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Alternative Fermentations: How to Make Makgeolli

Written by Chris Buchanan

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Chris has been sharing his incredible libations with us for a while, and when we tasted this traditional Korean fermentation, we knew we had to get it down on paper so that more people could make this for themselves!  Chris was nice enough to write up his process for this article so that everyone can make this fun and delicious fermentation!  You can use white rice, or a wide variety of different rices to accomplish this, and your percent alcohol can be whatever you want it to be! It’s a cool mix of making sake and making sour beer, and not only is it fun, it’s absolutely delicious!  We’ll let Chris take it from here! 

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Makgeolli Overview

Creamy, spritzy, and refreshingly tart; this is what makgeolli should taste like. Unlike those green bottles found in your local Asian grocery store, makgeolli is a lively and enjoyable drink. It’s also simple to make at home with 3 simple ingredients: water, rice, and nuruk (sold as enzyme powder). You’re familiar with the first two no doubt, so let’s dive into nuruk first.

Nuruk has been a traditional part of Korean alcohol production for centuries. Nuruk is a pre-fermented starter culture that contains a hodgepodge of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), brewer’s yeast, and koji. Like sake, the koji in nuruk makes the starches in rice grains available for fermentation. The brewer’s yeast and LAB transform the rice sugars into the tart, alcoholic miracle that is makgeolli.

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Short grain rice’s starch content is most favorable to the fermentation process. Rice’s starches are unavailable to microorganisms’ enzymes in its dried state so its starches need to be gelatinized before koji’s enzymes can do their work. The traditional method is to steam the rice first and then dehydrate it for a couple hours to remove excess water. If you’re a traditionalist, give it a shot. However, modern conveniences like rice cookers and pressure cookers can expediate the process.

Water considerations are generally minimal. If your water tastes good, it will most likely do the job. Makgeolli fermentation is a biological process, so water high in chlorine or chloramine is unfavorable and should be treated with your preferred method.

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Makgeolli Process

This process works best for me. Follow it exactly or alter the general process for your brewery; makgeolli is rather forgiving. This will yield about ½ a gallon.

Rinse your rice several times to remove excess starch and to clean off the grains. Cook your rice in a rice cooker or pressure cooker. Using a 1-1 ratio of rice to water by weight gelatinizes my rice without adding excess water. I use 1 kilogram of rice and 1 kilogram of filtered water. Once cooked, mix the rice with another kilogram of cold water. Cold water cools down the rice to friendly pitching temperatures quickly. You want your rice at around room temperature before mixing in the nuruk.

Transfer the rice to your fermentation vessel. Add 100 grams of nuruk to the room temperature rice for a ratio of 1:10 nuruk to rice. Then mix the rice and nuruk by hand to distribute the nuruk throughout. Nuruk comes out in uneven chunks and will likely remain chunky post mixing. This is normal; however, if you don’t like this you can mash the nuruk into powder prior to mixing.

Mix your rice/nuruk mixture a couple times daily during the first 2 days of fermentation. This helps introduce oxygen and prevents a layer of white koji from developing on the top. This layer is harmless, but you may find it unappealing. Your rice will go from solid to mostly liquid in these 2 days. You can attach an airlock from day one, but I just cover the top with aluminum foil to make mixing easier. Once it’s liquified, I attach a lid and airlock then leave it alone until completion.

Ferment at room temperature. Higher temperatures can lead to off flavors. It takes two weeks for mine to ferment out. Makgeolli is done when it separates into three distinct layers. The top layer will be a yellowish liquid, the middle a creamier liquid, and the bottom rice solids and nuruk leftovers.

Finally, roughly filter your makgeolli. Strain out the bulk of the rice solids and all the nuruk. Filtering takes some effort; here are two strategies. For both strategies, mix up the layers of your makgeolli and use a sanitized container to capture the liquid. If using a mesh bag, you can pour in all the makgeolli at once. Allow to drain. Twist and squeeze the bag to encourage the liquid to come out but be careful not to squeeze out a lot of solids or nuruk. Alternatively, use strainers, starting with a less fine strainer like a pasta strainer. Mesh strainers will clog if used first. Then, ladle your makgeolli over the strainer in small batches. Gently press and move around the mixture to encourage the liquid out. Repeat with a mesh strainer afterwards to filter more finely.

Makgeolli begins with 10-16% abv. It’s often diluted by 3-1 or 2-1 water to makgeolli. However, I like mine richer and dilute 1-1 or even .5-1 water to makgeolli. You can skip dilution altogether and mix to taste in the glass.

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Packaging and Consumption

Fresh makgeolli will continue to ferment post packaging. Keep packaged makgeolli in the fridge to slow it down. Priming sugar is unnecessary but can be used. Plastic bottles are good for packaging so that you can feel the pressure build up. I use a 64-oz growler for mine, burping the lid a couple time during the first few days to relieve build up. Refrigerated makgeolli can last a couple months. Flavor will change over time. Long term storage will result in increased tartness and may become unpalatable.

Mix your makgeolli prior to serving to integrate the solids and liquid that settle out. Drink makgeolli over ice for a summer heat-beating treat. Mix it with carbonated water for additional spritz or combine with lemon-lime soda for citrus and spritz. Mix in fruit juice for dandy flavor combinations. Pour from a copper kettle into a bowl for a more traditional approach. Regardless, share and enjoy. Geonbae!

So now that you have a step by step, try it yourself!  It's easy, as you can see, and is ideal for summer!  Don't forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay up to date with all of our fun fermentations, events, all things BrewChatter!  Check us out on BrewChatter TV on YouTube to see fun overviews of brewing process, interviews and virtual tours of some of our favorite breweries and distilleries!  If you haven't already, join our newsletter to get specials and updates direct to your inbox!

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Joel - December 15, 2020

Adding 1kg of ice rather than cold water brings the mixture closer to room temperature, which may help reduce sourness.

k.leo - December 2, 2020

I noticed you don’t mention soaking your rice. Is that step unnecessary?

One other thing, I followed your recipe and then took a temperature reading of the rice before adding my nuruk and yeast. Since it’s December I used unrefrigerated tap water to cool the rice, but the rice was still about 140 F which was too hot for the yeast at that point. Just thought I’d mention that in case someone else makes my mistake -the water needs to be very cold.

R.J. - August 26, 2020

Chris is using a 1 gallon carboy in these pictures. That sounds great! Let us know how it comes out, and post up any tips and tricks that you find along the way!!

Michael Houghton - August 24, 2020

What size jug are you using for this size batch?

I’ve got a pound bag of Nuruk picked up at Lotte, and I’m hoping to end up with something resembling the Dongdongju I had in Korea.

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