Of many types of traditional liquor in Korea, the most common and popular one is makgeolli (rice wine). Also known as takju (coarse liquor), makgeolli has been used in Korea for centuries to celebrate big national events or prepare for memorial rituals. The culture of home brewage emerged during the Joseon dynasty, when many ordinary families started brewing rice wine at home. Even today, there are families brewing liquor based on recipes passed down over many generations.
Generally, makgeolli has an image of cheap, affordable liquor for ordinary people, and its price is low. However, the quality can differ greatly, depending on the ingredients and manufacturing methods. Premium makgeolli appeared on the market in response to consumers’ interest in better tasting rice wine. Now, there are many products differentiated by good quality, for which consumers are eager to pay more.
One of the leaders in production of premium makgeolli is Baehaejung Doga Co., Ltd. Its president, Bae Hae-jung, is a daughter of the late Master Bae Sang-myeon, one of the greatest experts in traditional Korean wine. Since 1998, when the company was established, Baehaejung Doga has focused its efforts on the production and export of premium makgeolli. Its main target is Japan where makgeolli has been popular from the early 2000s.
Buja Makgeolli Enjoys Love of Japanese Consumers for 15 Years
The first premium product released by Baehaejung Doga was Buja Makgeolli. It has a nice fragrance and taste of malt. Developed by Master Bae during his lifetime, Buja Makgeolli is creamier and has a more delicate flavor than general makgeolli. It is produced using a patented technique for manufacturing traditional liquor through the fermentation of raw rice. Master Bae personally developed this technique, inspired by ancient records. The product is also healthier than ordinary makgeolli because it is brewed from ground raw rice and, therefore, contains more amino acids and fibers and less of the harmful substance methanol.
Bae Hae-jung says, “We are proud of Buja Makgeolli. It is a high-quality, healthy rice wine which is naturally brewed with microorganisms without adding any artificial additives. Thanks to the technological know-how my father accumulated for manufacturing premium makgeolli, we are able to continue the tradition.”
As a premium product, Buja Makgeolli is offered in glass containers, not in plastic bottles like most other products. It was a big risk for a small-scale company sensitive to manufacturing costs to change the packaging to a more expensive one, but Baehaejung Doga dared to take it. Moreover, the company added two more wines to the Buja line: Buja Purple Sweet Potato and Buja Songsan Grape. Those are lower in alcoholic content (only 8%) beverages targeting female consumers. They are made with 100% polished rice cultivated in Korea. Buja wines have gained a great popularity in the Japanese market, raking up US$ 1.2 million per year in exports.
Recently, however, the export volume has decreased. Bae explains, “Due to the changes in the Japanese market, the export volume of Buja Makgeolli has reduced by 30%. We are trying to expand our markets to Singapore, Australia, and Vietnam by developing, in addition to Buja wines, several new products which use organic rice, citron, melon, and so on.”
Export Plans for Korean Traditional Distilled Liquor, Rice Soju
In recent years, Baehaejung Doga started a new business in the traditional Korean soju (distilled liquor) market. The company distilled Ugok-ju, which was launched in 2011 under the pen name of Master Bae, to produce the Ugok Soju. The Ugok series stand out as traditional liquors by undergoing six months of fermentation, which gives the products a mild yet rich flavor and the natural fragrance of grain wine.
Bae Hae-jung says, “The most important factor in maintaining the uniform taste of makgeolli or soju is the malt responsible for the fermentation process. We possess the know-how to use only the standardized bacilli.”
The traditional soju of Baedoga entered the market in 2016 under the name “Loa.” It comes in four types: white (rice alone), yellow (with pear), green (with green grapes), and red (with apple). The alcohol contents are 19% and 40%, and, with the latter one, the company intends to push its way into the strong liquor market. Currently, Ugok and Loa are sold at duty-free shops where they are consistently sought by foreign tourists.
Bae added, “Similarly to how we raised the value of makgeolli by developing premium products, we plan to push into the global market with Korean traditional soju. We have put Loa into oak containers and earthenware for a ten-year fermentation period, and are hosting some sampling events.”
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