Last week, we were invited to join a media tour of South Chungcheong Province to learn about the region’s traditional rice alcohols.The tour was co-hosted by Makgeolli Hakgyo, a traditional Korean alcohol education center, and South Chungcheong Province with the goal of educating the public about Korean alcohol, or “sool” (술).
For a little bit of quick background information: There are a huge variety of Korean traditional alcohols, mostly all brewed with rice. You may already be familiar with soju (high alcohol content) and makgeolli (low alcohol content), but there are also many other kinds in between. Though so much of Korean alcohol tradition has fallen by the wayside throughout Korea’s turbulent history over the last century, there’s been a small but growing revival movement. Much like craft beer has been making a slow but steady comeback in recent years in the States, many traditionally brewed Korean alcohols are also gaining popularity with the general public.
We started our day at the beautiful Oeam Folk Village in Asan, just south of Seoul. If you’re ever visiting Seoul, it’s a wonderful day trip out of the city. What makes this folk village great is that people still live here—they garden and have cars and have normal lives, but stay in these beautiful old homes and live at a slightly slower pace. There are even a few guesthouses if you want to stay overnight. Our destination, however, was the Champan House (참판댁), where one family has been brewing a special kind of alcohol called “yeonyeop-ju” (연엽주). This brew uses lotus leaves that the family picks from a nearby lotus pond in the village and has a distinctly pungent, sour flavor.
That sourness, brewmaster Lee Deuk-seon explained, is essential to good health and well-being. He says that he drinks a small amount every day and to be honest, he was looking pretty spry for an 80-something-year-old. But back to the flavor: If you enjoy the funky sour tastes of lambic beers and some of the less-sweet kombucha teas, you’ll appreciate the complexity of yeonyeop-ju’s sour flavors. They also make small quantities of soju from their yeonyeop-ju.
Lunch was a colorful spread in a renovated hanok restaurant called Mimaji (미마지), whose menu emphasizes health and well-being. They served a savory buckwheat pancake, steamed pork with lettuce wraps, rice steamed in lotus leaves, and a variety of delicious banchan, including sautéed perilla greens. The owners of this restaurant also make their own Korean rice alcohol. Behind the restaurant is a dusty museum dedicated to Korean masks and craftwork. Inside, you can’t help but feel both awed and a little bit sad at the same time, that no one really makes these things anymore. These everyday crafts are the kinds of things that are maybe not quite “important” enough to go into the National Museum but still have so many stories to tell.
Our third stop was the Gyeryong Baekil-ju (계룡백일주) Brewery. Gyeryong is the name of a nearby mountain, and Baekil literally means 100 days, because this recipe traditionally involved brewing the alcohol at 15 C for 100 days. The brewmaster gave us a tour of the renovated facilities. His mother, the original brewer, still comes by to check on the brewing. Gyeryong Baekil-ju uses omija, chrysanthemum, azalea and pine needles in the early stages of brewing, giving the final product so many layers of different kinds of sweetness. There’s a touch of herbal medicine-like bitterness which is not unpleasant. As we visited shortly after the fall harvest holiday, a traditional gift-giving time in Korea, several colorful gift set boxes were stacked around the office.
Though we saw the modern process of brewing Korean alcohol at the brewery, the brewmaster and his wife were also giving demonstrations of the older traditional methods over at the Baekje Cultural Festival. Though of course the full process involves much more time to allow for fermentation and drying and aging at different stages, they showed us how they made their nuruk (a kind of fermentation agent), mixed their steamed rice and herbs, and put it all in an earthen jar to ferment. The whole time, everything was done with bare hands—truly hands-on work. It was beautiful to see how much care and effort goes into each step of the process!