A Day with Makgeolli in Seoul: Making Korea’s Traditional Fermented Drink

My recent trip to Seoul turned into an unexpected deep dive into the world of Korean fermented foods—a journey sparked by curiosity and led by the aromatic trails of traditional brewing. As a natto fermenter, I couldn’t resist exploring this integral part of Korean cuisine, and it all started with a hands-on class at The Sool Company, a quaint little spot that’s passionate about makgeolli, Korea’s native rice wine.

Getting Hands-On with Traditional Brewing

The Sool Company is a gem tucked away in Seoul, and it was there that I got to learn how makgeolli is made. The class was small, allowing for an intimate setting where the passion of the instructors for their craft was palpable. They shared that the name ‘sool’ simply means ‘alcohol’ in Korean, but there’s nothing simple about makgeolli.

Makgeolli is mildly sweet with a cloudy appearance. It’s brewed from ingredients like glutinous rice, water, and a fascinating fermenting agent called nuruk—a traditional Korean fermentation starter. Unlike the koji used in Japanese sake, nuruk contains a diverse mix of microorganisms, depending on the region and the brewer, which gives each batch of makgeolli its unique flavor.

The Brewing Process

The day began with learning how to wash the rice. Tradition dictates that it should be washed and rinsed about 100 times until the water runs clear—meticulous, but necessary for purity. After soaking the rice for a couple of hours, it was time to drain and steam it to al dente perfection. The grains needed to be just right—not too soft, retaining a slight bite,

Cooling the rice was next, a process that felt almost meditative. We spread the steamed rice on a table, turning it gently with a rice paddle to let it cool without crushing the grains. Once cooled to about 25°C, the real art began.

In a large bowl, we mixed the cooled rice with water, breaking the rice down slightly before adding the nuruk. The mixing process was almost rhythmic; we were told to be gentle yet thorough, ensuring the mixture was well integrated without smashing the grains. This was crucial for the fermentation that followed.

Fermenting

We took our concoctions home to ferment at room temperature, ideally between 18°C to 26°C. The first three days required mixing once a day to aid fermentation, and then it was a matter of loosening the lid to allow gases to escape. The mixture would eventually separate into three layers, signaling it was time to strain.

Depending on when you choose to strain the liquid, the makgeolli could be sweet or have a higher alcohol content with a more complex flavor. The instructors encouraged us to experiment to find our preferred balance.

The Waiting Game

Though makgeolli can be consumed immediately after straining, further aging in the refrigerator could enhance its flavors, maturing it over six months to a year. Waiting that long might be a challenge, but good things come to those who wait, right?

As the workshop concluded, I felt a deeper appreciation for the tradition and patience involved in making this unique beverage. With a batch of my own brewing at home, I am excited to see how my first attempt at making makgeolli would turn out.