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Small Brewery Promoting Makgeolli to the World

Posted February. 12, 2010 08:24,   


“Until the day Parisians prefer makgeolli over wine.”

This is the slogan of Choga, a small Korean maker of makgeolli, or traditional Korean milky rice wine, based in Cheolwon, Gangwon Province. It sounds absurd but resolute in its goal.

Considering the fast evolution of the rice wine, this is no laughing matter. When Choga executive Lee Chang-gyu began marketing the drink to a major retail sales outlet in Korea just a year ago, he was treated like a crazy man.

Soon after, however, department stores began selling high quality makgeolli, albeit in small amounts, as consumer popularity over the stuff rose.

Oddly enough, Japanese people grew to like makgeolli first. Choga’s exports of makgeolli and traditional Korean liquor to Japan rose from 400,000 U.S. dollars in 2007 to 500,000 U.S. dollars last year.

This year, the company’s exports are expected to break one million U.S. dollars through the introduction of new makgeolli varieties.

○ Japan as the initial target market

Choga is located in a mountainous area close to the Demilitarized Zone. CEO Lee Chang-ho selected this venue because he said he thought of using “clear makgeolli produced in a clear area” as the sales pitch for his products. Having sold a small volume of makgeolli in Japan since 1992, he learned that Japanese consumers cared the most about hygiene and cleanliness.

CEO Lee is in charge of Choga’s product distribution in Japan, while his younger brother Chang-gyu manages production. The elder Lee established a makgeolli sales company in Japan in 1997 and set up a liquor exporter in Korea in 2000.

○ Clean drink, healthy drink

“I tried a foray into the Japanese market from the beginning, so I had to introduce automated production facilities to cater to the picky taste of Japanese consumers,” Lee Chang-ho said. For example, he automated the stirring process that supplies oxygen in the aging process and helps the yeast work smoothly.

Most companies have skilled workers control the stirring speed based on their experience. Choga has machines that recognize subtle temperature differences do the job. The automation has allowed most of its makgeolli products to maintain the same taste.

In addition, the plant’s location in a pollution-free area near the Demilitarized Zone allows the production of safe and clean drinks.

Around 2006, a makgeolli boom started in Japan. Lee Chang-ho said the rice wine’s success was because it was new to Japan. While other Korean alcoholic drinks such as soju and cheongju had Japanese equivalents, makgeolli was entirely new to the Japanese.

“A new drink with a good taste that is healthy, hygienic and clean never fails,” he said.

The makgeolli boom in Japan prompted Korean makers to wage a price war. Choga never lowered the prices of its products, however, in sticking to a “high quality” strategy. The company keeps rolling in Japan, selling 100,000 U.S. dollars worth of makgeolli last month alone.

○ Catering to Japanese tastes

In 2006, CEO Lee hired Ahn Seung-bae as chief researcher. Having studied for three years at Wine and Spirit Education Trust in Britain, Ahn has two international sommelier certificates.

“As I studied wine, I became jealous of the European pride in their wine,” Ahn said. “I took the plunge into this business with the confidence that Korean makgeolli has the potential to become as successful as wine.”

His participation has spurred the development of new products. As a result, Choga has introduced three makgeolli products made from black beans, maca and wild turmeric. Maca is an herbaceous plant native to the high Andes, while wild turmeric is a plant of the ginger family known to be healthy for the skin and cancer of the large intestine.

“Both maca and wild turmeric are natural materials Japanese consumers like,” Ahn said. “They’re showing great interest in the new products containing those materials.”

“One of the biggest characteristics of makgeolli is that it can be localized in any form while maintaining its fundamentals,” CEO Lee said. “If we continue research and development, we can eventually see people drink makgeolli graciously on the Champs-Elysees.”