Elwood 5566

The Many Faces Of Korean Rice Wine

Posted in Korean rice wine by 노강호 on April 12, 2012

the ambiguous world of rice wine

After ten years of on and off research and frequent questioning of Korean friends, I’ve decided to make my own mind up on the relationships between tak-ju (탁주), makgeolli (막걸리), dongdong-ju (동동주) and cheong-ju (청주). First, let’s clear up part of the nomenclature problem. Westerners generally refer to Korean alcoholic drinks made with rice as ‘rice wine’ or ‘rice beer.’ There is much controversy, often passionate, about which label is appropriate but it’s all fairly pointless as there are various types of ‘rice’ wine some clearly resembling a wine, others not. I suggest ‘wine’ is a better description as it is not only more commonly used, but the historical purpose of brewing rice based alcohol was to obtain the more valued cheong-ju (청주) which is sometimes called yak-ju (약주). Cheong-ju was a valued alcohol for the ruling yangban class and was an important accessory in ancestral rites, as it still is today. Cheong-ju, once siphoned from the mash, is approx 10% ABV and closer to a wine in this respect, than a beer. It is then subject to further treatment before it is ready to consume. Dongdong-ju, at 14-16% ABV, is even stronger and is often ‘flat’.

just a few of the vast array of available brands

The problem with the ‘purist’ approach is that the same basic recipe produces four different types of alcohol and though you can make makgeolli (though it is possibly strictly tak-ju) without making dongdong-ju, this necessitates watering the brew down either at point of inoculation or when decanted. This is no different in practice to the old custom of watering-down wine. It is not just confusing and academic to insist one type is a ‘beer’ and another a ‘wine,’ but somewhat culturally prejudice. Even among beers there are anomalies we accept – ginger beer, root beer for example and there has been a long history of watering down wine while still calling it ‘wine.’  However, this is just my opinion!

shopping for makgeolli

Some confusion also confronts Westerners over the Korean names of rice wine variants, the following are the main ones but there are also others not forgetting ‘drunken rice drink,’ the term coined by manufacturers of makgeolli being exported to the West.

Dongdong-ju (동동주) is often called nong-ju (농주).

Makgeolli (막걸리)  is sometimes called tak-ju (탁주). It should also be noted that makgeolli can be made from wheat and other grains.

 I have pieced my understanding together from the wealth of information, often contradictory and sometimes wrong, on the internet. However, where at one time there was no information available, there is now at least enough to corroborate facts and arrive at better informed, though possibly still wrong, conclusions. I guess I’m tired of waiting to learn the differences and decided to make an ‘educated’ opinion. Much of the information I have trawled has come from brewing forums in the USA where there is a large, and possibly more reliable, Korean-American population.

the golden hue of dongdong-ju

Many Westerners are confused by the ambiguous use of terms such as makgeolli, dongdong-ju and tak-ju but this shouldn’t worry you because Koreans are equally as confused. There is a consensus among Koreans that they are all made from rice and that dongdong-ju has rice floating on the top and is often yellower in colour but that is about all they are able to tell you. In general, Koreans are no more knowledgeable about the intricacies and processes involved in making rice wine than Westerners might be about making wine.   My first dongdong-ju recipe came from a western source that claimed the name ddongddong-ju (똥똥주) was coined ‘because rice floated on the top of the drink like small turds.’ The author had confused his ‘dong’ with his ‘ddong’ (동-똥) and subsequently let his imagination run away. More importantly, his recipe failed though after some changes I managed to get it to work as my Recipe 3. And though dongdong-ju is quite distinct from makgeolli, most Koreans will tell you they can’t taste or tell the difference.

While all sources in English, and indeed with Koreans with whom I’ve spoken, suggest a basic recipe, there is confusion over whether one mash produces four different drinks or to do so requires four different mashes of the same recipe each treated a little differently. Tak-ju (탁주) and makgeolli (막걸리) are often described as the same drink whereas other sources claim they are marginally different; next are cheong-ju (청주) and dongdong-ju (동동주) which are very different. Once you start thinking about the recipe in any depth you begin to realise the number of possible permutations and it suddenly dawns on you not only why there is so much confusion, but why it is easier to simply clump everything together under the heading ‘makgeolli,’ ‘rice wine’ or even ‘rice beer.’

first stage – with a rice cap and comprising cheong-ju

stage 2, the rice cap has fallen away leaving dongdong-ju – in this case the cheong-ju wasn’t siphoned off

All sources agree on three ‘tiers,’ but there are clearly permutations:

All ‘tiers’ of the basic recipe combined (Clouded. Is it makgeolli? Is it tak-ju?)

2nd and 3rd tiers combined (is it makgeolli? Is it tak-ju?)

1st tier (cheong-ju, or yak-ju, 10% ABV, clear)

2nd tier (dongdong-ju, or nong-ju, 14-16% yellowy, rice floating in drink)

3rd tier (makgeolli, milky)

3rd and 1st tier – (does this exist or have a name?)

