On Building a Makkeoli Market

Zenkimchi wants Korean promoters to stop calling makkeoli “rice wine” for the very obvious reason that it’s actually not a wine. Of course it’s not rice wine, it’s rice beer (or, yes, specifically “rice ale”), as any brewer can tell you.

Of course, he sort of bolts past the point that is very obvious in this picture:

Makkeoli isn't wine
Source: The WSJ. Click for source.

If you look at that image for a moment, you’ll get why there’s not a hope in hell Korean makkeoli-promoters are going to consider branding makkeoli as “rice beer” or “rice ale.”

The women serving this makkeoli are holding it out in a wine glass: that is clearly to capitalize on the high profile that wine enjoys in Korea right now. For those who don’t know, how that happened is a weird story, because when I first arrived in Korea (back in late 2001) wine was about as popular as blue cheese… which is to say, not very.

Wine got popular in Korea because of a Japanese comic book series. No, really: It’s called Drops of God, and it’s so crucial to the popularization of wine in Korea that they used to sell Korean editions of the comic in the wine sections of grocery stores for quite a while–I remember seeing a full set on display, for sale, in the wine section of my local E-mart for over a year on end:

Image ganked from James Turnbull’s post on the comic and makkeoli promotion.

Now, wine enjoyed a very high profile in Korea. It’s sold in a special section that often includes a little cheese fridge, and other foreign liquors, but not beer or Korean liquors–which are relegated to the lowly “beer & booze” section of the grocery shelves.

Wine, in fact, enjoys such a high profile in part because upper class Koreans have take up “wine tasting” as a hobby. Korea being Korea, hobbies among the corporate types tend to be largely shaped more by trends and a desire to fit into one’s work crowd than by personal interest, and it’s not rare to hear about a salaryman who claims his hobby is “wine” but eventually confesses that he is “into wine” only because it’s his supervisor’s hobby, and everyone at the office has taken it up just to fit in.

Be that as it may, wine is the prestige liquor (or one of them) in Korea. It doesn’t matter that the beer scene is improving–though it is, thank goodness–because, you see, Korea promotions philosophy doesn’t depend on the idea of building a new market: it depends on the idea of stealing a market. Makkeoli producers want to get some of that upper-class trend-following crowd, just enough to let the makkeoli boom catch fire.

Unfortunate as it is, it wouldn’t make sense for people trying to raise the prestige of makkeoli to brand makkeoli “rice ale”–most Koreans have never heard of “ale” before anyway, indeed, most Western beer consumers (except for those who are really into beer) don’t know what distinguishes an ale from a lager. (I didn’t until I started homebrewing.)

The makkeoli producers have another choice, of course.

They could engage in a huge, risky campaign to raise the profile of makkeoli, using creative approaches,  catchy ideas, and real, serious innovation in the packaging and production of makkeoli. They could spearheard the development of makkeoli cocktails, and promote them agressively, even to the point of having hired guns who go from bar to bar, bringing in waves of customers on specially designated nights when a makkeoli cocktail is free with the purchase of… well, whatever. Hell, they could even hire an artist and a writer, and launch a webtoon on the subject of makkeoli: if they did that I bet they’d get great results.

In other words, they could kickstart a trend that really secures for makkeoli a unique and enviable position in the market.

(That’s certainly seems to be what is happening in the actual beer scene in Korea, by the way, despite much more stringent government regulations and limitations.)

Indeed, they could even revolutionize makkeoli production: modernize it, change the packaging to something that fits better with the high-class profile they’re seeking, and so on. Makkeoli only has a short shelf life because of the way it’s produced: that was true of beer too, until production methods were modernized, and all the injunctions against putting fresh makkeoli in glass bottles, also applied to putting beer in glass bottles until not long ago.

I know makkeoli producers are experimenting with flavor profile, and that’s good, but that’s limited. The question of putting makkeoli in glass bottles, of giving it a longer shelf life, of achieving flavor stability, of giving it a slowly-developing flavor profile if it is stored (like sour beers), and more are all problems of a scientific and industrial sort: these things are all achieveable, if someone wants to achieve them.

So, I’m arguing, branding makkeoli as “rice beer” or “rice ale” isn’t any better a solution. Zenkimchi is just falling into the same pitfall Korean businesspeople do, of thinking that branding is going to make a market. Rather, making a market makes a market. Wine didn’t get branded as fancy: it got popularized, through a narrative that stirred people’s curiosity–but also, it got transformed as a consumer product, long before. The makkeoli industry misses that fact, because of course for Koreans, wine has always been a stable, elite consumer product packaged in glass bottles from overseas.

The makkeoli industry will need to take both of those factors into account, if they want to achieve anything like wine industry. And, you know, they could: good makkeoli is a joy. I can imagine domestic makkeoli producers operating in Chile or the United States or, say, Tunisia, a hundred years from now. But they need to really think about this.

Of course, the other option–the short-sighted, lazy one–is that they could do like most Korean businesspeople do, and just build that new Japanese restaurant right across the street from the successful, and give it a similar name. That is: they could just go ahead and try steal some of the wine-consumer market. And chances are, they’ll get just enough success doing it to justify the action: there have to be just enough people high enough to indulge in trend-setting makkeoli consumption, who are also nationalistic enough to be lured away from wine by the one thing that differentiates makkeoli: that it’s Korean.

And that’s what they’re doing. It’s smarter than just branding makkeoli as “rice ale”–because nobody would know what that means, or be enticed by the term–but it’s not very smart.

That is to say, while Zenkimchi’s right that “rice wine” is a stupid move, his pedantic correction misses the point: this isn’t about the accuracy of the terminology, it’s about the tiredness of the marketing approach. Korean businesspeople need to stop thinking this way, seeing markets  as something always to be stolen from someone else, and learn the lesson offered by Drops of God: that a market can be built, and very rapidly, if only you’re creative in your approach.

Now, I just wish I knew more cartoonists… because damn, I could write the beer version of Drops of God (or even the makkeoli one) in a heartbeat: I even have a solid, saleable, sustainable plotline in my head. Any cartoonists out there interested?

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