At home, I have two cats. When they learn the names of these pets, my Korean friends tend to chuckle. The cats are sister and brother, but one has white fur; the other, ginger.
When my daughter and I adopted them as kittens, we had to decide on names. I must confess that I am a fellow who enjoys a tipple, so given their coloration, names came naturally. The white cat was named Makgeolli, after Korea's traditional, milky-looking rice brew; the ginger cat was named Maekju, after the Korean word for beer.
And as a fellow who enjoys a tipple, I must confess how much more joyous life on the peninsula is these days, for the local makgeolli and maekju sectors have both undergone massive qualitative improvements.
Just five or six years ago, if one entered a restaurant and ordered makgeolli, one could bet that, if they served it at all, they probably offered only a single selection. Moreover, it was usually decanted into a bowl, so one never even knew what brand it was.
How about beer? Your choice was largely restricted to the mass-produced, U.S.-style lagers churned out by Korea's brewing duopoly. While these lagers are not badly made, they represent only one of dozens of styles of beers, and are, for those raised on European brews, disappointingly puny in flavor.
Deregulation has granted a boon to makgeolli lovers. In the past, brewers could only distribute in their own localities. This restricted market size while, by stifling competitive forces, offered few incentives for makers to upgrade quality. The lifting of these restrictions (which dated back to colonial Korea) in 2008 released the genie from the bottle.
Facing a sudden influx of competition from extra-regional producers, and incentivized by the massively expanded market, makgeolli makers innovated recipes, diversified ingredients and beefed up branding. A makgeolli revolution followed: The once-derided "farmers' brew" went trendy.
That initial fad has died down, resulting in a sales dip, but the bigger picture remains positive: There is now demand for quality makgeolli. In supermarkets, specialty restaurants and makgeolli taverns, dozens of brews from across the peninsula can be found; in fact, my current favorite types of makgeolli come from opposite ends of South Korea: Paju in the northwest and Busan in the southeast.
Moreover, this summer, Kooksoondang, one of Korea's top makgeolli brewers, released a new product that has the potential to storm into bars across the Western world. The product ― a light, carbonated, grapefruit makgeolli ― is not only refreshingly delicious, it is superbly differentiated; it is unlike any drink I have ever glugged before. Moreover, it is canned, making it easier to transport and distribute than "fresh" (un-pasteurized) makgeolli sold in bottles, which suffer from short sell-by dates.
Meanwhile, globalization has been a boon to the beer sector. Of late, Koreans returning from studying, working and living abroad, have bought back home sophisticated tastes. This led to rising demand for quality imported beers. The catch was price: Import beers often cost silly amounts.
In 2002, government permitted micro-breweries to operate, but the sector pioneers suffered from three problems. One: They concentrated on German/Czech-style beers, which did little for diversification. Two: Their brewers lacked experience and expertise. Three: They arrived too early; Local drinkers were not (then) ready for strong-tasting beers.
Now they are. A handful of joint Korean-foreign run pubs in Noksapyeong, near Itaewon, largely serviced by a single craft brewery in Gapyeong, are spearheading Korea's beer revolution. Their locally designed and brewed craft beers, ranging in style from British ales and porters to Czech pilsners and German wheat, are tickling the tonsils of both local and expatriate suds lovers.
Korea is finally producing world-class beers, and the trend has been boosted by an approving local media. These beers, while not as cheap as local mass-market lagers, are favorably priced compared to imports. To satisfy demand, the pioneering brew pubs of Noksapyeong are now opening new branches across Seoul, and nationwide.
In short, a government policy of deregulation, and an organic process of internationalization, have floated the boats of the makgeolli and beer sectors.
The resultant diversification and quality improvement is good for penny-wise tipplers, as makgeolli and beer are more reasonably priced than wine or spirits. The new demand is good for the small businesses that craft brewers ― of both makgeolli and beer ― represent. And the upgraded sector is good for the economy, for brewers are the kind of creative firms that have the potential to grow into something bigger than mom ‘n pop stores, while providing an appropriate partner for Korean cuisine as it ventures overseas.
Personally, I am just happy to dip my whiskers into an ever-widening pool of gluggable Korean beverages. Oh, and my cats now boast respectable names.