"Nuruk" is an enzyme for brewing Korean rice wines. / Korea Times file
By Kim Da-ye
Making "makgeolli" at home isn't rocket science. It takes around a week and doesn't require a still or other heavy equipment. Our ancestors used to brew makgeolli at home, until the Japanese colonial rule banned it in the early 20th century. Most ingredients are readily available, so why aren't more Koreans brewing rice wine at home?
This reporter attended the monthly Korean traditional liquor-making class organized by Kooksoondang Brewery and learned how to brew liquor at home. Here is the recipe they provided.
This recipe will produce two kinds of Korean liquor: "yakju," a clear rice wine, and "takju" or makgeolli, a rawer, unrefined version.
The ingredients are 1.5 kilos of short-grain sticky rice, two liters of water, 15 grams of "nuruk" — an enzyme for brewing Korean wines — and 10 grams of yeast. In Korea, nuruk is available in markets or online, but finding it overseas could be a challenge. Also needed are a five-liter jar, a grain grinder, cotton cloth and a sieve.
On the first day of brewing, thoroughly wash 500 grams of rice, soak it for two hours and drain it for around half an hour. Grind the rice and place the resulting meal in a steamer lined with cotton cloth.
When steamed for an hour, it will become a rice cake. This whole process can be shortened by purchasing "baekseolgi," a steamed white rice cake. However, note that store-bought baekseolgi contains sugar and salt, which may affect the taste of the liquor.
Once the rice cake is cool, tear it into little pieces and put them into the jar. Add one liter of water and mix the rice cake pieces and water well with your hands. Add the nuruk and yeast, and again mix thoroughly.
Cover the jar with cotton cloth or plastic, held in place with a rubber band. Don't fasten it too tightly, however: it's important to leave enough slack so that the gas produced from fermentation can escape. Leave the jar at a temperature between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius. If using a transparent jar, keep it away from direct sunlight.
On the second day of brewing, make "godubab," or hard-cooked rice. To do this, wash the grain, soak for two hours and drain for about half an hour. Steam it for an hour in a steamer lined with cotton cloth. The instructor at Kooksoondang said that one can shorten the process by using ready-made rice such as CJ CheilJedang's Hetbahn. This reporter cooked rice in the electric rice cooker, which nearly every Korean household has, and the result was fine. Once the godubab is cool, add one kilo of it to the mixture in the jar, together with one liter of water, and stir well.
For the next seven days, leave the jar at a temperature between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius, keeping it out of direct sunlight. Stir it once a day. You will hear sparkling through the little space left on the cover and smell the aroma of rice wine.
When a week has passed, the mixture will separate into a layer of yellowish, clear liquor on the top and a thick layer of rice at the bottom. If you no longer hear sparkling, the brewing is done.
To collect yakju, or clear liquor, filter the mixture through a cotton cloth. For makgeolli, blend the cloudy part, some rice paste and water, and filter the mixture through a sieve. Yakju has 15 to 16 percent alcohol content, while makgeolli usually has around 6 percent alcohol content.
This makgeolli won't be as sweet as that you buy from supermarkets, as the latter contains aspartame, an artificial sweetener. If you'd like it sweeter, you can add sugar or honey. This reporter blended "omija" syrup, made from a species of berry, into yakju, which gave it a sweet, fruity taste.
Brewing two kinds of liquor in eight days turned out to be easier than we expected, although consistency in quality isn't guaranteed at home. If it's so easy, why don't more Koreans brew at home?
Part of the reason may be that making makgeolli at home is quite a costly process. Ten kilos of Korean-grown rice cost between 25,000 ($23) and 35,000 won. The recipe above, which uses two kilos of rice, will produce about 1.5 liters of yakju and 1.5 liters of makgeolli. A 750 ml bottle of Kooksoondang makgeolli made with Korean-grown rice harvested within a year costs only 1,300 won in supermarkets.
Makgeolli is cheaper than other kinds of liquor because taxes account for just 5 percent of its price. Makgeolli makers spend little on advertising, so most of the costs derive from the ingredients, production and distribution.
In contrast, taxes account for 72 percent of the price of "soju," which is made from a simple mixture of ethanol, water and artificial sweetener. The other 28 percent includes heavy marketing costs — many popular celebrities are the models in soju advertisements. In short, makgeolli offers good value for money.
Despite the high costs, making makgeolli is a fun experience. There are a few makgeolli-brewing classes in Seoul, and we highly recommend joining one.