If you’ve never heard of makgeolli, you’re not alone. The alcohol, usually described as “Korean rice wine,” is less well-known in the beverage landscape in comparison to beer, wine, hard seltzer and even soju, another Korean export. But it’s Carol Pak’s hope that one day, makgeolli will become its own category in the U.S. beverage market—just like how sake is now recognized by name, not “Japanese rice wine.” And her company Makku is the first step.
Makgeolli is not new to America. It’s available mainly in liquor stores, supermarkets and bars within Korean communities. Pak, a New York native, had enjoyed drinking the alcohol in places such as her local Koreatown, but to her, makgeolli was more of an “old-person” drink tailored to a different generation. It wasn’t until a trip to South Korea in 2017 that she saw makgeolli in a new context. In the country, there are major commercial brands of makgeolli, which are the kinds sold in the U.S., but also different types of craft makgeolli that you can see younger people drink in trendy bars.
Seeing makgeolli that fit in with more modern consumer tastes made an impression on Pak. She wanted to bring something similar to the U.S—a craft makgeolli that both Koreans and non-Koreans would like. “I just thought that it was very underrepresented in America,” Pak says. “There could be an interesting space for makgeolli, especially since there was this rise of Korean culture that we’ve been seeing influence America in the realm of beauty, food and K-pop.”
When her time in Korea ended, Pak went back to her job as an Entrepreneur in Residence at ZX Ventures, the global growth and innovation division of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company with prominent brands such as Budweiser and Corona. But she started researching makgeolli in her free time. After just a few months, she left her company to launch Makku.
Pak realized that none of the makgeolli brands commercially available in the U.S. were all-natural or true to the alcohol’s original unfiltered form, which involves steaming the rice and fermenting it in a vessel that yields a deep flavor from the broken-down grains. This tradition of brewing makgeolli dates back to 2,000 years ago, according to Pak.
She decided to lean on the classic method of crafting makgeolli but package it in a way that would appeal today’s market. “I wanted to portray makgeolli back to its pure, simplistic traditional form, but then also update the branding to something that I thought would resonate with the modern-day American consumer,” Pak says.
When she returned from Korea, she began to brew, seeking to emulate the taste of certain craft makgeollis she had enjoyed the most. Once she had a brew she liked, she went around to breweries in the U.S. to find a manufacturer, but none were equipped to take makgeolli, which is a “blend between making sake and beer,” Pak says.
Beer breweries didn’t have the license to deal with rice and sake breweries didn’t have the right equipment for canning and carbonation. On top of that, the brewers Pak met were apprehensive about working with nuruk—a fermented grain cake, usually made out of wheat, that creates a fungus that produces the yeast and bacteria needed to brew makgeolli and other Korean alcohols. Because the brewers were not familiar with the ingredient, they were concerned that handling unknown bacteria could lead to cross-contamination and they weren’t sure how to control or pasteurize it.
Pak eventually found a small sake brewery that was willing to manufacture Makku, but after a few months in the market during the last quarter of 2018, the brewery shut down in January. “We found that it would be really difficult to make makgeolli here and harder to scale it,” she says. From the beginning of Makku to now, Pak has gone through various channels of funding available to her: her own savings, her mother’s money, Kickstarter, angel investors and Korean venture capital firms. She relied on these funds to find a brewery in Korea for her brand of makgeolli. She eventually found one in Gapyeong in April 2019, enabling Makku to re-enter the market the following August.
Makku stands out from the other imported makgeollis that are sold in the U.S. because it’s all-natural and made with traditional techniques but updated with a modern twist. Pak has her brews backsweetened with cane sugar and offers them in three flavors: original, mango and blueberry. Also, while other makgeollis are labeled as rice wine and sold in 750 ml PET plastic bottles, Makku is officially categorized as a rice beer by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and sold in 12-ounce cans.
These are distinctions Pak wanted to have because in her opinion, Makku resembles beer more than wine. The beverage is carbonated, refreshing and best when cold, just like beer. It also has a lower alcohol percentage of 6%, and fits in more in the same aisle with beer, hard cider and hard seltzer rather than wine and sake, which suit more formal occasions. And as someone who has worked in the beverage industry, Pak saw that the U.S. craft premium beer category was favoring canning and thought the more convenient and fun packaging would also be the right fit for makgeolli, which is enjoyed in casual contexts.
What does Makku taste like? Pak describes it as a “mochi champagne-type of beer, with the slight tartness of frozen yogurt.” According to the founder, it’s soft, creamy, fizzy and tart. She recommends shaking or flipping a can before you drink it so any rice sediments at the bottom can evenly spread out for optimal mouthfeel and taste. The can hides the milky whiteness of the beverage, so any newcomers to makgeolli can try the beverage first without judging it by its appearance. Makku also ranges from 170 to 210 calories per can, depending on the flavor, which is on par with beers.
Makku currently has physical distribution in New York and Los Angeles, but will also be distributed in Illinois and Tennessee within the next few months. The brand is also available to order online for nationwide shipping. Among those who have reached out to the company via social media and email, the response has been overwhelmingly favorable. “Some people are just looking for something to drink other than beer, and they drink hard seltzer but it doesn’t necessarily have enough flavor for them, so I think we’re filling that void,” Pak says.
With new flavors and a variety pack potentially on the way, Makku stands to be a refreshingly new and different beverage option for U.S. consumers because according to Pak, no one else is doing what she’s doing. And while she has to describe Makku as unfiltered rice beer for now, her goal is to have makgeolli known as its own beverage category. “I do think that we can definitely grow into a large, withstanding category like hard seltzer is right now,” Pak says.