Julia Mellor CEO and Founder of The Sool Company returns to koreabizcast to discuss the status of Korean tradition alcohol in general and the enormous potential for growth in both in Korea and abroad.
Alex and Julia have a great conversation on the topic of opportunities in the Makgeolli and traditional Korean alcohol.
As Julia says, “I’ve been doing education and services for years now. And this has grown a portfolio of people wanting to open breweries internationally. Now, I, am now looking at opportunities abroad, because to be honest, now’s the time. This perfect storm of conditions where Korean products, Korean awareness is easy to access market. Whereas, maybe six, seven years ago, it would have been a lot harder to do. But it’s just that we are in this moment of something where Korea is easier to access.”
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Bizcast 71 Tues Feb 22
Mon, 2/21 7:28PM • 22:25
korean, pandemic, alcohol, people, breweries, industry, drink, wine, traditional, julia, talking, home, soju, market, crafted, completely, business, exciting, flavor, enjoying
Julia Mellor, Alex Jenson
Alex Jenson 00:08
You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m your host, Alex Jensen, and it’s Tuesday, February 22. Maybe on a Tuesday, you might not have Makgeolli or some other Korean traditional alcohol at the top of your mind. Or perhaps actually, during the pandemic, things have changed so much that you’re part of what the alcohol industry has been targeting in terms of at home drinking with gatherings and restaurant alcohol sales, really plummeting. And this has had a mixed picture. On the one hand, we’ve seen imports of wine and whiskey, for example, doing really well. But traditional soju sales in restaurants, for example, have not been doing so well. Makgeolli business is mixed. But what we’ve seen that’s really exciting is perhaps the rise of some of the crafted Makgeolli out there. South Korea had 961 registered Makgeolli businesses in 2020, which was up from 931, the year before, and 898 in 2018. So I think that gives you a picture and part of that is also down to allowing online sales of Korean traditional alcohol, something that’s really annoyingly not possible. With, for example, whiskey brought in from abroad. Well, to delve in further and discuss the popularity of some of these Korean drinks overseas as well. We have Julia Mellor, who’s the founder and CEO of the Sool company and a specialist in Korean traditional alcohol or Sool specialists, we might say, Julia, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Julia Mellor 01:45
It’s a pleasure, Alex, that was a great, great background on the state of the industry at the moment.
Alex Jenson 01:51
Yeah, it was hard to sum it up, actually, because there are reasons to be positive, but restaurants are still struggling. And some of those places where you’d go well beyond the nine or 10pm curfew is fluctuated, drinking soju have obviously been having a hard time as well. I would like to say at this point before we dive straight in a big thank you to our sponsor for making today’s episode possible. The Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, offering stylish elegance in the very heart of the city. And, well, Korean alcohol and elegance don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s not all about downing the soju shots with beer. Last time we caught up with Julia, we touched on some of that the fact that there’s some crafted traditional drinks out there of great quality, a great nuance of complexity, the kind of words that we use around the high level drinks from abroad. So maybe for those who missed that you could take us in with with your own view of the scene right now.
Julia Mellor 02:49
Yes, that’s right. I mean, I, I’m often joking to friends in the industry that I get whiplash, just trying to keep up with the state of the industry at the moment. Because it is completely changing from a day to day in terms of innovation, there’s so many more breweries that are opening, we’re seeing a lot more youth in the play in terms of people starting breweries, and even actually just owning their own bars and to having a different curated food and clean alcohol pairing experience. So we’re really just seeing a real, a real change in the dynamics. And it’s, as I said, it’s so different day to day that it’s quite exciting, but very hard to keep up with.
Alex Jenson 03:32
And one batch to another seems to be potentially quite different. Because you’ve got a bit like with a craft beer scene, you’ve got people who are experimenting, does that make it both exciting and frustrating for you, when you find Makgeolli that you really like, and then it’s not available?
Julia Mellor 03:47
Well, the fact of the matter, that’s been the case, all the time, I’ve enjoyed Makgeolli because actually, no matter which way you dice it, if you’re dealing with fresh fermentation that unpasteurized, the flavor is always going to change. And so consistency can be an issue. But if you embrace it, and understand that there’s a, you know, there’s a realm within consistency, then you know, your expectations are usually fairly well nuts. But definitely these days, we’re seeing some wild creativity, we’re seeing people playing around with yeasts a bit more. But actually more than just the flavor itself, we’re seeing a real change into design and marketing and resonating with customers, which is something that we hadn’t really seen for, you know, for decades before when the industry was very traditional, or just very, I mean, lack of a better word, very cheap, and not as engaging with the young audience. So it’s a mix. It’s a mix of different styles of actual drink, but also in customer branding and awareness.
