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Preserving Tradition: South Korea's Last Makgeolli Master Defies Time Near Majestic Mountain Fortress


Preserving Heritage: South Korea's Last Makgeolli Artisan Upholds Centuries-Old Tradition

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Nestled on the picturesque Geumjeong Mountain, near the remnants of South Korea's largest mountain fortress, a time-honored tradition perseveres. In the shadow of the historic Geumjeongsan Fortress lies a village brewery that has crafted a unique alcoholic beverage for centuries – makgeolli. Despite the fortress's ruins, the brewery, known for its traditional approach to this fermented rice wine, stands as a testament to the enduring connection between heritage and community.

While modern makgeolli brands cater to evolving palates with sweeter and lighter varieties, the traditional brew from Geumjeong Mountain, aptly named Geumjeongsanseong, offers a distinctively sour, tarter, and thicker profile. Yoo Cheong-gil, the sixth-generation custodian of the brewery and South Korea's sole officially recognized makgeolli master, emphasizes the historical significance of their offering. "Our Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli is the drink that shares the hardship of the local people," he affirms, noting that many young drinkers are captivated by its unique flavors, a departure from the more familiar modern renditions.

The roots of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli trace back to the 1700s, with the fortress witnessing centuries of construction and fortification. Builders working on the site would indulge in the local makgeolli during breaks, savoring its distinctive taste. The word spread, and Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli earned its place as a nationwide delicacy, ultimately designated as South Korea's sole "Traditional Folk Wine."

Yoo's family legacy spans more than five centuries in the art of crafting this special makgeolli. He attributes the beverage's uniqueness to its key ingredient, nuruk, a Korean yeast cake. Holding up a perfectly round piece of nuruk, Yoo emphasizes its significance, pointing out the intricate combination of yellow, white, and black yeasts that define a good nuruk.

In a world evolving with newer tastes, Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli stands as a living testament to the rich heritage and craftsmanship passed down through generations. Yoo, as the sole makgeolli master in South Korea, is not just preserving a tradition; he is sharing a sip of history, allowing enthusiasts to taste the flavors that have endured for centuries in the heart of South Korea's mountainous landscape.

Crafting Tradition: The Art of Makgeolli and the Timeless Wisdom of Nuruk

In the realm of Korean rice wine, makgeolli is stepping out of soju's shadow, and at the heart of this resurgence is the unique artistry of nuruk-making. Yoo Cheong-gil, the custodian of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli, unravels the ancient wisdom encapsulated in this traditional process, shedding light on the meticulous steps that make their brew stand apart.

To create nuruk, dried wheat undergoes a transformative dance with warm water. This dough, wrapped in cloth, is then rhythmically stepped on until it evolves into a round, flat masterpiece with thick edges. Yoo explains the purpose behind this technique, emphasizing the importance of moisture retention for yeast. The thick edges ensure an even spread of yeast from the periphery to the center, a culmination of centuries of trial, error, and handed-down wisdom.

The flattened nuruk enters a fermentation room, where natural yeast alights upon it, initiating the blooming process. Once fermented, the nuruk basks in sunlight for two to three days, a method that not only enhances its flavor but also safeguards against unwanted fungus with the aid of UV light. The sun-soaked nuruk then rests in storage, patiently fermenting for 30-45 days.

Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli stands as the solitary brewery in South Korea employing these traditional nuruk-making methods. Yoo underscores the cultural significance, acknowledging that halting this practice would usher in the fading of a vital part of their heritage. Unlike modern counterparts who opt for machine-pressed nuruk with manually added yeast, Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli preserves a unique approach. Yoo's nuruk-making team, comprised of five women with five decades of experience, ensures the continuity of this craft.

For Yoo, the journey with makgeolli is deeply personal, intertwined with familial roots and childhood memories. The brewing process is not just a skill but a lifeline—his family's life itself. As he imparts this legacy to his son and nephew, the essence of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli extends beyond the fermented concoction, encapsulating the timeless connection between tradition, craftsmanship, and the enduring spirit of Korean culture.

Preserving Palates: The Soulful Legacy of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli

In the scenic embrace of Geumjeong Mountain, Yoo Cheong-gil champions a mission beyond brewing makgeolli; he safeguards a cultural inheritance—one sip at a time. As the custodian of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli, Yoo is unwavering in his commitment to preserving the authentic tastes of this traditional rice wine, ensuring it remains a delight accessible to all.

Amidst an era where premium makgeolli vies for attention, Yoo remains anchored to the essence of regular makgeolli, the drink of the people. He resists the allure of consumerism, steadfastly adhering to affordability, thereby safeguarding the true flavor that echoes through generations. Yoo asserts, "This drink that I make here needs to accommodate regular people's taste. That's how we preserve the flavor."

In the face of calls to conform to contemporary tastes, Yoo stands firm, recognizing the risk of eroding tradition. While experimentation with creative makgeolli caters to the younger palate, Yoo believes there's room for both the traditional and the innovative.

Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli's daily output, ranging from 5,000 to 6,000 bottles, stands as a testament to their commitment to accessibility. Priced at KRW3,000 ($2.2) per 750ml bottle, Yoo's conviction that the drink should be enjoyed by gulping it down from a bowl echoes the unpretentious spirit of this time-honored brew.

With an intriguing pairing suggestion for rainy days—ideal for the slight sourness of traditional makgeolli—Yoo recommends enjoying it with deep-fried delights like crispy scallion jeon. Beyond the brewing rooms, the brewery opens its doors to an exhibition space, sharing the family's collection of makgeolli-making equipment, and invites visitors to brewing classes, adding an educational dimension to the immersive experience.

While Geumjeongsanseong's makgeolli may find its way beyond Busan, Yoo advocates for the pilgrimage to Geumjeong Mountain, where the unadulterated essence of the drink is savored. "It can taste different when you drink it here or have it somewhere else," Yoo explains, underscoring the sensitivity of the brew to temperature and the breathing quality that ensures continued fermentation, a testament to the belief that good things indeed take time. In Yoo's unwavering dedication, Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli stands not just as a beverage but as a living connection to tradition, beckoning all to savor the timeless spirit encapsulated within each pour.

Culinary Time Capsule: Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli's Enduring Legacy

In the tranquil embrace of Geumjeong Mountain, Yoo Cheong-gil, the guardian of Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli, weaves a tapestry of tradition, flavor, and accessibility. Beyond the craft of brewing rice wine, Yoo's dedication unfolds as a cultural legacy, ensuring the timeless taste of makgeolli remains within the grasp of all.

As custodian, Yoo navigates the modern allure of premium makgeolli, steadfastly championing the cause of regular makgeolli as the drink of the people. His commitment to affordability becomes a poignant act of preservation, resisting the tides of consumerism to safeguard the essence that generations have cherished.

In the face of calls for modernization, Yoo stands as a stalwart guardian, recognizing the delicate balance needed to preserve tradition while allowing room for innovation. Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli's daily production, a testament to their commitment to accessibility, stands as a vessel for the continuity of tradition.

Yoo's simple yet profound recommendation to gulp down makgeolli from a bowl echoes the unpretentious nature of this ancient brew. His pairing suggestion for rainy days, coupled with an educational invitation to brewing classes, opens a portal to the immersive world of Geumjeongsanseong's makgeolli.

While the brew may find its way beyond Busan, Yoo extends an invitation to Geumjeong Mountain for an authentic taste—an experience where the drink breathes and evolves, unaffected by pasteurization. In Yoo's unwavering dedication, Geumjeongsanseong Makgeolli stands as not just a beverage but as a living connection to tradition, beckoning all to savor the timeless spirit encapsulated within each pour.