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A Korean American Brewer Connects With His Heritage Through Makgeolli

David Faulk, founder of Angma Distillery and Brewery, always sought a sense of belonging. Born and raised in Korea, where his white U.S. Marine dad met his Korean mother, he was teased by kids for not being fully Korean. Then, when his family moved to California, the reverse happened. “In Korea, it’s like: white kid, white kid, white kid, you’re not Korean,” Faulk recalls. “And I get here and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re the Asian kid, right?'” It was a desire to finally feel at home somewhere that led the mechanical engineering major turned Marine on the path to create one of the few American-made makgeolli (MAWK-oh-lee), a Korean rice beer.

Setting His Own Course

Angma makgeolli
R&D for two final makgeolli at Angma Distillery. | Photo courtesy of David Faulk

Faulk was originally pulled into homebrewing more than 15 years ago. Although the beer-making process appealed to him as a mechanical engineering student, he says that while his beer was good, it wasn’t compelling enough to initiate a life change. It wasn’t until years later, after joining and retiring from the Marines and working as an engineer, that a desire to connect with his Korean heritage took hold. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I try to make the rice beer that I remember and that even here in America they sell at every Korean grocery store and barbecue restaurant?'” he says.

Faulk schooled himself on the traditional way of brewing makgeolli by reading books and articles, such as this pamphlet from the National Academy of Agricultural Science in Korea. He tried and failed countless times. His engineering mind gave him the drive and patience to nail down the process, particularly how to make it bubbly. “I was tweaking things here and there, discovering how to not make a lightbulb for the millionth time,” he says. “That perfected product that took almost 15 years to arrive at, and many flat and conversely explosive products, is at the heart of Angma. I really believe in our motto of ‘Set your own fucking course,’ and that’s what I did.” 

Making Award-Winning Makgeolli

At his Los Angeles distillery and brewery, Faulk uses a two-stage process where the juk, a rice porridge, is mixed with Angma’s nuruk, a Korean fermentation starter used to make beverages such as makgeolli and soju. The mixture ferments, developing flavors. Later, cooled steamed rice and more nuruk are added and allowed to ferment further. Afterward, everything is pulled out, the rice is pressed and strained, and the makgeolli is bottled.

America imports most of its makgeolli from Korea with only one other brewer—Hana Makgeolli in Brooklyn—making it in the United States. Màkku, also based in Brooklyn and credited as being “America’s first craft makgeolli,” brews in Korea. And while a majority of Korean-made makgeolli is fizzy, the American versions pour with little to no fizz. Faulk posits that this difference could be due to style choice. For his makgeolli, he prefers it fizzy and sweet “like a moscato.”

“The big thing for me was that it was a little confirmation of identity. ‘Oh man! I am good at this! I am Korean!’ ” —David Faulk

While the rice beer was his first creation, Faulk decided to distill it to make soju. Greg Stark of Pasadena’s Stark Spirits taught him how to do that. A year later, this soju won a silver medal at the 2022 LA Spirits Awards. His makgeolli, which he had submitted on a whim, won gold. “The big thing for me was that it was a little confirmation of identity,” Faulk laughs. “‘Oh man! I am good at this! I am Korean!’ ”

Soju Seals the Deal

Faulk then sought out chefs/owners Katianna and John Hong of Korean American deli/restaurant Yangban in LA’s Arts District. “Everything we saw them doing was something we felt mirrored us,” he says. “The pride and skill in their craft, the placement in LA, the strong core of Korean culture, and the push to innovate where it makes sense.” He brought the soju for them to taste, only offering the sample of makgeolli to show where the soju originated. “They then reached out with interest for our makgeolli and that drove us to accelerate our makgeolli timeline,” Faulk says.

At the time, Yangban collaborated with West LA’s Sawtelle Sake on makgeolli to sell in their minimart. But with the sake brewery looking to expand and Yangban not wanting to interfere with their growth, it was serendipitous for Faulk and his cooler of soju to show up at the door. According to Hong, Faulk’s story of “not fitting in the traditional box of being Asian American” and his use of nuruk to make makgeolli sealed the deal. While Sawtelle Sake’s brew uses the Japanese starter koji, which is inoculated, nuruk is naturally fermented.

“It comes out in the characteristics of the makgeolli,” explains Hong. “It has a little more floral notes. It’s a little bit fruitier, but it’s also really savory.” That savoriness is the biggest difference between the two brews. “Whereas koji can be a little bit more delicate, nuruk is more pronounced,” Hong says. “It’s delicious, and we’re really excited about it.” Currently, Yangban and Angma are still developing their makgeolli with plans to sell bottles at the restaurant’s minimart and possibly put it on tap.

Faulk hopes this is just the beginning as he continues to reach out to more LA restaurants about his soju. “I think we have the best soju on the market and can’t wait to get it further out there,” he says.

The refrigerated bottle case in Yangban’s minimart. | Photo by Frank Wonho Lee

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