American Makgeolli

Alice Jun can’t wait to have you in her taproom.

Alice Jun, inside the brewery of Hana Makgeolli. Photo: Caroline Tompkins
Alice Jun, inside the brewery of Hana Makgeolli. Photo: Caroline Tompkins

Alice Jun is getting ready to walk Chapsal, her shaggy, hulking dog that tends to stand out among the city’s diminutive Frenchies and corgis. “People are either like, ‘Oh my God! What kind of dog is that?’” Jun says; or, the reaction is more like, “‘He’s huge and scary and looks weird — get him away from me!’” That’s fine, though: “He’s pretty shy anyway.”

We decide to stroll through Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek Nature Walk, mostly because it’s around the corner from the Hana Makgeolli taproom and brewery, which Jun founded and opened last November with her business partner, John Limb. In a past life, it was a millworking and produce storage space that “smelled like a dungeon,” Jun recalls. It has a relatively small footprint, but boasts 22-foot ceilings, which is key. “Brewing is more about growing vertically, going higher and higher,” she explains, adding that she hadn’t expected the need, and pressure, to expand so quickly. I tell her what people always say in situations like this: that it’s a good problem to have. Jun swiftly shoots me down: “I’m so sick of hearing that!”

Hana, too, stands out among New York’s surfeit of nano-breweries and tasting rooms because it is the only Stateside producer of makgeolli, the milky Korean rice drink that is sometimes compared to nigori sake and sherry, and which can taste a bit like creamy kombucha.

“Brewing is more about growing vertically, going higher and higher,” says Jun. Photo: Caroline Tompkins

If you have seen makgeolli in the States, it was likely in a green plastic bottle — a mass-produced version that, like its distilled cousin soju, is imported in bulk. A longtime home-brewer, Jun decided it was time for Americans to taste real makgeolli, by reviving traditional methods and expanding people’s knowledge of Korean alcohol, or sool, more generally. “At first we wanted to show that this commercial stuff is crap,” Jun says, “which some people would agree with and some people wouldn’t.” Indeed, most makgeolli found today is laden with sugars and chemical stabilizers and often made with alternative starches — a residual practice and consequence of grain shortages and wartime rice rationing in Korea. At the same time, the unpasteurized nature of craft makgeolli doesn’t gel with import regulations and tends to prevent the more artisanal versions from making their way here. “I realize there’s a time and place for that kind of makgeolli and soju,” Jun concedes, “but it would be a shame if that’s all anyone knew.”

For her brews, Jun sticks to wild fermentation and forgoes any additives, resulting in a remarkably complex beverage. In fact, Hana Makgeolli employs just three ingredients: water, rice, and nuruk — a unique Korean fermentation starter. The rice is unpolished (differing from sake) and composed of both medium-grain varieties (mepsahl) and sweet varieties (chapsal, for which Jun’s dog is named). Jun then uses a Taiwanese dim sum steamer to prepare the rice, instead of more common cylindrical steamers, which can result in waste. “With a cabinet steamer, we can make sure every single grain gets into the brew,” Jun explains. “We use organic — and that stuff is expensive.”

Jun, working with the steamed rice for her makgeolli. Photo: Caroline Tompkins

The rice, which Jun buys from California, is then brewed with the filtered water and nuruk — the star of the production. Composed of ground wheat and barley that’s been moistened and shaped into a disc or brick, nuruk is left in open air or inoculated with wild yeast, mold, and bacteria. If that sounds familiar to anyone who developed a quarantine baking habit, that’s because nuruk features the same lactobacilli that’s found in sourdough (and kimchi). “There’s also a terroir aspect to nuruk,” Jun adds, which varies based on the climate where it’s made and ultimately flavors the brew. (Jun gets hers from Korea, but wants to eventually substitute her own.)

The nuruk serves a dual purpose: It turns the rice into sugar, and it converts that sugar into alcohol. The unique one-step nature of nuruk means it streamlines the brewing process, but also makes it more volatile and harder to control.

Jun's brewing process relies on wild fermentation. Caroline Tompkins.
Jun's brewing process relies on wild fermentation. Caroline Tompkins.

