeolli sales during the pandemic. Brands that sell traditional liquor in South Korea have a competitive advantage because the government limits online sales of any other type of alcohol.

Until about a decade ago, South Korea’s makgeolli industry was dominated by large companies, said Huh Shi-myung, a brewer who runs the Makgeolli School and the Korea Sool Culture Laboratory, another educational project in Seoul. He said the small start-ups emerging today have raised the bar for quality.

“It’s all about individual sensitivity and choices by the next generation of brewers,” he said.

Industry experts say that the new demand for makgeolli is largely driven by young Korean professionals who see the drink — once known mainly as a tipple for Korean farmers — as a marker of cosmopolitan refinement. Mr. Huh described its appeal as “newtro,” popular slang in South Korea that combines the words “new” and “retro.”

Han A-young, 33, a former bank administrator who opened the Hanayangjo makgeolli brewery in Seoul last year, said that her brand sells for about $10 to $14 per bottle — more than double the price of mainstream makgeolli in South Korean grocery stores. Her customers don’t seem to mind, she said. “They would pay for taste regardless of cost.”

South Korea’s makgeolli boom isn’t just happening in Seoul, the capital. Geumjeong Sanseong Makgeolli, one of the country’s best-known makgeolli breweries, lies near an 18th-century fortress in the southern city of Busan.

For centuries, villagers in that area have made nuruk, or starter, through a traditional process in which they use their feet to knead it into discs that resemble pizza dough. After the government’s 1965 ban on grain-based alcohol, they hid their nuruk in caves.

Yoo Chung-kil, a master brewer, took over Geumjeong Sanseong Makgeolli in the 1990s. His son, Yoo Hye-su, is now using the old production techniques to develop a new style of makgeolli with a lower alcohol content and a sweeter taste — an effort to appeal to women in their 20s and 30s.

“There aren’t many people in my generation who think about preserving our heritage and culture, so I feel a sense of urgency to do so,” the younger Mr. Yoo said.

Separately, Mr. Huh, the brewer in Seoul, said he had taught more than 700 students a year how to make makgeolli in both 2020 and 2021, nearly double his prepandemic enrollment figure. Several students started their own labels right after finishing the course, he said.

One was Ms. Jeong, who also is a florist. She said that her brand, Mi Hee Makgeolli, quickly sold out of its first 1,000 bottles after she debuted it in late 2020. Customers who posted pictures of the label on social media essentially did her marketing for her.

“Because of Covid-19, they could not drink in restaurants, but they still wanted to somehow signal ‘I am different,’” she said. “When a new bottle comes out, they want to be the first one to post.”