|Joongang Nuruk Factory in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province sits abandoned since 2011. / Courtesy of Jecheon Traditional Liquor Research Center|
By Julia Mellor
This month, one of Korea's oldest factories for producing nuruk ― the fermentation starter required to make traditional Korean alcoholic beverages such as makgeolli ― will be destroyed to make way for a small parking lot.
The Joong-ang Nuruk Factory located in Jecheon City, North Chungcheong Province, was built in 1962 and had been cultivating and producing nuruk up until 2011. In decades gone by, Korea had thousands of these kinds of factories both large and small, but in recent years that number has dwindled to only a handful.
When it comes to rice alcohol fermentation like makgeolli, nuruk is what sets "sool" (or Korean alcohol) apart from other regional rice alcohols. As a wild fermentation starter, nuruk contains various strains of yeast, enzymes and bacteria native to the environment in which it is made, and as such can be considered a living cultural asset. It is an art unto itself.
Nuruk has had a complicated century, as indeed the Korean traditional alcohol industry has been fraught with challenges. The ban on home-brewing in the Japanese occupation years, the heavy use of the sake starter koji, the rice restrictions for commercial breweries in the 1970s, and the modern changes in tastes and drinking practices of consumers are just a few of the struggles that have faced Korean traditional alcohol.
However in the last decade or so, sool has been on a path to restoration. Homebrewing makgeolli, and even making one's own nuruk, has once again become more popular. Each year we see many new commercial makgeolli breweries with innovative styles, and equally as many bars and restaurants featuring sool pairings with their menus.
|The traditional alcohols enjoyed in Korea begin their life on shelves like these, seen in Joongang Nuruk Factory in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. / Courtesy of Jecheon Traditional Liquor Research Center|
But in all this change and evolution, history can get lost. Despite the resurgence in brewing, the demand for nuruk is still no goldmine and so the current low number of nuruk factories is unsurprising. However it is a true rarity to have an original building with decades of nuruk cultivation to still be standing at all.
It can be said that in Belgian lambic beer production, moving the location of your brewery can change your beer forever. This is because lambic beers are open tank fermented, allowing the wild yeasts and bacteria living in the rafters of the building to create the beer. The very brewery itself becomes the essential ingredient to producing the product.
The same can be said for nuruk. For the 62 years Joong-ang Nuruk Factory has been standing, a thriving colony of living organisms have lived in the walls, in the wood and in the straw lining of its shelves. In many ways, it is a living and breathing link to the modern history of Korean traditional alcohol. With its impending destruction and without collection and preservation, that link will be lost.
Whilst it may be too late to save the Joong-ang Nuruk Factory, its destruction strikes a blow to an already beleaguered traditional industry. Efforts to cultivate the living organisms are being made, but the loss of an opportunity to preserve the building itself as a link to the history of sool is a great one.
Currently the communities for traditional industries and Korean alcohol have been organizing a petition to the Jecheon City Council to reconsider its move to destroy the Joong-ang Nuruk Factory. If you would also like to express your objection, the petition is available in Korean and English.
Julia Mellor is co-founder of The Sool Company. Visit fb.com/thesoolcompany to find a link to the petition, and thesoolcompany.com to learn more about Korea's alcohol traditions.