Inside the country's only Korean rice wine brewery



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Earlier this summer when a "sleepy" man allegedly plowed his red DeVille into a bunch of tables at the Chicago Korean Festival, he mentioned one damning word to the police: "makgeolli." That is decidedly not the image the folks behind Slow City Brewery want Americans to associate with the unfiltered fermented rice beverage that Koreans—originally farmers—have been drinking since the tenth century. The milky, slightly tangy-sweet sauce is frequently referred to as rice "wine" or sometimes "beer," but it's really not quite like either—or anything else.

Slow City, headquartered in an industrial park in Niles, is the first makgeolli maker in this hemisphere, thanks to an arrangement between president John Oh and Korea's Baesangmyun Brewery, producers of a range of distilled and fermented Korean beverages. That's an important distinction: imported makgeolli is made shelf-stable with preservatives that kill its natural enzymes. It tastes the same on the day you open it as it did on the day it was bottled. Slow City's makgeolli breathes through a cotton-lined cap that's commonly used in Korea, but which presents some special shipping and storage challenges here. More on those later.

John Oh, Slow City Brewery

Over the years Oh, who was formerly in camera repair, sampled many makgeollis on his frequent trips to Korea, and finally settled on Baesangmyun's because he liked its freshness and what he says is the company's commitment to natural ingredients and fermentation. He imported three large brewing tanks and bottling equipment from Korea, Baesangmyunn sent over brewers to provide training, and in March they started brewing and bottling. The process starts with water, rice flour, grain syrup, yeast, and kogi, the fungus-inoculated rice we have to thank for miso, sake, and a bunch of other good things. The mixture sits in a smaller tank for four days, fermenting between 25C and 28C (77F-82.4F), then is moved to a larger tank for one more. When it comes out at 6 percent alcohol by volume, it's milky-white, slightly sweet, with a whisper of funk, and a creamy body that's almost horchata-like. Let it sit and the lees settle to the bottom.

Over time it continues to ferment, becoming crisper, ever more carbonated, and more alcoholic. When I visited the brewery Oh poured samples of makgeolli three and a half weeks old, two weeks old, and one day old. The fresh stuff is nice, but the aged is what really tastes like a drink. That's when it's easy to understand why some people's best frame of reference is beer.

Just like that other great Korean fermented staple, kimchi, it's easily customizable to taste. Just age it as long as you like—each bottle is marked with its manufacturing date. On the other hand, you can go too far. I've had a bottle sitting unopened in the refrigerator since late March, and it's gone flat. But even that doesn't have to go to waste. Let it sit at room temperature and in a few months the solids are settled to the bottom and you can pour off rice wine vinegar.

These advantages compete with Slow City's greatest liability from a marketing perspective. Because of the cap's permeability, the bottles must be shipped and stored upright in refrigeration or they leak (and eventually turn to vinegar). Operations director Marketing director Jessica Song says they're working on a solution to this.

In the meantime, Song, who likes to drink it between two weeks and a month old, has been pushing the stuff at public tastings in groceries and hosting dinners and parties where "mak-tinis," mixed with honey and cinnamon, pineapple and grenadine, or apple juice and Sprite, are served. At a recent event hosted by Beverly Kim at Kendall College they poured different ages of the makgeolli, and served a drink made with the vinegar.

For now you can find Slow City Makgeolli at Joong Boo and Mitsuwa, as well as restaurants like San Soo Gap San, Woo Chon, So Gong Dong Tofu House, and Ssyal Ginseng House, among others. Raise a glass and say "gun bae!"

And don't drive.

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