It’s slightly sweet, slightly cloudy and, depending on when you drink it, slightly effervescent. If you’ve ever tried it, then you might know why Japanese are tipsy about the Korean drink makgeolli.
In the same way that Japanese sake has made inroads overseas--there are sake sommeliers in Europe--makgeolli, which is also known as makkori, has cut a highway to the Japanese table and bar counter.
Made by fermenting rice and wheat and traditionally served from ceramic pots or steel kettles, makgeolli was once found only in obscure downtown Korean restaurants.
Now, it competes with beer and sake on the shelves of nearly every convenience store, and is even used as an ingredient in sweets and beauty products.
Nearly $48 million (3.9 billion yen) worth of the brew was exported from Korea last year, according to the Korea Customs Service, and more than 90 percent of that was bound for Japan, where a typical bottle goes upward of 600 yen.
That thirst is partly due to the so-called Hanryu (Korean Wave) that hit Japan nearly a decade ago with the arrival of Korean-language television dramas and continues today with Korean bands such as Kara and Girls' Generation in Japan’s music charts.
“It’s only natural that the interest in Korean pop culture should continue into cuisine,” says Yasushi Hatta, a columnist on Korean food.
He says that Japanese women are by far are the biggest consumers of makgeolli.
“They want to sample the same things they see in the dramas, but soju (Korea’s mainstay national drink, distilled from rice and with an alcohol content of 16 percent) is too strong for most.”
Makgeolli, in contrast, can be sweet and is relatively easy on the alcohol, at about 6 percent.
When the world’s first makgeolli bar opened in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in 2005, he adds, it prompted Koreans to reconsider their attitudes to a drink seen as a humble “farmer’s liquor.”
“Before, makgeolli had a reputation for giving you the burps and a headache the next morning,” explains brewer Yoon Dong-he, who says the reputation was mostly deserved.
A lack of quality guidelines, which were eventually put into effect in 2010, meant that brewers routinely used additives to prolong the shelf life of the fermented product.
Originally from Seoul, Yoon arrived in Japan a decade ago and, last March, began producing her own makgeolli brand, Tong-i (meaning “jar” in Korean), after a long fight with Japanese officialdom.
Her brewery in Tomisato, Chiba Prefecture, a stone’s throw from Narita International Airport, is a gateway to another country. The sacks of brewing ingredients that fill the entrance all come from Korea, as do the boilers, fermenting jars and the bottle-capping machine.
The process looks simple enough. The rice (which is Japanese) is steamed, poured into the large jars and mixed with yeast and a dash of citric acid to start fermentation. Ten days later, the mixture is uncovered and strained into bottles, which are then stored in a freezer to slow fermentation.
“It took a year before I could do anything. The bureau asked me to explain my recipe dozens of times. I would bring it to them, but the next week they’d call again, asking the same questions,” says Yoon, whose brew eventually earned the highest grade among five set by the National Tax Agency.
“They never said, ‘Oh, it’s delicious!’ They just sent a certificate of analysis. But, the last time around, they said, ‘You’re making something good.’ ”
Tong-i is one of four tiny Korean-run makgeolli makers operating in Japan. (Another brand, Chuwangsan, comes from the back of a Korean fried chicken restaurant in Tokyo’s Mikawashima called Mama Chicken).
About 30 Japanese sake breweries have also gotten into the act, mostly in the past couple of years, as the taste for makgeolli continues to spread and the demand for sake diminishes.
The proliferation hasn’t gone unnoticed by makgeolli purists, who worry that the Korean brew may be mistaken for a Japanese product and might even, like kimchi pickled cabbage, become the subject of international dispute.
Nearly 90 percent of Korean kimchi exports go to Japan, yet its market share has diminished to 10 percent after Japanese firms began manufacturing the pickled food. The local version omits the fermentation step in favor of flavor additives. In 2001, Korea convinced the World Trade Organization to set a voluntary global standard for making kimchi, after Japan proposed renaming the food “kimuchi” to match the Japanese pronunciation.
The Japanese makgeolli does taste remarkably like the imported Korean stuff, which is why some see a problem. Makgeolli brought into the country may be marked as unpasteurized, cognoscenti point out, but the bottles have usually been heated before their voyage, extending the shelf life but killing the bacteria that give vital flavors.
The solution is typical for a country where there are qualifications for putting on a kimono, arranging flowers or sipping sake: an accreditation test for drinking makgeolli.
The idea comes from Kim Je-ho, a Japanese of Korean descent who plans to begin accepting applicants later this year and says his makgeolli course is the first of its kind in the world.
“Think of it like the California Roll. You can’t say it’s not sushi because we’ve never seen anything like it in Japan,” says Kim. The roll, containing avocado as a substitute for fatty tuna, was developed by Japanese sushi chefs in Los Angeles during the 1960s. “There are people who like the taste, so we have to accept it and, more than that, celebrate the difference.”
It’s a sentiment to second with a toast--and maybe a burp.
- « Prev
- Next »