I had been looking forward to this year’s Daehanmingook Makgeolli Festival ever since last year’s ended. After all, 2014’s festival featured more makgeolli at my fingertips than I had never seen before. It stretched the whole plaza of Ilsan Culture Park, and makgeolli vendors from as far away as Yeosu and Jeju were present. There were also gems like Sulseam’s booth—the place where I tried ihwaju for the first time. All in all, a really fun experience that I was excited to tell others about.
But, I’ll just come right out and say it: 2015 was a monumental disappointment. While I have a lot of negative things to say about the festival, I feel obligated to talk about the positives first.
HEY, IT’S ALL GOOD!
It seemed to me that the organizers noticed several aspects that worked at last year’s festival and kept them, or expanded upon them.
For one, it was well organized with an information booth and first-aid booth right up front as you entered the square. The foreigner’s tasting booth was also present, but, this year, it had been moved to the center of the plaza. This made it both easier to locate and easier for the helpful staff to point visitors in the direction of a brew that they were interested in.
In an improvement over last year, the organizers seemed to have made the stage more of a focal point of the festival, with a balanced mix of performances that appealed to attendees of all ages.
I really enjoyed the food, especially the bindaetteok (a mung-bean pancake similar to jeon). The bossam, while not the most amazing, was reasonable and hearty. All in all, I feel like there were more and possibly better food options present this year when compared to last.
Finally, groups had lots of space to spread out and picnic or let their kids go bananas. (A lot more kids at the makgeolli festival?! Parents gotta have a drink once in a while too.)
NO, IT’S REALLY NOT “ALL GOOD”.
Let’s face it: more space can only mean one thing. The festival grounds were half the size, which meant the same amount of people, possibly more, cramming into a smaller space. But people came to the festival to go from booth to booth in order to try different makgeolli—or get as hammered as quickly as possible. Regardless, the set up wasn’t conducive to either.
Well, as long as you’ve got quality, quantity doesn’t matter. Except the quality available in 2014, with a few exceptions, was absent. Organizers not only passed on having a lot of vendors but also apparently decided not to invite the breweries that are actually trying to make good makgeolli (either that, or those breweries declined to come).
What makes a brew inferior in quality in my mind? Well, not to beat a dead horse, but sweeteners and other artificial additives. Booth after booth was offering their own take on sickly-sweet brews that were just plain bad. To make matters worse, a number of vendors had failed to keep their stock properly chilled causing the makgeolli to go off.
THE ONLY FOUR THAT MATTERED
Jaheehyang had the most diverse offerings, letting festival attendees sample their takju, yakju, and even their homemade moju, which is something you that is not available for sale. In my mind, Jaheehyang was the star of the festival.
Daedaepo’s Blue Label Makgeolli more than likely won the Foreigner’s Choice Award and, as proof of the brew’s popularity, their booth was doing more sales than tastings. (Unfortunately, the elusive Red Label was not present, at least not on Sunday when I got there.) Despite using the sweetener stevia, I still highly recommend trying a bottle of Blue Label.
While Daedaepo captured the foreigners’ hearts, Bae Hyejeong Doga was clearly the festival favorite. People were lining up five minutes or even longer for a chance to try Horangi Saeng Makgeolli. Not one other booth could come close to competing with them in terms of popularity. I do have some slight reservations with Horangi due to its use of the sweetener erythritol. Even so, it is a quality makgeolli.
Finally, I wish I could say more about Joeunsul but, by 1 pm on Sunday, they didn’t have a brew to sample, let alone sell. I might not be the biggest fan of their Cheonbihyang Saengju, but the brewery is doing interesting things and I definitely want to review their other offerings.
Back in 2014, when I was still new to the world of makgeolli, maybe I just couldn’t tell what was good and what was bad. As I said, so many of the brews I tried at last year’s festival were brand new for me. Still, there were a plethora options and I remembered being wowed by so much. 2015’s makgeolli festival, on the other hand, primarily featured big brand makgeolli distributors who all more or less use aspartame and other additives that ruin makgeolli, not make it better. I hate to end negatively but, unless the event organizers seriously reconsider their priorities, I don’t think I’ll be attending the festival in 2016.