At the recent Niagara College Brewing Competition in July, judges might have been able to judge a category that is not often seen in Canadian homebrew competitions—makgeolli. Makgeolli is a Korean alcoholic beverage made with rice. And the style almost didn’t make it in this year.
“I love the style, but knew that I wasn’t in the majority,” explains Victor North, Brewmaster Support Liaison at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute and the administrator for the Niagara College homebrew competition. “I thought it might be too unfamiliar and unusual to gain traction, but our students changed my mind!”
Part of North’s work as the Brewmaster Support Liaison is familiarising students with beer styles. “For several years now I have done an intro to makgeolli as a part of a broader look at world brewing traditions, many of which are not typically considered within the framework of western brewing.” When he found that students were just as fascinated with the style was he was, he started providing nuruk, the traditional Korean yeast which can be found at Korean grocery stores, to interested students, who surprised him when they came back with their own makgeollis to share and taste. To continue the discussion, he started bringing his own makgeolli, which was well-received.
Based on his students’ enthusiasm, North is optimistic that the style is catching on outside of Korean. “After a few terms with this tasting demo being very successful, I knew that our students were more than adventurous and inquisitive enough to rise to the challenge! They proved they were ready to explore new worlds of brewing, and I think the rest of the country may not be too far behind! 10 years ago? No way. But suddenly we find ourselves in a world where craft beer drinkers are now accustomed to drinking sour beers, very hazy beers, beers very much foreign to the market a decade ago, and makgeolli begins to feel not so foreign itself! I hope it finds a footing here!”
Despite being a style rarely seen in the Canadian competition circuit, the competition saw 14 entries in the makgeolli category. Nathan Byrnes was one of the judges who was judging the Fruit and Spice Makgeolli flight, which had eight entries in total. He had lived in Korea for a couple of years and got to try the style firsthand a few times. While it is usually served directly from the plastic bottle it’s in, some of the traditional places still serve it into little bowls out of a copper teapot and some restaurants might even sweeten the makgeolli with honey or fruits.
“Makgeolli has a very distinct flavour that can take a little while to get used to at first, but most people I’ve tried it with tend to like it,” explains Byrnes. “It has a big hit of grainy rice sweetness, but is also balanced by some sourness and often with an alcohol warmth. I also find that it has a slightly metallic character to it, even when it isn’t served in a metal teapot. Makgeolli is opaque and milky-looking, and smells sweet, floral, and fruity with a touch of spice. It has a quite unique mouthfeel, different than most drinks we are used to in North America; it is somewhat thick and chalky. the feel of it in the mouth reminds me a bit of drinking the milk leftover after you eat your cereal.”
Brian Marmoreo was the other judge on the Fruit/ Spice makgeolli flight, and had tried the style about a year ago when a friend of his started making makgeolli. “I really enjoy makgeolli. It has a completely different taste from wine or beer. It has a subtle but complex taste that’s really nice.” While makgeolli is “great on it’s own”, Marmoreo says that tropical fruits and spices work really well with the style as well.
Out of the 14 makgeolli entries, four of them were memorable enough to be forwarded to the best of show round. Two of them came from Niagara College Brewmaster program’s Ian Evan, who’s entering into his third term at the program. “I enjoyed the style a lot and I wanted to try to make it myself at home and the competitive spirit of the competition offered a great chance to brew a couple of batches for entry. I made a makgeolli without any additions, as well as a fruit and . spice addition makgeolli. I used cinnamon and vanilla in that version and it came out quite nice with the rice. I think it will be a fantastic late fall, Christmas time drink.” Both of his makgeollis placed first in their respective flights.
Evan’s tip for anyone thinking of trying out the rice based alcoholic beverage at home? “Take your time, be patient. The cleaning of rice and the steaming do take up a lot of time but creates some really nice rice. Give yourself the time to do it right and have fun!”