As I took pictures of The Sool Gallery and the many bottles we would soon be tasting, I waited for John Frankl, the event’s guest lecturer, to make his entrance. Most of the visitors were Korean with probably half a dozen foreigners. But, the foreigner walking through the door in cowboy boots, a Wrangler pearl-snap shirt, and a Stetson hat is not someone you’d peg for a fluent Korean speaker, a doctor of Korean literature, nor an expert on Korean alcohol. And, yet, John is all three.
I was fortunate to have met John last year at a Susubori Academy class that he was teaching. The course was on how to make nuruk, the fermentation starter used in almost all Korean alcohol brewing. I was in awe back then as I am today: Not only does the guy make some tremendously good home brews—he has completed the Korean alcohol brewer’s and nuruk courses at Hanguk Gayangju Yeonguso (Korean Homebrewing Research Institute) and won a number of contests—but he also makes his own nuruk. Practically the only thing he’s not involved in in the brewing process is growing his own rice.
Needless to say, when I heard he would be lecturing about my favorite subject at The Sool Gallery, I jumped at the chance to hear him speak.
John Frankl’s lecture, entitled Moving Beyond Makgeolli, focused on a number of different topics—too many to list here—but some central themes included industry nomenclature, the influence of Japan and the US on the Korean attitude to traditional alcohol, and issues Koreans need to confront in order to develop Korean alcohol and promote it on a more global scale. John’s thoughts on each of these three topics are addressed below. I’ve added my own clarifications in brackets.
With the focus on makgeolli these days, it is important to remember that the word makgeolli means “roughly made” or, alternatively, “freshly made”. This is simply a description of a brewing process, but it is not a true name. Seoktanju, gwahaju, ihwaju—these are names of actual types of brews.
More importantly, makgeolli was never a goal in brewing but, rather, a byproduct. The Yangban, or Korean nobility, were looking for clarity in their drink and would never think of drinking something murky. [That “murky” quality is from the takju, or sediment, found at the bottom of a brewing vessel, while the cheongju, or clear liquor, was the prized liquor that was siphoned off the top. The takju was left for the farmers who diluted it with water to make makgeolli, which is one reason why makgeolli is also known as nongju, or farmers’ alcohol.] Therefore, makgeolli is a byproduct—one that certainly has its place but, along with soju, shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all when it comes to perceptions of what Korean alcohol comprises.
MODERN MAKGEOLLI AS A JAPANESE-AMERICAN-KOREAN HYBRID
In modern times, making makgeolli in Japan has become big business. Thus, the majority of Japanese brewers do not have any interest in exploring more complex Korean recipes but, rather, treat makgeolli as the end goal.
Furthermore, Japanese makgeolli brewers tend to use Japanese koji as the prime fermentation starter, rather than Korean nuruk. In Korea, using koji rather than nuruk might have taken root during the Japanese colonial period but, whatever the case, this practice still exists among some Korean breweries. The problem is koji is relatively inert compared to nuruk and does not produce the same flavor profile.
In terms of America’s involvement with Korean brewing, it’s necessary to go back to post-Korean War conditions in the 1960s and 70s. At this time, Korea was struggling to provide enough rice to feed the people, let alone produce alcohol. Furthermore, with Korea receiving huge quantities of wheat from the US, it was only natural that wheat brews became an industry standard. Now, some breweries are set up to only brew with wheat.
Paradoxically it seems that Koreans have a kind of nostalgia for the taste of wheat-based makgeolli despite the fact that the practice is less than 60 years-old, while Korean brewing traditions date back several hundreds of years.
THE FUTURE OF SOOL
Brewers have some basic avenues to go down in order to make Korean sool (read: alcohol) reach its full potential—some obvious and some less so. First off, they need to get rid of all additives and preservatives. Second, brewers need to not only stop using wheat flour as their primary ingredient but also should consider using only domestic rice, of which there is currently a huge surplus. Likewise, Japanese koji should be replaced with Korean nuruk.
But, most importantly, Koreans need to be more confident with their product. The Japanese don’t call sake “Japanese wine”: they are proud of their traditional liquor and introduced it to the world as sake, the name it is known by. However, in Korea there is a certain sentiment that foreigners won’t like or won’t get Korean cuisine. An example is a Korean company taking a visiting American client to get a steak or taking a French client to a Parisian-style restaurant. Instead, Koreans need to be proud and confident of what they are making and insist that foreigners meet them on their terms.
This can’t start, however, until Koreans themselves become proud of their creations. An example is the phrase many Koreans use when they smell nuruk: nuruk chuei (누룩 취), which can be translated as nuruk odor. I use the word odor because chuei has an equally negative connotation, and many Koreans find that nuruk, well…, stinks. Instead, Koreans ought to use the more positive phrase nuruk hyang (누룩 향), which could perhaps be nuruk aroma. The problem might go deeper than linguistic commonplaces: indeed, the problem might be with the Korean palate itself. Many Koreans are growing up with more and more of a taste for Western food, while eschewing traditional Korean flavor profiles as strange and unlikeable.
The lecture ended with John thanking all of his mentors and the other people in the industry whom he respects. This was followed by short speeches from the main brewers and CEOs of Midam (미담), Sulseam (술샘), and Sansoo (산수), and tastings of what their breweries make. It was a heady, fun way to spend an early Sunday afternoon.