I was recently back in the U.S. for a long overdue vacation which meant two things:
- I had to back-catalogue (read: drink) several bottles before my trip so I could continue to post while away. And…
- I had the perfect opportunity to see what makgeolli is available in my small corner of the States.
The first task was completed pleasantly enough but the second required a little hustle, especially as I wanted to have something to say for each city I was visiting.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Despite having a “Korea Town”, Vegas has a relatively small Korean population. So, no surprises when I made my way to Asian Seafood Supermarket on the south side of town and I didn’t find a single bottle of makgeolli. I had to go to the north side, to Greenland Supermarket inside the Koreatown Plaza. After a bit of wandering, my search paid off. Greenland Supermarket stocks Seoul Jangsoo’s Walmae ($3.99/₩4,540), Seoul Saeng’s Saeng Saeng Makgeolli ($3.49/₩3,971), Kooksoondang’s Saeng Makgeolli, Pocheon Ildong’s Ssal Makgeolli ($3.99/₩4,540), and a variety of other types of Korean liquor, including soju, sansachun, baeseju, cheongha, bokbunja, and bohae.
In a town of 20,000, I just assumed Ashland would be too small to have makgeolli, let alone heard of makgeolli. Looks like I was wrong about the former and right about the latter. There, in the liquor section of Market of Choice, a local organic store with the same vibe as Whole Foods, I came across Jinro’s Makgulli ($5.79/₩6,589). And, as you can tell from the pic, they also sell baekseju, soju, bohae, and some kind of pomegranate liquor.
Now, the bottles I found in Vegas are usual suspects in Korea, so I didn’t bother buying them, especially at the inflated price. But, I later found out that Jinro only produces Makgulli for sales abroad so I took the plunge with this bottle. Keep your eyes out for the forthcoming review.
Anyway, as I was checking out, the clerk exclaimed, “Oh, I guess I need to see your ID. I thought this was milk but it’s… alcohol?” She looked at me, completely perplexed. “It’s makgeolli, a type of Korean liquor.” I could tell by the expression lingering on her face that it didn’t make the matter any clearer.
While staying with a friend in Oakland, I asked him if there was an Asian market nearby and he told me I had to go to KP Asian Market (also known as Koreana Plaza Market). I found a couple of the bottles that are sold in Las Vegas, including Walmae ($1.99/₩2,264) and Kooksoondang’s Saeng Makgeolli ($2.99/₩3,402). They also carry Soony Makgeolli ($2.99/₩3,402) and a number of makgeollis from Pocheon Ildong, including Ssal Makgeolli, Kong Makgeolli, Deodeok Makgeolli, and Jo Makgeolli (all for $3.99/₩4,540).
(Almost all of these bottles were on sale when I visited. Implications…?)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
I began my search at New May Wah Supermarket found in the Inner Richmond neighborhood of SF. I used to live only a few blocks away so I have an intimate feel for New May Wah. However, my time in SF was long before I knew anything about makgeolli so I never paid attention to their selection. Still, I felt sure New May Wah, being a fairly large supermarket, would deliver the goods. And I was wrong—all I could find was Walmae ($3.09/₩3,516), Saeng Saeng ($3.09/₩3,516), and Pocheon Ildong Ssal ($4.09/₩4,564).
My last stop was at First Korean Market (aka 서울 식품), a little corner store with nice ajummas which can also be found in the Inner Richmond. I’ve long suspected that they source some of their inventory from New May Wah. At least it must be true of their makgeolli selection as they had the same three bottles.
If you’ve read a few of my bottle reviews, you’ll know that unpasteurized brews are better than their sad, pasteurized cousins, hands down. This is directly due to the live cultures that make the flavor more complex and interesting as the brew ages. Because of the carbon dioxide that these cultures produce, unpasteurized makgeollis are made with breathable caps that release built-up gasses. But it is exactly these live cultures and slightly leaky caps that make unpasteurized makgeolli difficult, and so expensive, to export.
This is all a long-winded way to say that, unfortunately, you’re only ever going to find pasteurized makgeolli abroad unless there is a makgeolli brewery near you. To add insult to injury, these inferior offerings cost three to four times as much as they would in Korea. They don’t break the bank but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
There are a couple silver linings, at least in the U.S. Baesangmyun Brewery, the makers of Neurin Maul, opened a brewery in Niles, Illinois and they have been producing Slow City (the English translation of Neurin Maul) since 2013. I’ve also heard about another brewery called DudukJu LLC; they’re out of Wurtsboro, NY. So, if you’re lucky to live near either brewery, you have the chance to try the real, unadulterated deal.
Regardless, if I were living back in the U.S., it’d be a no brainer: I would definitely be making my own makgeolli. There are a lot of home brewing resources out there but I would recommend three in particular.
The first is Becca Baldwin and Daniel Lenaghan’s pamphlet, A Primer on Brewing Makgeolli. If you follow the link, you can also get good information on their social network presence. Becca and Daniel, along with a few other knowledgeable individuals, have created an incredibly helpful forum for people with brewing questions and comments.
The second is 막걸리 빚는 남자, a blog created by home brewer Brian Romasky. Despite its Korean name, the blog is written completely in English and he has lots of info on brewing practices and techniques, as well as information about where to source ingredients in the U.S.
Finally, check out Takjoo Journals’ Home Brewing Makgeolli in North America post for links to where you can purchase necessary ingredients and equipment online if you live in the U.S. or Canada. Once you have everything, you can use Becca and Daniel’s primer to start brewing the good stuff!