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South Korea takes a big sip of rice wine

Shin Woo-chang drinks on the job.

Every day at his suburban laboratory, the molecular geneticist sniffs, taste-tests and appraises every bubble and nuance of a once-unappreciated traditional product that the South Korean government hopes will soon have a new life on the international market.

It’s called makgeolli, a milky-white rice wine that Koreans believe deserves a place among the world’s notable alcoholic drinks, including sake from Japan and wine from California and France.

The drink is enjoying a renaissance in South Korea, with sales in October beating those of French Beaujolais.

They’re calling it makgeolli nouveau. Even President Lee Myung-bak has become a makgeolli pitchman.

“I can tell you that makgeolli is good for health and for women’s skin and beauty,” Lee said at a recent get-together for foreign diplomats, toasting the group with a glass of rice wine.

With feelings such as these on the rise, perfecting the makgeolli recipe with newer and more healthful versions has become a top priority for Shin.

The carbonated wine beverage -- which has a sharp and fruity aftertaste, like a cross between sake and beer -- is loved by many Koreans. But makgeolli makers want to refine that taste for other national palates, such as those in Japan and the United States. The goal is to boost the $200-million industry and double the number of other countries where the drink is sold, now 15.

Shin’s relationship with the drink started about 20 years ago, when the 41-year-old scientist first drank makgeolli at a welcome party for freshmen in his college.

“When we were young, most of the time we had makgeolli because it was cheaper than beer and tasted better than soju [a Korean distilled alcoholic beverage],” said Shin, an employee of the Seoul-based Kooksoondang Brewery. “I loved to drink, but I never imagined that I would study liquors down the road.”

Shin happened to attend a college lecture by the brewery’s chairman about his ambition to make traditional Korean alcoholic drinks popular again. Years later, in 1999, Shin took a job at the brewery.

For three years, he has been attempting to transform inexpensive, fermented makgeolli from a sip of nostalgia into an international favorite.

South Korea has about 700 small makgeolli breweries, but many are struggling financially, in part because they use outdated equipment and brewing systems, Shin said.

“Scientists need to take over and systematize the processing of yeast and microorganisms in making makgeolli,” he said.

The winemakers’ new approach is to employ research from the fields of molecular biology, medicine and food engineering to help launch a nationwide campaign to promote makgeolli.

“Scientific research contributed to developing kimchi businesses,” said Lee Han-seung, a biofood materials professor at Silla University in Busan. “Makgeolli has also great potential for us to work on.”

Thought to be thousands of years old, the drink contains lactic acid bacteria, a fiber-rich alcohol that many say can help prevent cancer and lower cholesterol.

Still, for years makgeolli sales in South Korea lagged behind those of such Western alcoholic beverages as beer and whiskey.

But that is changing. For the first nine months of this year, sales increased more than 20% from a year ago, according to the Korea Customs Service.

“The year 2009 will be the breakthrough year for makgeolli,” said Yoon Jin-weon, head of the Korea Liquor Culture Institute, who has collaborated with 12 professors in a separate rice wine project.

Shin’s team, with many of its 15 members holding master’s or doctoral degrees in science, has already seen results.

The team patented new fermenting procedures and created a new version of makgeolli -- served in a can -- that is now available on a Korean-owned airline that flies between South Korea and Japan.

“One of the requirements for employment on the team is that you have to like to drink,” Shin said, grinning.

But he takes his work seriously. When he was a boy, he dreamed of winning a Nobel Prize. The dream, he said, is still alive.

“I want to win the Nobel Prize for makgeolli,” he said.

Park is a news assistant in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.


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