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Near the remains of South Korea’s largest mountain fortress, the country’s sole makgeolli master keeps a dying art alive


By Maggie Hiufu Wong and Jake Kwon, CNN

(CNN) — On scenic Geumjeong Mountain on the edge of Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city, lies the remains of what was once the country’s largest mountain fortress.

Though now in ruins, this former bastion’s connection to the local community lives on in a nearby village brewery that has been making a unique alcoholic beverage for hundreds of years – makgeolli.

Best described as fermented rice wine, the drink has it’s been experiencing a resurgence in popularity in recent years. However, newer and more premium makgeolli brands are usually sweeter and lighter – and younger drinkers have grown accustomed to their taste.

The traditional makgeolli brewed on the mountain – referred to as Geumjeongsanseong, which translates to “golden spring mountain fortress” – is sourer, tarter and thicker than its modern counterparts.

“Our Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli is the drink that shares the hardship of the local people,” says Yoo Cheong-gil, the sixth-generation owner of the brewery and the only officially recognized makgeolli master in South Korea.

“Many young people taste ours and are surprised by the flavor because they have never tasted the traditional makgeolli made by old wives.”

What makes Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli unique

The Geumjeongsan Fortress that visitors experience today was built in the 1700s, but other structures were constructed and fortified in its place for centuries before that.

Throughout history, builders tasked with working on the site would drink the local makgeolli during their breaks. Loving the distinctive flavors, they spread the word about this special version of the milky alcoholic beverage when they traveled home after the job was complete.

That’s how Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli became a nationwide delicacy and South Korea’s only designated “Traditional Folk Wine.”

Yoo’s family has been making this special makgeolli for more than five centuries. He says the magic of its uniqueness lies in its nuruk (Korean yeast cake).

“This is truly a treasure,” says Yoo, holding a perfectly round and flat piece of nuruk, which resembles baked pizza dough.

“This is what a good nuruk looks like. Look here for the yellow yeast, look closely and you will see white and black yeast. They are varied. A good nuruk has all these yeasts together.”

To make nuruk, dried wheat is mixed with warm water. Then, the resulting dough is wrapped in a cloth and repeatedly stepped on. This takes place for a few minutes until the nuruk is round, flat and thick around the edges.

“The edges are thick so it can hold moisture for longer,” says Yoo.

“Yeast loves moisture. The thick edge is what allows an even spread of yeast all the way to the thin center. This is the long handed-down wisdom. Hundreds of years of trial and error led to this ideal method.”

The flattened nuruk is placed in the fermentation room so natural yeast can land on it and “flower.” The fermented nuruk is then dried outside under the sunlight for two to three days, with UV light killing unwanted fungus in the process.

Finally, the flowered and sunbathed nuruk is left in a storage space to ferment for 30-45 days.

Once ready, the nuruk – which at this stage is brownish and crumbly – is broken down into small bits and mixed with steamed sticky rice and water to brew the actual makgeolli.

The result? A beverage that captures the flavors of the terroir: the distinctive yeasts in the air of the shielded Sanseong Valley, with its clean water and high altitude.

Preserving traditional flavors for everyone

Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli is the only brewery in the country that makes its nuruk using these traditional methods.

“That’s why if I stop, a part of our culture will completely fade,” says Yoo.

Most modern makgeolli brewers use machine-pressed nuruk, and the yeast is added manually.

“But the machine-made nuruk is completely different from ours. They are just white all over. They can’t ‘flower’ because the yeast is not in the dough. Theirs is completely different in flavor and smell,” says Yoo.

Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli’s nuruk-making team consists of five women, each having five decades of experience stepping on nuruk dough.

“Since I was a child, each family in this town brewed their drinks. Making sticky rice, mixing it with nuruk, and pouring it into a clay pot: These are things I saw from the moment I cracked my eyes open as a baby,” says Yoo.

He remembers helping his grandmother work with nuruk as she kneaded the dough, meanwhile learning the brewing process by watching his mother make makgeolli.

“This drink is my family. Their life itself,” says Yoo, who took over the family craft about three decades ago.

Today, his son and nephew work alongside him.

Yoo thinks it is important for his family to continue to preserve the traditional tastes of makgeolli so customers can enjoy it in its original form. It’s also why he insists on keeping makgeolli affordable, despite the labor-intensive brewing process, so it’s accessible to everyone.

“I personally think the premium makgeolli makers are too consumed by consumerism. The regular makgeolli is the drink of the people so this drink that I make here needs to accommodate regular people’s taste. That’s how we preserve the flavor,” says Yoo.

“Then they say we are falling behind on times. They tell us to change according to the contemporary taste. But that will make the tradition disappear. There are people who experiment and make creative makgeolli for young people. I think we need both us and them.”

Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli produces around 5,000 to 6,000 bottles per day. Each of the 750ml bottles is priced at KRW3,000 ($2.2).

As for how the traditional beverage should be enjoyed, Yoo says this is not the time to sip.

“You need to gulp it down from a bowl,” he says.

“Drink the whole bowl in a single motion – that’s the best way. Drinking it on a rainy day is extra delicious. Traditional makgeolli has some sourness. When it’s humid from rain it goes well with that acidity. That’s why it is ideal to pair it with deep-fried food on a humid day.”

For instance, many locals love to pair makgeolli and crispy scallion jeon (pancakes), he says.

In addition to the nuruk fermentation room and a separate brewing room, the brewery also has an exhibition room showcasing the family’s collection of makgeolli-making equipment and offers brewing classes for visitors.

Although you can find Geumjeongsanseong’s yellow-labeled makgeolli outside Busan, Yoo thinks people should still take the time to visit Geumjeong Mountain for a truly authentic taste of the drink.

“It can taste different when you drink it here or have it somewhere else; because we don’t pasteurize the makgeolli, it continues to ferment after it’s shipped,” he says.

“They are sensitive to temperature. They breathe. And good things take time.“

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