On our recent trip to Korea, one of my favorite discoveries was the alcoholic beverage known as makgeolli. Similar to an unfiltered saké, makgeolli is made from fermented rice but has a milky, sweet taste with a natural effervescence from the fermentation process. Its cloudy consistency separates upon standing and needs to be stirred (or shaken) prior to drinking; it’s traditionally served in bowl and portioned out with a small ladle. Makgeolli is a bit more rustic than saké and was originally considered a farmers’ beverage. Its popularity has increased in Korea during recent years and it can now be found in Korean restaurants and markets in the US. It’s even domestically brewed by at least one US company, Slow City Makgeolli, based out of Chicago.
Many of the commercial brands produced in Korea add aspartame prior to bottling, as it is an inexpensive and non-fermentable sweetener. The result, however, is a synthetic- and overly sweet-tasting makgeolli; the brands that do not use aspartame are my preference. Like kombucha, true makgeolli is a living beverage and tastes better without the added sweeteners or preservatives.
Makgeolli can be easily made at home, using rice, water, and nuruk—a fermenting agent composed of milled grain, yeast, and fungi (Rhizopus and Aspergillus oryzae). Traditionally these were naturally cultured and formed into round, cake shapes, then dried. Today nuruk can be found as a packaged, dry goods product labeled “Powdered Enzyme Amylase” available at Korean markets in larger US cities. While I was unable to locate nuruk in Columbus, a friend visiting Chicago was kind enough to purchase a bag at H Mart for me.
Brewing makgeolli is a fundamentally simple process: cook, inoculate, ferment. The following recipe is a single fermentation method which utilizes steamed, slightly undercooked rice—called godubap—instead of boiled rice. (The recipe is courtesy of Becca Baldwin who teaches makgeolli brewing in Korea and was kind enough to help me throughout the process via Twitter.)
- Soak 2 lbs of short grain sweet rice for 2 hours in non-chlorinated water; drain
- Steam rice for about 40 minutes or until chewy (slightly undercooked)
- Cool the rice to 75º F, place in a wide-mouth container and add 4 cups water and 1/3 cup nuruk; using clean hands, mix well, incorporating the nuruk into the cooled rice
- Allow mixture to ferment in an open container (cover with a towel or cheesecloth) for about 8 days at 64º–77ºF (longer for cooler temperatures, shorter for warmer weather) or until bubbling stops
- Filter and chill (be careful of any residual gas-buildup from fermentation if stored in an enclosed container)
My mixture began to bubble and separate into layers by the second day. As fermentation progressed, the bubbling rose to a frenzied level and a sweet, yeasty smell emanated from the jar. I attempted to stir it at least once a day, though there was a day or two when it went undisturbed. Once the fermentation process slowed, I strained out the spent grain and placed the liquid in a bail top bottle and refrigerated. (Being a bit cautious/paranoid, I opened the cap a couple of times to release residual carbon dioxide buildup prior to drinking. This may have resulted in a slightly less carbonated makgeolli, but prevented any unintentional bottle explosions.)
My home-brewed makgeolli was a bit more sour than the commercial brands I’ve tasted, which was the result of lactobacillus activity—a familiar taste to those who have done any home fermenting. I was told that some of the acidity can be reduced if additional yeast is added during the stage when nuruk is combined with the cooked rice. Although the sourness didn’t bother me, I look forward to further experimentation with this recipe.