Alex Jenson 04:47
It might be frustrating for me that I can’t have my beer, wine and whiskey delivered to my doorstep. But actually, this is a government policy that does do its job because it’s in contrast to for example, The forced closure of large marts on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, which for me does not present traditional markets as an alternative as it’s supposed to. The things that I would buy, for example, are very different in a traditional market versus a large mart. But on the other hand, when it comes to alcoholic beverages, maybe some people will have been encouraged to order some Makgeolli just because it’s there. And it’s available, where the others aren’t available online. And we’ve done so much online ordering during this pandemic. So to get that to a pointed into the question, I guess, I’d like to ask you how fundamentally this pandemic has changed the the industry.
Julia Mellor 05:43
You know, actually, I would say the pandemic has only helped this Sool industry, but honestly, I mean, I can’t say the same for certain bars and restaurants have really been hit hard. And they’ve had to, you know, very much pivot in the way that they operate their business hours and things like that. But from the Korean breweries standpoint, that access to the online markets has done huge things. And these campaigns have home Sool, as you were saying, in your intro, this idea that actually culturally, we’ve seen a shift in people enjoying alcohol at home, where previously that was sort of seen as a bit of a no no a bit of a taboo to drink at home, it was a little bit, you know, a bit lonely or you should be out with your friends. So that’s been completely turned on its head and even been a point of marketing to say, you know, enjoy yourself at home, and then explore all these different options for you know, Korean alcohols if they are registered as a traditional brewery. So that access to that market through pandemic has completely changed. And even as we shift out of it, and people are seeking out restaurants, again, that’s carrying over into what they seek for what they look for, when they’re going out to choose a bar or choose a dining experience.
Alex Jenson 06:52
You know, whenever we’re having these conversations, somewhere in the back of my mind is that disclaimer, drink responsibly. And of course, it is very important. I don’t want to say to everyone sit there at home tonight and drink a whole lot of Makgeolli. But the reason I say that is because I totally agree with this idea that actually can be very pleasurable, enjoying alcohol at home, or any kind of beverage, tea, coffee, whatever it may be. Anything that requires a sort of certain appreciation of the subtle flavors, the complex flavors that are going on, like fruit, for example, if you’re sitting there in a pub environment with a bunch of friends chatting, that’s great in its own way, as well. But you’re not really going to take the time to notice the layers of complexity, right? So it makes total sense to me that people would want more complex, interesting drinks to have at home. From a choice standpoint, though, I remember last time we spoke to you and I asked you for tips on how to pick the right Korean alcohol. You said for example, with Makgeolli, don’t go for the ones or try to avoid the ones with the fake sweeteners in and try to go for something that’s as crafted as possible, when you’re only doing it online. And you haven’t really got someone to talk to or guide you. Is there anything that you would advise us?
Julia Mellor 08:12
I mean, that’s a real tricky one. I mean, you’re sort of faced with the same issue. If you were to walk in to a wine store, and all you’re faced with a dozen bottle after bottle of designs and whatnot. And really, I mean, I still struggled to even choose wine these days, because I haven’t kept up with brands and marketing. So actually, I do recommend, you know, doing your research, if you can, even if it means Google Translate if there’s no English resources, but you know, check out their SNS follow the breweries back to what they talk about and see what other people say. And just try different things. Honestly, Sool in general, clean alcohol is not a break the bank kind of experiment. It’s not generally prohibitively expensive to you know, get out of your comfort zone and try something new. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but you tried it and you know, you get to get to know what’s out there. So half the fun, to be honest, is the mystery in it and to explore. Actually, one thing I would really recommend these days is we’ve seen another big change in this industry, which is Korean alcohol bottle shops. And these are offline places that only sell as a retail area. And they’re very well connected with the breweries. And it’s a one stop shop where you can, you know, look at these fridges that are filled with different things. But every time you walk into these places, the people that own those bottle shops are incredibly knowledgeable, and all you need to do is to explain your tastes, explain what you’re looking for or not looking for, and they can really help you out. I mean, for me personally, actually, I still go to a certain bottle shop near Guemho Station when I need to keep up with the industry and to just see what’s going on. And I invariably walk home with a huge box of new Makgeolli to try. So that can be to be honest half the fun of it.
Alex Jenson 09:56
Julia, I want to go shopping with you. I think that can be on next Sool episode. In fact, there’s two things we’ve got to do. One is what we already mentioned, which is to do a tasting together. But I’d love to just go shopping with you as well and record that process.
Julia Mellor 10:11
Well, you know what, Alex, actually this, this place that I do mention has a tasting room as well. So you can actually shop from the fridge, pop into the back, and you can have a taste of right on site.
