We love hearing about people in the community who are experimenting with makgeolli making. We recently got in touch with Brian Romasky, who has started making his own makgeolli, and is documenting his results on his blog. We wanted to know a bit more about Brian, so we asked him to introduce his makgeolli story to us.
Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from & what do you do for a paycheck these days?
I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA, currently living in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do. I currently teach English at a public school in Korea, but my field of study is Mechanical Engineering. I plan to return the the US next month and continue my homebrew experiments there.
You have started your own blog documenting your experiences with brewing makgeolli. What made you interested in makgeolli homebrew?
I had my first sip of home made makgeolli in Andong Hahoe Folk Village with a plate of pajeon. It was served in one of those giant bowls with a gourd scoop and two dented golden metal bowls. I was hooked from that first experience. The homebrew project didn’t start until about a year and a half later. One of my friends in Philadelphia does a lot of beer homebrew and makes some really great stuff. So I think I would have to thank him for getting me interested in homebrewing in general. Through my conversations with my friend and my wife I thought I’d give it a shot and make some of my own makgeolli. Also, the lack of makgeolli in the Philadelphia area was more motivation to do it. Right now I can’t think of one place in the whole area where you can get a fresh bottle of makgeolli.
What are the biggest challenges of brewing your own makgeolli at home?
In the beginning the biggest challenge was finding enough information and resources on how to brew makgeolli. I watched a few youtube videos, one by Zedomax and a few Korean ones that were much shorter. In addition to that, my friend showed me posts from a few years ago on a homebrew forum. The posts had a basic recipe and some simple instructions, but even that wasn’t much to go off of. I compiled all of the info and used what I could combined with my friend’s brewing advice to turn out my first batch.
Now, the biggest challenge is refining my brewing methods with limited space and equipment. I’m currently living in a tiny one-room apartment with low ceilings, so sometimes there is just not enough space. There’s also a level of uncertainty when I’m brewing from one of the books written in Korean. I’ve picked up a few books on makgeolli brewing over the past year in order to have more resources to draw from. My wife has been amazing in translating the instructions for me, but so far we do this by word of mouth only, so there have been times when I missed or skipped a tiny detail. So sometimes I’m double-checking and triple-checking with her as I’m brewing. This is another challenge that I’m planning to overcome.
Also, there are times when I think that I’m finished with a brew after following the instructions to the letter, then I look at my brew and I look at the book back and forth and something doesn’t match up. The color is maybe slightly off, or there is more/less particulate than in the book, these kind of things. And that’s okay, it’s supposed to be a learning process. I won’t beat myself up over the differences, but I still strive to produce something authentic, something delicious.
You have brewed makgeolli in Korea and the US, how did you go about finding the Nuruk when you were stateside?
Finding nuruk was like a quest the first time around. I looked online, I checked the Korean supermarket, I asked my wife in Korea (because we were living apart before we got married). She looked in the supermarkets and farmers’ markets without any success. Eventually, she found some on Auction (auction.co.kr
) and mailed it to me. So, for the time I was brewing in the US, I used the nuruk she mailed to me. After that I found it stocked at H-Mart in Philadelphia. It was funny because one branch of the supermarket had it in stock while others didn’t. Plus my wife had already shipped me more than what I needed for the time being. I’m hoping they still carry it when I go back.
Have you had any big success or failures you would like to share your experiences with our Mamas & Papas?
My biggest successes were probably my first batch and my first batch without added yeast.
When I brewed my first bottle I used champagne yeast along with nuruk, and the results were surprisingly good. I was pleasantly shocked when even my wife told me that it tasted good. Then, after coming to Korea, I tried brewing without added yeast. The results weren’t bad, but they were more sour than what I was used to. Still, I was happy to have a successful makgeolli using only nuruk.
As for failures, there were a few times when I messed up the rice pretty badly. In the traditional recipes I’ve made the rice is always made a certain way, first by steaming the rice and then by letting it cool. I didn’t have a proper steamer for a while, so a few times I tried to ghetto-rig a steamer using a strainer and a saucepan with lid. The results were disappointing. One time I got distracted and burnt the rice by letting the water boil out of the pan, and another time it failed to cook all the way through. These were failures that I could have prevented with better equipment, or even just focusing only on brewing. They’re the kind of things you do once and then go, “ah, that was pretty dumb,” and try to prevent from happening again.
What is your makgeolli palate like? Do you prefer sweet/sour/bitter/strong/thin makgeolli? Do you have a favorite makgeolli at the moment?
Right now I’m into something that’s on the thicker side with a bit of texture. I like sweet makgeolli, but not too sweet. I also try to avoid artificial sweeteners when possible. I find a strong aspartame aftertaste to be gross.
My current favorite would be the yeotnal makgeolli (옛날 막걸리). When I read the review you guys wrote on MMPK I completely agreed. This is the kind of makgeolli I’d like to make in the future when my skills improve.
Where is your favorite place to enjoy makgeolli when out and about?
No favorite places yet. I don’t think I’ve been to enough to judge fairly.
What advice can you give to other people starting their own brews?
Get as much information as you can before you start, and don’t skimp on equipment. Some of the difficulties I’ve had starting out could have been avoided if I spent a little extra on some of the more specialized gear. At the same time I know that some people are cannonballers while others will just test the water. What I mean is that some people go all out when they start a new hobby and try to buy the best gear, while others do it on the cheap and get the bare necessities. I think finding a medium between those two extremes is the way to go. Also, try to taste someone else’s homebrew if possible. It’ll really put into perspective what kind of makgeolli you’ll actually be making when you start. Chances are your first few batches won’t taste like the bottle you buy in the supermarket. Homebrew is significantly different from the mass-produced stuff, and that’s part of the beauty of it.
Check out Brian’s blog for more updates on his homebrew experience, and for links to other blogs click on our Homebrew Resources page. If you have a makgeolli blog, or you would like to share your own experiments, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.