Cody Burns, the owner of Girin, worked for months to improve his recipe for the rice drink makgeolli. His first few attempts literally blew up on him.
MOVE OVER, sake and soju. Make room for makgeolli.
As Korean cuisine goes mainstream, there is renewed interest in the beverages traditionally consumed with it. Makgeolli, an unfiltered, fermented rice drink, originated thousands of years ago. Originally it was a farmers’ drink. The homemade brew was quaffed from jugs carried to the field with lunch by the farmer’s wife. At home or at makgeolli bars, it’s sipped from shallow rustic bowls made of wood, clay or metal.
Milky white, with a tangy, slightly sweet effervescence, makgeolli (pronounced mahk-oh-lee) makes a refreshing companion to the pungent flavors of Korean food. It’s low in alcohol, loaded with healthful lactobacilli, and affordable to boot. Some Korean restaurants sell bottled makgeolli, but Cody Burns decided to make fresh makgeolli at Girin, the contemporary Korean restaurant he and Steven Han opened in Pioneer Square last spring.
Though Burns was well-versed in sake, from Umi Sake House and Momiji, he had never tasted makgeolli until two years ago at a dinner party at Han’s home. He wasn’t that impressed. Then, on a research trip to Korea, he tasted fresh makgeolli. “It was homemade and still alive,” he says. “It blew my mind. Pasteurizing it, which is what you have to do to bring it here, kind of kills it.”
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He started fiddling with recipes, making batches in his apartment. It took him six months — and a couple of explosions — to get something he even wanted to drink. Many months later, he perfected the recipe after a second trip to Korea and a visit to Susubori Academy, where they teach classes on making makgeolli.
Rice is the main ingredient, but the most important variable is nuruk — a cake of dried, aged grain that contains fermenting microorganisms and naturally occurring yeast. What Burns could source here, at stores like H Mart, wasn’t yielding results he was happy with. While at Susubori, he learned of a Korean company that makes nuruk from a recipe hundreds of years old. He secured some and made a batch. It was the aha moment. Finally he had the right materials to start refining his recipe.
Cartons of nuruk crowd the landing leading to his production kitchen, a compact hideaway with small curtained windows overlooking the bar at Girin. There he rinses and steams the rice to “an al dente texture something like Play-Doh. The rice grains squish when squeezed, but they don’t burst.” He places the cooled rice, purified water and reconstituted nuruk into hangari, fat terra-cotta fermenting jars commonly used for kimchi. The fermentation period is quick. The brew can be ready to drink in just one week.
That’s lucky, because they expect to sell a lot of makgeolli in the restaurant, and fill growlers to go. But first they have to secure federal and state licensing. When Girin first opened, they were selling their house brew under a temporary license, assuming all hurdles would be cleared by the time it expired.
Just before the final step — inspection of the production kitchen — Burns learned the paperwork, which was filed physically, not digitally, had gone missing. He halted production and had to start the application process all over.
Girin has been making do with Kooksoondang bottled makgeolli until production can restart, sometime this spring, Burns hopes. Meanwhile, he brews practice batches to keep his skills sharp. He’s also trying to learn Korean. “I want to be able to converse next time I’m in Korea, to take more classes, to go out in the countryside and talk to the brewers.”