IT MAKSA ME FEEL GOOD!
If you’re out drinking anywhere in Korea, you’ll see people, young and old alike, mixing up all sorts of boozy concoctions. Somaek (소맥), the combination of soju (소주) and beer (맥주), is probably the most popular. But you also see people making questionable drinks like gojingamrae (고진감래), which literally means “bitter turns to sweet”, and is a mixture of coke, soju, and beer. And the black belt of Korean dares – sobaeksanmaek (소백산맥), or soju, baekseju (백새주), sansachun (산사춘), and beer.
Even makgeolli, despite having so much going on – from its yeasty-lactobacillus goodness to its unique, pungent flavor – is commonly mixed with other drinks. The most popular of these cocktails is probably maksa (막사), which is makgeolli mixed with cider, usually Chilsung Cider (칠성 사이다). By the way, the name cider is a false cognate; in truth, it is a lemon-lime soda that is very similar to 7-Up.
WHERE DID MAKSA COME FROM?
This question might be impossible to suss out but I came across one article that refers to “Park’s ‘makgeolli cocktail,’ a concoction of beer or cider and the rice wine as well as makgeolli flavored with ‘omija’ (schisandra chinensis), a traditional Korean drink made with fruit herbs.” The Park in question is former South Korean President Park Chung-hee who happens to be the father of current President Park Geun-hye.
As great a story as that would be, my gut tells me that maksa just happened organically. People like to experiment, especially in Korea where so many types of food and drink can be mixed together. Nowadays, I’m sure that many people feel that makgeolli goes with cider like soju goes with beer.
Although it’s only vaguely connected to this question, I think it’s worth talking about Chilsung Cider. (By the way, if you say “Chilsung” to Koreans, they will more often than not just look at you with a bemused expression. You need to say “cider”, or more accurately “saiduh”, to be understood. I suppose it’s analogous to the way most English speakers say “Coke”, not “Coca-Cola”.) Anyway, created in 1950, Chilsung Cider was the first soft drink produced in Korea. Maybe it was inevitable that it would be the first soda mixed with makgeolli.
Another interesting fact is that Lotte Chilsung, the company producing Chilsung Cider, launched a new soft drink in 1989 called Milkis. Milkis, as its name would suggest, is a milk-flavored soda. Which sounds gross, I know, but it’s actually pretty good. More importantly, it tastes like makgeolli – but for kids!
MAKSA: THE BAD & THE GOOD
BAD: I’m sure there are a lot of purists out there who think maksa is a dirty word. One thing you’ll probably read or hear often is that maksa is a drink for college students, which to me has the implication that it’s a drink for young people who don’t know better. After all, when I was in college, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one drinking forties of OE.
GOOD: But to say that mixing makgeolli is bad is like saying the whole evolution of bartending is bad. Without a little clever experimentation, we would have never had the shandy, wine spritzer, sangria, mimosa, or any other cocktail for that matter. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss maksa as a college student’s drink any more than a sidecar is a college student’s drink.
BAD: A more convincing reason not to add cider might be that it is counterproductive to the healthy properties of makgeolli (to the extent that any alcoholic beverage can be called “healthy”). Makgeolli contains minerals, fiber, amino acids, and vitamins B1, B2, and C. The live yeast and lactobacillus bacteria found in unpasteurized makgeolli (생막걸리) are said to help with digestion and protect stomach lining. The brew is also less fattening: 150 grams, the equivalent of a bowl of makgeolli, only contains 69 calories. But this fact is really the kicker: “This year scientists have proven that makgeoli [sic] contains far more cancer-fighting substances than other alcohol types.” An article from Discoveringkorea.com confirms this assertion: “Combined, these essential nutrients are said to possess anti-aging properties, as well as help prevent cancer, lower cholesterol and promote intestinal health.” If you want to read all the claims yourself, you can find a fair number here at a KBS World Radio, as well as here and here.
So, if that’s the case, why pour soda into your makgeolli? There have been a whole host of articles describing the toll sodas take on the human body. In this article from Medicalnewstoday.com, a new study found that soda consumed regularly can lead to the “premature aging of cells”. Soda kills, son!
GOOD: Well, two wrongs don’t make a right but the majority of makgeollis are produced with plenty of additives, namely artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame potassium. So, when you knock back a bowl of your favorite brew, you’re more than likely ingesting something that is not a Ponce de León panacea. Not to mention, makgeolli is BOOZE!
BAD: Finally, there’s the simple argument: Why ruin something good? Yes, there are a number of breweries out there that are just phoning in the cheapest, most quickly produced makgeolli possible. But it seems a trend is on the rise to return makgeolli to its artisanal roots. Baesangmyeon Brewery and Damyang Jukhyang-doga are a couple breweries that come to mind because of the simple fact that they don’t use artificial sweeteners like aspartame. (By the way, you can read my post on makgeolli and aspartame here.)
GOOD: The sad state of affairs is that these brewers are few and far between. I think this is why foreigners are often turned off of the drink: one bad makgeolli and they cross it off their list for good. Adding a little cider can take an awful makgeolli and make it palatable. (Full disclosure: the only way I could finish Wookooksaeng was with a splash of cider.)
Not to mention, the extra carbonation adds a little zest to your bowl. When I was working as a bartender, my boss had some sage advice: every cocktail tastes a little better when it is dressed up with a splash of carbonation. And that advice has stood me in good stead.
TO MAKSA OR NOT TO MAKSA
I don’t want people to think cider is necessary for enjoying makgeolli but, the fact of the matter is, makgeolli is a social drink. And when you’re with your friends on a night out, you don’t always have the largest selection available. (I’ve only seen my favorite makgeollis at a few makgeolli houses.) So, if cider helps make your drink better or if it’s what’s fashionable in your milieu, I say do your thing.
But, BEFORE you get fizzy: Do me a favor and try the makgeolli the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Then decide if it really needs cider.