There are plenty of resources corroborating the nature of the 1st, 2ndand 3rd tiers, namely cheong-ju, dongdong-ju and makgeolli. However, how they are arrived at is still ambiguous. Are the various ‘tiers’ siphoned off to produce four different drinks or are separate recipes used?

Here’s what I think. Firstly, if you use a separate batch of mash for each variant, what do you do with unused material? If you’re making cheong-ju, what do you do with the rest of the mash? I really don’t think you’re going to chuck it out! The idea that one mash was used to produce a number of variations sits much better with household economics and with theories of social organisation; cheong-ju was both consumed by the yangban and has always been important in ancestral rites. Dongdong-ju (often called nong-ju, 농주), was traditionally drunk by farmers. ‘Nong’ (농) actually means ‘agriculture.’

rice cap at close quarters

Further, the rice floating in dongdong-ju would suggest a siphoning process because if you filter the rice sediment, as you do makgeolli, there is no reason for there to be rice floating in the drink. This would also explain why the colour of dongdong-ju is yellowy because the yellow hue develops as the rice cap which forms on the top of the mash, slowly diminishes until only odd grains remain floating. By this stage peak fermentation is over. If you want makgeolli you can actually bottle up without waiting until fermentation is fully over and while the liquid is still milky in appearance. Most times I’ve drunk dongdong-ju, it’s been stored not in bottles but a large plastic container or bucket and has been flat rather than fizzy for several reasons: it has been fermented longer, stored differently but more important – post peak fermentation comes to a standstill once separated from the enzyme rich sediment. For this reason it is often totally flat.   According to some sources, subsequent batches of rice and inoculate are added to a primary batch of mash, sometimes up to twelve times, greatly extending the period of fermentation and increasing the ABV to around 20%. Personally, I find high ABV dongdong-ju as harsh as ‘extra extra strong’ brew’ type lagers.

Now, some recipes advocate squeezing the collected rice into the dongdong-ju. I am tempted to suspect this is actually the start of making makgeolli! My reason for this is that makgeolli produced from the pressed mash is weak and insipid. If dongdong-ju is in the region of 16% ABV and the dongdong-ju-logged mash used as the first pressing of makgeolli, two subsequent pressings in which the mash has been re-hydrated with water, will lower the ABV to about 5-7%, the regular ABV for makgeolli. It takes about half the amount of water as the initial yield to sufficiently wash the mash over two pressings. Makgeolli is the total product of mash once the dongdong-ju has been siphoned off. Hence dongdong-ju is collected via siphoning or some other means of removing the 2nd tier whereas makgeolli is the product of ‘pressing.’ This explains why dongdong-ju is a golden hue with rice particles floating on the surface, while makgeolli, filtered, contains no rice and fine, milky silt from the yeast.

Carlsberg Special Brew – the British dongdong-ju?

Dongdong-ju is quite distinct from makgeolli, not just in terms of colour and rice grains, but because of a much higher alcoholic content. That it is not the same as makgeolli and as different as farmer’s scrumpy is from lager, is apparent from the way it has been ruralised, yokelised and ridiculed. Certainly, up to ten years ago, there was much amusement in the idea of a westerner drinking dongdong-ju and it is still considered a ‘rough, unsophisticated’ drink. The sort of drink associated with bumbling yokels. Though the slur is diminishing, this has meant that for a long time drinking makgeolli in public (you can rarely buy dongdong-ju), for example outside a 24 hours convenience store, was considered ‘bad behaviour.’ You can drink beer or even a soju with impunity (unless perhaps you’re a teacher) but makgeolli, because of its association with dongdong-ju, is seen as uncouth.

metropolis makgeolli – reinvented

However, in major cities makgeolli has recently become a very trendy drink and suddenly, via fruit additives, cider, yogurt, schizandra etc, it has been elevated to a rank more in line with a cocktail.  In a cross-cultural comparison, dongdong-ju has occupied the same dimension as cider in British culture, associated with Somerset farmers in white bibs, with ruddy complexions, a sheaf of straw stuck in their mouths and a glass of ‘scrumpy’ in hand, or worse, as the   ‘special’ or ‘super’ brew of British lagers; the sort of lager where potency is more important than taste and whose consumption is associated with the coarser end of the social strata. While the ‘west country’ cider stereotype is quaint and rural, Carlsberg Special Brew, nicknamed ‘tramp juice,’ is stark and urban. What distinguishes makgeolli from dongdong-ju, and here is something many Koreans don’t know; is that it is simply much stronger.


So, where does that leave tak-ju? I’m tempted by the idea that anything collecting after the first ‘tier’ of cheong-ju has been removed, or even containing it, is tak-ju. However, maybe I’ve got it all wrong and if so, your erudition is warmly welcomed!

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©Amongst Other Things –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

For more information on makgeolli and makgeolli recipes go to the Mister Makgeolli page in the side bar.