Jun, however, has had plenty of time to practice. Her father was and still is an avid home-brewer. “Home-brewing isn’t super common in Korean families anymore, but my dad’s from the shigol,” Jun says, referencing Korea’s countryside. He and Jun’s mother immigrated to Santa Maria, California, a conservative, rural town on the state’s Central Coast. Like other American immigrants, Jun had moments where she rejected her own culture to better fit into America’s. “To say that I wasn’t at some point embarrassed to be Korean when I was younger would be a lie,” Jun says. She made a point to stand against “Korean stuff” like K-pop, before she had a realization: “Those things don’t define me — it’s actually the more meaningful things about our culture that define me.” She credits her struggle with identity, however minor, for contributing to her commitment today to preserving Korean cultural tradition through makgeolli and sool. (She’s also a huge Blackpink fan now.)

Jun moved to New York in 2011 to study at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where she started making makgeolli casually in her dorm room. “Not with recipes, but the movements” gleaned from her dad. “It’s a very narrative style of teaching,” she explains, likening it to muscle memory and home cooking. Back then, “I didn’t even know what yeast did.”

After graduation, she took a class at the Susubori Academy — one of Seoul’s more established brewing schools — and when she returned to New York, she started selling her product through a newsletter. “It was,” she says, “100 percent illegal.” (It’s also not uncommon.) All the while, she worked a full-time job at Deloitte, traveling four days a week. “I would get back Thursday night, prepare for an event over the weekend, throw the party, prep for the next brew on Monday morning, and go to Syracuse or something.”

That experience no doubt helped with the fundraising that was necessary to make her hobby legit, even if the pitch was difficult to formulate, since Hana is not the first makgeolli producer in the U.S. “It kind of sucks to admit that to an investor,” Jun says. “We’re fundraising and people ask if we’re the first ones and if not, what happened to the rest?” Other upstarts have included a Seattle steakhouse, which made makgeolli on-site; a small family farm and distillery in upstate New York; and a subsidiary of the Korea brewery Baesangmyun, in Illinois. All of the others have closed, and a canned version of the drink, Makku, which launched in 2019 in the States, has moved its production to Korea. That leaves Jun.

Jun, inside the Hana taproom. Photo: Caroline Tompkins

She thinks the timing is right for makgeolli, thanks to the ballooning interest in natural wine and the steady proliferation of Korean restaurants in New York. “There are so many amazing makers in the Korean food space and if they don’t have a Korean drink to pair with their menu or enhance their story, it would be a shame.”

The taproom of Hana Makgeolli remains closed for now due to the pandemic, but Jun, who calls herself extremely risk-averse, is optimistic about opening later down the road. While she never wanted to open a bar, per se — citing the hard work her father had put in running restaurants when she was younger — she figured a niche product would necessitate a physical space for tastings and questions. “Also, Korean culture is about drinking and eating together,” she adds, “so we couldn’t just ignore that part of the mission.”

Instead, Jun and her team quickly shifted their focus to shipping — where pasteurizing the bottles helps prevent refermentation and overcarbonation, which can make them explode. But when the taproom doors do open, Jun will serve their drinks unpasteurized, her original intention.

A bottle of Hana. Photo: Caroline Tompkins

She will also be able to describe for unfamiliar customers the differences between Hana’s three products: The signature Takju 16 is the cloudiest, with a distinct scent of Korean melons. The flavor, though, is lean and tropical, almost like a pineapple with a fraction of the sweetness. (The name is a reference to the strength — at 16 percent ABV, Hana’s makgeolli is relatively boozy.) Also on offer is an infusion of chrysanthemum and hydrangea — traditional flavors — that one customer has likened to creamy lemonade. Lastly, Hana’s newest release is a clarified wine, or yakju, made with the clear portion of the makgeolli brew.

Learning about makgeolli is rife with new vocabulary, and Jun’s goal is to be as accurate as possible when it comes to her drinks. “All of our storytelling is done … terminologically,” she says. “Is that a word?” She acknowledges that while makgeolli is not the easiest word for New Yorkers to pronounce — for the record, it’s “MOCK-guh-lee” — it’s important to Jun that it gets called for what it is. So for now, Jun is working hard to gain more visibility and become top of mind so that when the pandemic subsides and it’s safe to open the taproom, drinkers will be primed to check out Hana as Jun intended: “Our wine fucks you up and makes you all lovey-dovey and happy,” she says. “It doesn’t mix well with social distancing.”

Jun’s dog, Chapsal. Photo: Caroline Tompkins
Meet America’s Only Producer of Korean Makgeolli