For my second jaunt out to the Jarasum Makgeolli Festival, I was determined that I would make it longer than a mere one hour stopover on a trip. No, this time, I rallied my makgeolli-loving chingu for a full day of brews on the idyllic Gyeonggi-do island.
We arrived around 1 pm and, although the day’s festivities had officially kicked off at 10 am, the grounds were only just coming alive with people. Great timing as it meant the lines, if there were any, moved briskly and we soon had small paper cups in hand.
The day had a lot of promise with that first drink: it was sunny, not too crowded, the food was fine (several vendors selling various kinds of skewers and the obligatory stand selling hotdogs which, in Korea, means corndogs), and you could even hear strands of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” sounding off from the festival speakers.
And then we looked around:
Where in God’s Name Was the Good Stuff?!
There must have been over 20 breweries each with their own booth but it was if all the mediocrity of the Ilsan’s Daehanmingook Makgeolli Festival had been transported to Jarasum. This sounds unfair, picky, and even elitist but, when you’re selling plastic bottle mak bubbling over with aspartame and other chemicals, I’d simply rather drink water. And even if I liked that stuff, I certainly wouldn’t need to come all the way to Jarasum for bottles I could have picked up in eMart or GS25.
The Korea Times did their own post-mortem on the festival and made two observations. First, the festival lacked the funds to draw the artisanal breweries. Not sure how the planning and budget are figured out but there were a couple of good brewers there (more on this in a bit) so this argument seems suspect. The second possibility is a larger indictment of Korean’s estranged feelings toward sool:
“The market demand for traditional liquor is gradually decreasing as can be seen through the media and statistics,” said Kim Gil-hyun, a spokesman for Kooksoondang.
Ever since a surge in popularity earlier this decade, especially due to a temporary fad in Japan around 2011, the traditional Korean liquor market and makgeolli have been shrinking.
But that’s not to spell the end of Korea’s brewing traditions. The fewer people are feeling increasingly passionate about increasingly sophisticated traditional alcohols.
Read the whole The Korea Times article by Jon Dunbar here.
When I ran into The Sool Company’s Julia and Dan, I asked them why they thought the festival was lacking representation. Apparently, all the premium sool brewers had decided to go to Daejeon for a wine festival…
What does that say when the best makgeolli and sool producers in the country are choosing to attend a wine festival instead of a MAKGEOLLI festival? I can’t speak for those brewers but I can make a few guesses. First off, I get the sense that the group in charge of the festival is more interested in maintaining the status quo of a subpar product. The fact that the main organizer of the event is the owner of Gapyeong Jat Makgeolli speaks volumes. Secondly, as the article mentioned, is that “premium” brewers want their brews to have the cultural cache that wine enjoys. What better way to do this than to eschew the makgeolli festival for the hopes of associating with “more sophisticated” tipples at the wine festival.
Where in God’s Name Was the Good Stuff?! Part Deux
By my count, only four out of the 20+ breweries were worth stopping at. Lower down on the list was Bae HyeJeong Doga (BHD), makers of the very good Ugok-ju (which was unfortunately not available to taste), Horangi Makgeolli, and the Buja series of makgeolli. I’ve definitely cooled on Horangi since my review as it uses erythritol as a sweetening agent but overall it’s fine.
As mentioned earlier, I ran into Julia and Dan from The Sool Company and—happy accident!—they had befriended the owner and master brewer of Arirang Brewery. It was easy to overlook Arirang as it was stuck in a corner at the festival and because their plastic bottle doesn’t really stand out from its competitors. However, Arirang’s brewer is staunchly anti-aspartame and anti-preservatives so I was keen to try it. It’s fairly dry with a good amount of carbonation but it didn’t really stick out much in my mind; maybe an ever-so-slightly sweeter version of Son Myeongseob Makgeolli.
Sulseam never fails to make an appearance and this festival was no exception. And, while I was disappointed they didn’t have any Ihwaju on hand, they did have their red nuruk-based Soolchuihan Wonsoongi, or Drunk Monkey, makgeolli. Every time I’ve tasted it it’s gotten better and better; they’ve really refined this brew and I hope to review it one day soonish.
Finally, contender for one of the best breweries in Korea, Joeunsul. Thank god because their booth was like an oasis in Aspartame Sahara. The patented sool tap was loading up the faithful with their Yakju, Takju, red nuruk-based Yeppuda Takju, and Geurida Takju.
What’s New in the World of Bad Makgeolli?
Not that you care beyond a sick curiosity but… In an ongoing push to make makgeolli cool again, the big breweries continue to churn out flavored mak. By now, you can find banana, tomato, curry, etc. And, the newest one to make a splash: Kooksoondang’s coffee-flavored makgeolli called Makgeollicano. (Kooksoondang, you can use my infinitely sexier-sounding Makkaccino for free if you ever decide to rebrand.)
And I suppose one slightly bit of promising news is that several brewers have said goodbye to using aspartame (YAY)… but have gone and replaced it with stevia (BOOOO).
What Else Graced the Festival? Weird stuff.
Okay, this first one is not weird but I had to include it somewhere. The Jarasum Makgeolli Festival tradition that I am most happy to see continue is the makgeolli making class. It gives me hope that young brewers (not too young!) will realize how easy and how cool it is to brew your own. And who doesn’t like walking out of a festival with future booze?!
Beyond the makgeolli making corner, relegated far off onto the margins of the festival, was where things truly got weird. Sandwiching the Chilean musicians… All right, one more pic:
Ahem. Sandwiching the Chilean musicians was a Turkish kebab booth and an army surplus store that was supplying people with camouflaged helmets and courses on how to tie knots. And just beyond that was a booth selling—what else?—drones.
Finally, a biker gang was spotted moshing at a smaller stage. Fortunately, they were wearing protection.