Alex Jenson 10:22
Great. Sounds wonderful. By the way, you know, I don’t want to put too much of a cloud over proceedings with the pandemic talk either. I think the reason I mentioned is more of a point of how it’s actually positively affected the industry, there are some negative impacts on some of the, like, cheaper soju type sales, for example, because of the restaurants that relied on them. But, you know, we can still get together in groups of six, we can still stay out till 10pm. People can still gather in homes, you know, there’s a lot of socializing and enjoying of this type of thing that can be done. So it’s not like we’re living on a lockdown. I think it’s important to just recognize that at this point as well. But abroad, it’s also evolved into a situation where people are much more free than they were before. Now in 2022, lest we forget, we are more than two years on from the outbreak of COVID 19. So, one of the things we wanted to talk about today, was the growing popularity of Korean Sool traditional alcohol overseas and, and how those markets are evolving. Is there any good starting point there? Like is there any particular part of the world for example, that you see as a really exciting growing market for either Makgeolli or Soju, or something else?
Julia Mellor 11:39
Hugely, I mean, I would say that even another part, what I witnessed, I’ve been doing Sool for about 10 or 11 years now. And my business actually was in tourism pre pandemic, which, of course, was completely obliterated because of just the pandemic. But I actually shifted quite heavily into consulting for helping people open breweries internationally, which I, you know, dabbled in before. But actually, in the last two years, my portfolio of clients has been very surprising that it hasn’t slowed down. In fact, it’s actually completely ramped up and, and there’s a huge interest in all corners of the globe, to be honest. But if I had to pinpoint it, I would say that America is absolutely the most progressive and the most, I guess, the leaders in progress in actually starting these breweries. Case in point, actually a former client of mine from five years ago, Alice June, who runs Hana Makgeolli actually launched a brewery in the pandemic, it was the first year 2020. And she is the first full scale traditional Makgeolli brewery outside of the US, outside of Korea, in New York, and, you know, opening a business and pandemic is brave enough, but also opening a business in a completely niche market that nobody has really experienced before, is pretty brave. And she’s just gone from strength to strength, and really has created what has validated that there’s so much interest in not just Makgeolli and Chungju, in, you know, different kinds of alcohols. So, even though I have clients in many different regions, I’d say the US is definitely, definitely the the fastest, I’d say the speediest place where we’ve seen more progress.
Alex Jenson 13:26
Yeah, actually speaking of the US, The New York Times No doubt you saw this article, it was towards the end of January, the headline was this ancient brew has a retro appeal in South Korea, and it was celebrating Makgeolli was talking about how you got this rice wine made by Korean farmers for centuries has become a cosmopolitan sensation over the past decades. I mean, it traces the roots of magalies popularity much further back, it goes thr ough the lost art. A really interesting read. Does that just cement what you’re saying the fact that the New York Times has put that together here. I know that New York Times has got a stronger presence in Korea now. But still, it’s indicative that they think there’s interest in the US and abroad in mccolley.
Julia Mellor 14:12
Oh, completely. I mean, it definitely lends its lends its weight to what actually other outlets have also been saying over the years. It’s been, I think, actually, last year, it was featured in ESA, I think eater.com That basically pegged Makgeolli as being one of the trends to watch for 2021 internationally, so we do see more English language coverage. But as I said, it is predominantly I would say, the US is picking up on that trend. And it’s on the back of things like, you know, Squid game and all these kinds of things. And actually I myself, I’m part of a brewery, a new brewery that’s opening up in Seattle as well called Ninetales. And it’s just showing you that it’s not one because you might think, oh, you know, New York of course, it’s very progressive and, you know, that’s the place for it. But you know, Seattle, whether it’s Boston, whether it’s anywhere else in the US. It seems that there’s enough interest to see that there’s a business opportunity in there.
Alex Jenson 15:04
That’s what I’m thinking. So one might be listening now thinking, Well, I’ve been wondering what to make my thing maybe Makgeolli is it. But one big caveat here that I have to explore with you. What makes a local Makgeolli great is maybe it’s homemade, maybe it’s just a little bit above homemade in a small batch. But in any of those cases, you’re not talking about a product that’s going to go through mass production for a mass market. How do you take the box of taking Makgeolli around the world and still retain freshness? And all the flavors that you appreciate locally?
