By Jon Dunbar
Tucked away amid the phalanx of high-rise apartment complexes that have overrun western Seoul’s Ahyeon-dong, there’s a narrow corridor cutting through the area that still bustles with foot traffic during the day. At night, it glows with the welcoming lights of a few remaining establishments. One of those is Baekusaeng Makgeolli, a brewpub specializing in traditional Korean alcohol.
“Ahyeon Station used to buzz with the energy of pocha (street food tents),” Joe Kim, founder of Baekusaeng, told The Korea Times. “But with gentrification came change — many vendors closed their doors, some finding refuge within the market. Sadly, the pandemic aftermath dealt a blow to these businesses, particularly for those owners facing the challenges of age. In opening Baekusaeng, we see an opportunity to inject new life into the lesser-known Ahyeon Market.”
Kim was born in Korea, but when he was 1 year old his family moved to Ecuador, and later moved to the U.S. He may sound like a newcomer to the market, and his brewery is certainly a new addition, but it has roots tracing back decades in this location.
“My wife’s grandmother purchased the shop back in the 1960s,” he explained.
It started as a small shop serving kkwabaegi (twisted breadsticks) before becoming a Korean restaurant. After the restaurant closed, Kim’s mother-in-law offered the space to Kim, who had been running makgeolli-making classes out of his apartment for about a year and a half during the pandemic.
“And so, Baekusaeng has gradually transformed into a go-to spot for savoring premium makgeolli and mastering the art of home brewing,” Kim said.
If you’re used to makgeolli being a cheap, sludgy concoction that results in killer hangovers, you need to give Baekusaeng’s house brands a try. Its makgeolli varieties offer flavors that are sharp, tangy and fresh.
As well as offering traditional Korean alcoholic drinks — by the glass or by the bottle — it also offers classes on how to make various traditional alcoholic drinks, such as makgeolli and fruit-infused variations, as well as making nuruk, a fermentation starter containing yeast. The classes are also available online. He also authored “Homebrewing Korean Rice Wine,” a guide to fermenting makgeolli that’s available online.
“Our aim is to share our passion and knowledge, even with local Koreans who may have overlooked makgeolli as a simple, cheap drink,” Kim said. “Once they discover its rich history and authentic taste, they leave our doors with newfound appreciation, eager to explore more premium makgeolli options.”
The brewery is about to release its latest brew, a ginger makgeolli that is nine percent alcohol by volume. Available at select bottleshops and restaurants, it is crafted using only local Korean ingredients, with no artificial additives such as sweeteners.
“We rely on the natural magic of fermentation, steering clear of the synthetic and commercialized approaches often seen in the market,” Kim said. “We can’t wait for customers to experience it firsthand.”
For Kim, making makgeolli and opening the brewery have been a journey of discovery. His parents emigrated to Ecuador when he was an infant, and he had little exposure to Korean culture growing up. It wasn’t until he was 27 that he returned to his motherland.
“Prior to that, I dabbled in brewing beer and making kimchi as hobbies. However, it was the discovery of craft makgeolli that truly sparked my passion. While working in radio in Seoul for a couple of years, I continued to experiment with makgeolli as a hobby until I ultimately decided to dive headfirst into its world,” he said.
“Even now, I consider myself an avid learner. The realm of Korean traditional alcohol is endlessly fascinating, and there’s always something new to discover.”
These days, his focus is on crafting nuruk and reviving domesticated rice varieties that were lost during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation. “It’s a mission that keeps me enthralled and driven to preserve and innovate within this rich cultural heritage,” he said.
The makgeolli industry has had its share of ups and downs over the decades. Originally considered a farmers’ drink, it has humble but complex origins. Across the country, families each had their own recipes for making traditional Korean alcohol, which were handed down over the centuries from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Many of these traditions were forgotten in the 20th century amid the Japanese occupation, the devastating 1950-53 Korean War and resulting decades of food shortages and military dictatorships. After years of being considered a cheap, low-quality alcoholic drink, interest in makgeolli rose in the late 2000s. The industry peaked in 2011 with a spike in demand in Japan, but after that brief spike, the market continued to shrink for years. Even during that time, interest in makgeolli continued to ferment, as the next generation of brewers studied and researched.
According to Kim, the industry has found a more stable footing now and has resumed its growth. And he says we have younger generations, people in their 20s and 30s, to thank.
“At Korean alcohol expos, it’s becoming more common to spot a younger crowd,” he said. “With greater exposure to various types of wine, craft beer and spirits from around the world, many young Koreans have begun questioning why our own Korean makgeolli has often been perceived as cheap, overly sweet and lacking in complexity.”
This new direction has shifted the market, which is now seeing the emergence of premium makgeolli, as well as cheongju and soju.
“While Koreans have historically been willing to splurge on wine bottles, the idea of paying more than 10,000 won for makgeolli may have seemed foreign in the past,” Kim said. “However, attitudes are shifting, and more Koreans are finding joy and pride in embracing their own traditional alcohol, ushering in a new era of appreciation for the rich heritage and craftsmanship behind these beverages.”
Named after the white Jindo dog that appears smiling in its brand logo, Baekusaeng embodies this new generation of traditional Korean alcohol, fusing heritage and modernity in the alley of Ahyeon Market.
Baekusaeng is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Visit baekusaeng.com or follow @baekusaeng.mak on Instagram for more information.