Peace Corps Memories - Illegal Makgeolli
From 1966 to 1981, Korea hosted nearly 2000 Peace Corps volunteers. Many of these were English teachers, most often living in the larger cities. Some, however, were posted to positions in the countryside and smaller towns, most often as health volunteers. Most frequently they were assigned to gun level offices, where their co-workers had oversight of health workers at the myun level. This meant that when the volunteers traveled to myun offices to help out the local workers and visit patients, they were coming from a higher level of government. This had ramifications in terms of mahkollee* consumption.
When we first arrived, most of us were fresh college grads, with some beer drinking experience under our belts. However, thanks to site visits with more senior volunteers in the field, we were quickly exposed to the pervasive Korean farm country refreshment, mahkollee. The venue for this introduction was the humble neighborhood bar, usually labeled TaePoChip. Many of us spent evenings pondering the meaning of that phrase over successive pots of mahkollee. Even more impressive was the more upscale variant, the WangTaePoChip. Both establishments typically had wooden benches, wooden tables of varying degrees of wobbliness, and the brew itself was served in brass or aluminum pots – what looked to us like tea kettles, round-bellied with gracefully curved spouts. One poured this into a metal bowl for one’s neighbor, who returned the favor. There would be a little bit of pickles to nibble on, maybe a bite of fish or bean curd – except of course, in north Cholla province, where purchase of a simple pot of mahkollee brought on a virtual feast of side-dishes, something we volunteers quickly discovered. Granted, a pot there in the early 70s ran all of 100 won, compared to the usual 80 in other provinces.
So what was this now sitting in front of the new volunteer in a somewhat nicked bowl? It looked white and milky, fairly thin, and had an aroma and taste unlike anything we volunteers had experienced. The custom was to down the first bowl quickly, pass that along to a higher-level person (at our age, that was almost anyone) and be prepared to slosh down another bowl quickly before taking our time over a third. However, remember that pot? It held 6 bowls – so two bowls for 3 people drained the pot, and it was urgent to order another – so 3 people would then have 4 bowls at least. Further, Koreans felt one should not stop with an even number of bowls, so the math got progressively more complicated. That this math was accompanied by more mahkollee made matters more challenging.
Naturally we got curious about where this brew came from, especially since the delayed side effects could at times be both varied and unpleasant. Asking around town got some of us actual tours of mahkollee breweries. In the early 70s, things were still tough in Korea and rice was meant to be eaten, not used in brewing, so it was illegal to make alcoholic beverages with rice. The little mahkollee breweries in our towns were operated by only a few people, fermenting pretty much whatever was available and cheap – usually this meant things like sweet potatoes. After just a few days, the batch of fermented stuff would be strained through cloths (it’s said the term mahkollee is from Korean words meaning “quickly” or “violently” and “rag”). As you might guess, this was a fast process aimed at getting the beverage to the farmers and townspeople quickly with a reasonable alcohol level. So that would be your typical small bar’s product. This would be what volunteers would drink most often, both with co-workers after work and while on the job visiting the myuns. As a visiting bureaucrat from a higher level, the volunteer would be offered generous hospitality, to the point that it sometimes became difficult to get around to whatever task one had planned to accomplish on that trip. There was, however, much knowledge gathered about where the tastiest mahkollee could be found. Often it was in the most out-of-the-way locations, where there were fewer people and transportation was less frequent.
In addition, people home-brewed mahkollee. This was often a much different matter. Volunteers would run across home-brew on occasions like birthdays of elderly people. Sometimes an entire village would pitch in with food and drink, and getting invited to one of these parties was a special treat. Here the mahkollee would be a thicker brew, often a pale tan in color – sort of the equivalent of Guinness Stout in terms of both nutrition and kick. Naturally there were suspicions that some rice or barley found its way into the brew.
Finally, many volunteers after a few months of service discovered that although rice mahkollee was illegal, that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. Volunteers in south Cholla province discovered a brewery in the provincial capital of Kwangju and the bars supplied by that brewery, where a quiet word and a bit of cash could get anything from a pot or two of rice mahkollee all the way up to barrels (mal) of it. Back then that particular brew was referred to as dong-dong joo, because the rice grains would float on the surface, thereby proving it was rice liquor. The volunteers in south Cholla province were visited periodically by Peace Corps staff, usually Koreans with one or two Americans tagging along. On one such occasion the staff person from Chunju with a couple of Seoul office staff came for a visit, and was greeted with refreshment in a favorite bar of the volunteers near the provincial offices (the Woggle-Woggle Chip, which meant something like busy or crowded), consisting of pindaedukk made fresh on the spot from beans ground in a stone hand mill before the customers’ eyes, accompanied by several mal of dong-dong joo. To say the staffers were bemused by the volunteers’ rapid assimilation into Korean culture was an understatement. But they enjoyed the feast, and the dong-dong joo.
*K4E Note: the current romanization is makgeolli although the former spelling, which is the one used by the author, is closer to the true pronunciation.
(Dan Strickland was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea in the 1970's.)
Photo from Korea Tourism Organization
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