The Granite Tower
Tasting Traditional Makgeolli in the Middle of the City
Lee Arim  |
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승인 2017.04.04  23:40:41
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▲ Yu Yi Jin. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
About Yu Yi Jin Yu is currently the CEO of White Bear Makgeolli Bar & Brewery (Baekkom) and the sommelier of the Korean Liquor Distribution Institute. She worked as the Chief of Training Team in the Sool School near Gyeongbokgung Palace for three years. She has been awarded many prizes, including the Home-brewed Liquor Making Contest.
Makgeolli brewhouses used to be an ever-present element of every rural village in Korea. For many middle-aged adults, the brewhouse revives nostalgic childhood memories of carting makgeolli in a nickel-silver kettle along curvy country roads for their fathers. Now, many breweries across the country have disappeared, putting the culture of traditional liquor production and consumption on the brink of extinction. However, Yu Yi Jin, the CEO of White Bear Makgeolli Bar & Brewery (Baekkom), introduces numerous types of traditional alcohol to the younger generation under the polished blue roof on one of the trendiest streets of Apgujeong.
▲ Signboard of Baekkom. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
Can you briefly introduce Baekkom?
I opened White Bear Makgeolli Bar & Brewery last June. Generally, people are not well aware of the variety of alcohol. They can only think of certain brands such as Jangsoo Makkoli and Chamisul when they think of alcohol. I felt sad about the fact that few people know about so many great alcohols out there in the countryside. I thought about the reason and came to the conclusion that it was because we never got a chance to encounter them here in the city. There is nowhere or no one to teach you about traditional liquor unless you travel to the brewhouses yourself. So I established Baekkom in the hope that more people would be able to feel the delicacy of various types of traditional alcohol in the heart of Gangnam.
What made you interested in traditional liquors and in opening Baekkom?
I worked in an automotive parts research institute for quite a long time after graduating with a degree in Electronic Engineering. However, I quit because I was never built to be an engineer. Instead, I wanted to work on something that I like; alcohol. I did a lot of drinking back in my college days. I got to know that there are educational institutes for traditional liquor and there is a wider range of Korean alcohol other than just Chamisul. So I took classes at the institutes, and worked in traditional bars to learn how our alcohol is introduced in the field. Around that time, I met my husband, who was a former food merchandiser at CJ and discovered that we both had the same dream of opening a traditional bar.
How is traditional liquor supplied to Baekkom from all over the country?
We receive most of the liquor directly from brewhouses, while some are provided by distribution companies. When my husband and I were dating, we visited many brewhouses because alcohol was something that we both liked. So naturally, we already had connections with the brewhouses. Before we opened this bar, I worked in the Sool (Makgeolli) School for three years and won several alcohol-related contests, while my husband served as the first Secretary-General of the Korean Makgeolli Association. Thus, we became relatively more familiar with traditional liquor and where to find it.
When are your moments of satisfaction and discontent?
I feel satisfied when the customers tell me how much they enjoyed a type of alcohol they had never tried before. Also, when we close the bar at the end of the day, sometimes there are so many empty plastic bottles left, too heavy for even strong men to throw out. I feel a sense of pride in that I have introduced so much traditional alcohol to people in Seoul. However, the work is quite burdensome because the bar, a threestory building, is larger than I had previously imagined. There are more incidents, big and small—water leaks for example—so I often get stressed out when I cannot meet my own expectations.
Can you recommend some good alcohol for college students? What is your favorite liquor?
To start with, for people with young senses who have tried very little Korean alcohol, I would like to recommend omija (schizandra) makgeolli made in Mungyeong. Its freshness and taste totally overwhelm the alcoholic scent. Leegangju, brewed in Jeonju, is known to be one of the top three alcohols of the Joseon Dynasty. As its name indicates, it is a soju with pear and ginger flavors, so it has a refreshing, sweet scent. My personal favorite, though it is very difficult to pick one, is Haechang makgeolli from Haenam, Jeolla Province. It is made from only rice, water, and nuruk (yeast), so there are no unnecessary ingredients, and it is simply great to swallow down.
There are still some skilled brewers producing their own alcohol across the country. How are their working conditions?
Generally their work sites are small and rundown, which breaks my heart sometimes. Many of them are old, so they are not informed about how to advertise and distribute their products. The lack of profit leads the brewers to be swayed by consumers’ tastes, rather than sticking to their principles. Opening this bar, we hoped that our promotion and growth would ease their financial burden.
What kind of attitude do you think is needed to preserve tradition in contemporary society?
Personally, I do not believe that traditions and customs should be kept in their purely original form. For example, brewers used to utilize yongsoo, a wooden basket, to filter the alcohol, but they can use mechanical filters these days. I think it is the same for consumers’ tastes. Traditional alcohol was relatively sweet back then, but now more people favor dry or sour drinks, and I think the brewers need to make adjustments to please them. What may be more important is the labeling and design, which many brewers often neglect. I also believe that it is important to arrange a pleasant space where people can entertain their guests with traditional liquor.
What is your final goal for Baekkom?
Our foremost goal is to establish a space where people can experience various traditional alcohols. I want Baekkom to be a cultural complex for traditional alcohol, not simply a bar for drinking. People would be able to hold seminars, run debate sessions, or conduct training sessions about Korean alcohol. This is what I dream of.
▲ Traditional alcohols sold in Baekkom. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
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