Rice beer? Rice wine? It get’s called both, but makgeolli more closely resembles what we colloquially refer to as beer. The actual process of making it is a pretty far cry from both, however. Chances are you have never heard of makgeolli (pronounced mak-KO-ly). I have met two people – ever – who knew what it was. Makgeolli is the romanized word for a traditional fermented Korean rice beverage that is colloquially referred to as “farmers brew”. Milky in appearance with an alcohol level akin to beer, makgeolli has seen a surge in popularity among young Koreans due to its health benefits in the form of beneficial microbes. Unpasteurized makgeolli, which has to be transported in special bottles, has 100x the microbe count of yogurt – mostly in the form of lactobacillus strains, but also featuring aspergillus oryzae, the famous rice mold known as ko-ji that is used in the making of sake.
If you have a Korean market nearby, like we do, then there is some chance that you can find makgeolli sold there. The problem with the makgeolli sold in the states is that it’s loaded with unnatural sweeteners. It can even be a challenge to find “real” makgeolli in Korea, since people seemed to have developed a taste for the aspartame-laden fizzy drink.
Natural, homemade makgeolli isn’t sweet. It’s tart, sometimes even sour, and fizzy. At first approach, it really isn’t even that appealing, but I’m convinced that by some brain-gut magic that once you’ve had it a couple of times, you actually start to crave it. I made my first batch around a year ago after I picked up a package of the starter for it because I was curious what the hell “enzyme powder” even was. Now, I make a batch every 5 days or so because we go through it so quickly. Unlike every other alcoholic beverage I’ve ever had, makgeolli isn’t dehydrating. It doesn’t get me drunk, either. Tipsy, maybe, but never icky feeling hangover headache drunk – not even when I drink a lot of it. I’m sure there’s some good reason why, but I’m going to summarize it with this: despite the booze, makgeolli is just straight-up good for you. It’s hella refreshing. It feels amazing in your body. There’s a reason Korean farmers have been drinking it for centuries.
To make makgeolli, you must first have a source of cultures. In the old days this was accomplished by wrapping hard-cooked glutinous rice in rice-paddy straw and leaving it outside for a few days in spring. Anyone that’s gotten into Korean Natural Farming (KNF) with me probably recognizes this as very similar to the method that is used to collect Indigenous Microorganisms. My favorite thing about studying KNF has been seeing the links between farming practices, food preservation, and traditional cuisine.
When using this method to collect microbes, however, there is always the possibility that your rice could become inoculated with dangerous bacteria or mold, which is why in the modern age we can purchase cultures that are confirmed to be safe for making our makgeolli, known in English as nuruk (noo-roo). Chances are, though, you won’t find either of those words on the package (if you can find a package at all – I hope you can.)
The recipe on this bag is misleading, and caused me to have many interesting experiments in makgeolli that mostly succeeded in making something like the desired outcome, but also wasted ingredients. At this point, I’ve made something like 30 batches of makgeolli, with many variations. I’ve added things like fruit, and herbs. I’ve used barley, and all different varieties of rice. I’ve added yeast, omitted yeast, cultured wild yeast on plums, sterilized containers, didn’t sterilize them, bottled flat, had exploding bottles, and a bunch of other things I can’t even remember. I rarely do the same thing twice.
However! I recently took it back to basics for the sake of attempting to find a “best practices”, and I now have a recipe that is as close to correct as I know how to make it, and very simple. If you can do better than this please let me know, because I’ve read all of the things and watched all of the videos, and this is the best I’ve got.
Basic Makgeolli Recipe Using the Nuruk Brand Pictured Above
Materials & Ingredients
- Fermentation crock/jar/vessel with minimum 2 gallon capacity and airlock
- Long Spoon
- Fine nylon mesh grain bag (like used in homebrewing)
- Very fine wire mesh strainer (optional)
- Bottles/jars that seal
- Sanitizing chemical, ie: iodine solution, star sans, or just boiling water
- Strong hands
- 3c Rice, I mainly use white sticky sushi rice
- 1lb Nuruk “enzyme powder” fermentation starter
- Wine yeast (optional)
- Honey, fruit preserves, fruit juice, dextrose, etc. (optional)
- Step 1: Wash 3 cups of white glutenous rice, like sushi rice. Other types of rice can be used, but result in a slightly different end-product. When I say wash, I mean really, really wash. Rinse the rice until the water runs clear. The easiest way to do this is in the mesh bag that you will be using to strain the end result later.
- Step 2: Soak the washed rice for 2 hours. It will turn opaque white. Do one final rinse, then cook the rice. I use a pressure cooker, but you can use a rice-cooker or stovetop too. The important thing is to not over-do it on water. After soaking, the rice contains a lot of water already. For cooking, add just enough water to cover the rice by about 1cm.
- Step 3: Dry the rice out slightly. This is a step that isn’t on the bag’s directions, and is usually left out of homebrewer forums and YouTube videos. I don’t even remember where exactly I picked it up, but I know that it works. It’s annoying, and takes hours, and I skipped it many times, but I’ve decided that it’s worth doing. After your rice is cooked, spread it out on a baking sheet (preferably non-stick) and stick it in a warm oven, around 180-200 degrees. Dry it out in the oven for 2 hours, turning it half-way through. I remember reading somewhere that ideally the rice should turn a golden color when it’s ready, but I rarely push it that far. I encourage you to do your own experimentation.
- Step 4: When rice is almost done with the dry-out step, sanitize a fermentation vessel with at least a 2 gallon capacity. You can do this recipe in a full 5.5 gallon fermenter – the extra headroom doesn’t cause a problem. You can sterilize iodine solution, star sans, or boiling water. I do boiling water. I haven’t always sanitized, either. In fact, it’s a new thing I’m doing for the last 5 batches or so. I like the end-result better, and fermentation is more predictable.
- Step 5: Add rice to fermentation vessel, cover with sterile lid, and wait for it to cool. You want it to cool all the way down to around 75 degrees F before you add the water and nuruk.
- Step 6: Sanitize a long spoon. Add the nuruk, and mix well with the rice, then add 12 cups of water. Seal with an airlock, and stick in a cool (72-82 degree) space for 3-4 days, stirring every day with a sanitary spoon. Note: This brand of nuruk, with sanitation, results in a fairly low-alcohol final product. If you want it boozier, I recommend that you add a bottom-fermenting wine yeast at the same time that you add the nuruk. You strain, bottle, and chill the makgeolli at this point, or, you can take it to the recommended full 6-7 days of fermentation. Some recipes even take it as long as 14 days, but I never have. I usually take it at 4-5 days.
- Step 7: Strain through a nylon mesh grain bag, bottle, and refrigerate. At this stage, I like to add fruit preserves before bottling, so there’s a sugar source for the nearly-dead yeast to turn into carbonation. I like a really, really fizzy makgeolli. You can get a similar result without fruit by bottling at 3 days, then letting the bottles sit at room temperature for an additional 3 days. For a batch this size, I would use 8oz of homemade plum of loquat preserves, mixed into the batch before straining. I use flip-top bottles, mason jars, and wine bottles with screw caps. The mason jars leak air the most often, resulting in less carbonated makgeolli. They can also bubble and distort. I haven’t had any serious issues, but I have opened a couple of bottles that turned into spewing fountains of foamy rice beer. My best recommendation is to let the newly bottled makgeolli chill in the coldest part of your fridge for at least 6 hours before opening one.