Julia Mellor 15:40
Oh, you hit it, Alex, that’s exactly the point. That is actually and I would say, the most prohibitive reason why Makgeolli and actually Sool in general hasn’t taken off before is because it’s a challenging drink to deal with. When we’re dealing with the wild fermentation, stata we’re dealing with something that’s unpasteurized at its best form. So for refrigeration is an issue, distribution is an issue. And in terms of the drink itself, mass produced can absolutely compromise quality. But really, I just see this all as a challenge of logistics, but also consumer education. You know, things that are small batch and hand produce, absolutely find their market. And actually, you know, in a global trend and a global way we consume food, the way we consume a lot of our agricultural products, people look for something that’s a little bit more authentic, something that, you know, has come to its roots, and it doesn’t have to be completely large scale. So there’s just room for many different kinds of players. Players, excuse me, I definitely see that this whole industry is blue ocean completely in terms of how you want to approach it, whether it is you know, something mass marketable, or it is extremely micro on a local level, because there’s something for everyone. I believe
Alex Jenson 16:58
There’s something similar to craft beer and all of this people bringing hops from abroad and making it here rather than relying entirely on importing the finished products, and perhaps even Kimchi. If you want to export Kimchi in a package, that’s one thing, but how about production overseas and letting people experience what it’s like without a barcode, for example? There’s all sorts of stuff going on there as an opportunity. We’ll definitely be watching that space. Do you think that it will influence your own role and your company, though, in the coming months? I mean, do you have any particular plans for 2022 that capitalize on that trend that we’ve just been talking about overseas?
Julia Mellor 17:41
Well, actually, yes, it absolutely has. Because, you know, I’ve been doing education. And I’ve been doing services for a long time. And it’s actually over this past few years, that and having this growing portfolio of people wanting to open breweries internationally that I actually I myself, am now looking at opportunities abroad, because to be honest, now’s the time we were seeing this, you know, this perfect storm of conditions where Korean products, Korean awareness is not as difficult to access that market anymore. Whereas, you know, if I had decided to pick up stamps and open a brewery anywhere, maybe six, seven years ago, it would have been a lot harder to do. But it’s just that we are in this moment of something where Korea is easier accessible to markets with less effort of education, even though education is still 1,000% importance. So yes, I will be looking further afield to then also get into the production side myself.
Alex Jenson 18:38
Fantastic. Well, we heard it here first, perhaps, I don’t know you’ve already told a few friends already. Really, really exciting. Well, don’t go too far from us though because we’ve got to have a tasting event for our listeners as well. I want to do that with you. We will record the process of going to you said Geumho Station, right? At any particular name to look out for, by the way, for people who are local who think right, I want to do this for myself. Is there a way of finding it? Or is it so hidden that it’s gonna be hard to describe?
Julia Mellor 19:14
Not at all, it’s the first name that I drop everywhere I go. And actually, if you go to our website at thesoolcompany.com, I have listed bottle shops all over Seoul, but the one I’m talking about is called Aeju Geumho where I mean, honestly, it is the best curated selection and I just enjoy myself there because we have great conversations about the industry and she’s very knowledgeable. It’s unlike a kid in a candy store that posts but also they also have a great selection of natural wines as well. It’s very unassuming and location, but really worthwhile to stop at so Aeju Geumho is the place to find out.
Alex Jenson 19:50
Funny comparison that with natural wines because I’ve not jumped into that scene. Because I guess all of us get stuck in in our habits and we have things that we think we like and I’ve not dived into natural wines. In fact, I would be much more inclined to try and craft Makgeolli than a natural wine. Like if I want wine or drink wine if I want something different, Makgeolli, and who knows, maybe that will be part of the habit. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. It’s always fun talking to you. Anyway, Julian Mellor, good luck with everything with your burgeoning plans that you’ve just been talking about as well.
Julia Mellor 20:24
Thank you very, very good burgeoning, but I look forward to keeping you updated. And I’m gonna hold you to that tasting. I look forward to it.
Alex Jenson 20:31
Yep, please do, we’ll record it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to speak by the end of it. Maybe there’ll be a progression in my voice as we go along. Again, thank you to the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, and not only for making this episode possible, but also for making its own steps into this industry. Because this is something that I think we’re going to talk to them about in the future, more directly. But you Julia had been speaking to Keith Motsi, who featured on previous podcasts from Charles H the bar downstairs in the four seasons. And he was telling you about some exciting things that they’ve got planned in this area, right?
Julia Mellor 21:09
That’s right. They recognize the the importance and the opportunity to open a section, basically a new project that is featuring only Korean alcohol cocktails and also straight Korean alcohol, so you can experience some craft Makgeolli breweries, but also, some of Charles H has amazing creations involving different kinds of spirits and fermentations in the Korean style, so it’s very innovative, and very exciting.
Alex Jenson 21:37
I mean, we’ve got a long to do list out of this interview, I think the longest one I’ve had so far. Thank you again, Julie has been an absolute pleasure. said thank you a million times because you deserve a million. Thank you for all your efforts in this industry. But if anyone else would like to get in touch with us with any questions, perhaps you want to suggest an idea for a segment or there was something that came up during one of our interviews that you want to ask more about to clarify. You can email us email@example.com you can find us on LinkedIn by searching KBLA and otherwise see you again hopefully clear headed tomorrow