Meet the Asian-American Beverage Brands Shaking Up the Drinks World
Lunar New Year kicked off on February 12th. Celebrated in countries like China, Vietnam, and South Korea, it marks the cycle of a lunar year—12 full cycles of the moon—which is 354 days, compared to a solar year—the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun—which is 365 days. It’s a time for new beginnings, health, luck, and happiness.
To embrace these important themes, and to lean into the concept of new beginnings in, among other areas, our beverage options, allow us to introduce two brands we are incredibly excited about, just in case you’re not already familiar. Lunar and Makku are Asian-American-owned brands, crafting beautiful renditions of traditional Asian drinks or fresh drink styles with traditional Asian ingredients. Really, there’s never a bad time to learn about game-changing brands with products that will breathe life into your routines, but the start of the year seems especially auspicious—now you’ve still got all the seasons to enjoy hard seltzer from Lunar and makgeolli from Makku in different ways, plus then you can continue your journey with other exciting Asian-American-owned craft brands on TapRm, like Nectar Hard Seltzer.
Launched just this past fall, the Lunar journey started a year earlier when founders Kevin Wong and Sean Ro were out eating Korean fried chicken in Manhattan. They realized the beverage options failed to represent Asian and/or Asian-American categories and brands. You could be enjoying the most order authentic fare, but then have to pair it with something like a Bud Light.
Sean says the duo, who had been working at different start-ups outside the beverage space, wondered why nothing in the alcohol space made Asian Americans and children of immigrants feel seen? They specifically wanted something that authentically represented and spoke to their uniquely Asian-American upbringing.
This lack of representation in the beverage industry may come from the challenge of entering the entrepreneurship arena for many, Sean says. “The stereotype is our parents want us to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers, safe and successful careers with proven paths. Entrepreneurship is the path less traveled. It takes a certain amount of courage to say, ‘This is my dream, my American dream, and I’m going to sacrifice a stable job and other things to build build the thing or create the change that I want to see in the world.’”
Despite the challenges, visionaries like Sean and Kevin are pushing forward with goals that can disrupt the industry for good. Sean says that he and Kevin want Lunar to be a “reverse lunchbox moment.” He explains that for children of immigrants and from different cultures, there’s this sort of othering that occurs at school when your classmates don’t recognize--and judge--what your mom or dad packed for your lunch. “You go home and say, ‘Mom, don’t pack me that dish again. Just pack me a sandwich or something,’” Sean says. Instead, Lunar embraces the flavors of Sean and Kevin’s heritage unapologetically, poised to both resonate with other Asian Americans as well as make people from other backgrounds stop and want to get these drinks into their rotation.
The first of these flavors that Lunar has explored is yuzu, to smash-hit results: the Yuzu Hard Seltzer has sold out multiple times on TapRm. While yuzu is a beloved Asian fruit because of its unparalleled citrusy brightness, Lunar’s take is especially attention-grabbing because Sean and Kevin purposefully set out to avoid artificial flavoring. In spite of the extra hurdles, the duo sources only real yuzu from Japanese farms.
“It’s non-negotiable that we’re going to use real fruits and the best ingredients,” Sean says. “It’s impossible to share our stories if we’re not doing the flavors justice,” which is how the duo found itself trailblazing a new category altogether: the craft hard seltzer, one that’s dedicated to delivering a unique, elevated experience in a market that’s flooded with artificial chemicals and a lack of depth or body.
Next up, Lunar will unveil a Lychee seltzer with ingredients sourced from Thailand and a Plum seltzer featuring Korean plums. These are flavors that are stirring up serious excitement from everyone who tries them. They pair with everything from sushi to burgers, and work for every occasion in every setting. On a more profound level, they represent flavors many Asian Americans hadn’t been able to find in the alcoholic beverage market. Sean says they get feedback from influencers and fans that Lunar seltzer tastes like their childhood.
Beyond filling a void with these flavors, Sean and Kevin hope Lunar paves the way for more Asian Americans and more children of immigrants and from different backgrounds to strike out and make their mark on the world. Ideally, this leads to people feeling seen by this brand and deciding they, too, can build something that represents them--and tell their own story that extends beyond the drinks industry, too. “We’re building a movement around that encapsulation of what we call ‘Asian Americana in a can,’” Sean says.
You may not have heard of makgeolli yet, but Makku is here to change that. New York native Carol Pak grew up with the perception that makgeolli was for elderly people, and that it simply wasn’t as appealing an option as other drinks. During a 2017 visit to Korea, though, Carol’s friends took her to a makgeolli bar. She not only learned that makgeolli was having this sort of craft renaissance in Korea, but that it was absolutely delicious.
Makgeolli is its own category of beverage, and defining it as such here in America is a major goal of Carol’s with Makku. For now, though, the most immediate mission is to turn the masses on to this crave-worthy sipper. The best correlation, Carol says, is to think of makgeolli as a Korean rice beer. Makku carbonates it and cans it, and it comes in at 6% ABV, so it’s fair to group it under the sessionable, refreshing, versatile umbrella that includes beers and ciders.
When we asked Carol why a delicious drink like makgeolli may have fallen out of popular favor in the past, she brings up its fascinating history, one that’s woven right into the history of Korea, itself.
“It’s Korea’s first alcoholic beverage, and it was passed down from generation to generation and everyone from poor people to well-off people to males to females to children to grandparents drank it,” she says. “But over time, Korea as a nation went through a lot...during wars, rice shortages, and Japanese colonization, there are instances in Korea’s history where the brewing of makgeolli was banned because of the scarcity of rice or because [the Japanese] wanted to get rid of traditional Korean alcohol.” Carol continues on to explain that throughout this time, makgeolli, itself, changed, as people bootlegged it during periods it was prohibited, and as makers changed brewing methods. Then, even as Korea entered into stability and wealth, makgeolli came up against the Western influences that were coming in and drowning it out. It became somewhat of an issue of status, where if you had any money, you’d be seen drinking other types of beverages. Meanwhile, older people, caring less about perception and opinion, carried on with makgeolli as their drink of choice.
More recently, though, makgeolli has been enjoying a big resurgence in Korea. “I feel people in our generation are kind of looking backward and finding pride and joy in their roots,” Carol says. “It’s a sharing of your culture and wanting to learn more about your history and where you’re from and where your parents are from.” Carol says that for a while, makgeolli breweries were passed down within families, and the passion of making this drink might have sort of fizzled out of the equation. Now, entrepreneurs with a real love of and fascination with the stuff are seeking it out and brewing it with a renewed energy and attention. Young makgeolli lovers are starting their own breweries, or opening beautiful makgeolli bars in hip areas where the next generation is finding and loving this beverage. It may seem like a trend and it may feel new again, but as Carol points out, this makgeolli resurgence is also largely about preserving an important aspect of tradition, culture, and heritage.
Now, Makku is bringing that makgeolli buzz to the U.S. The brand is speaking to Korean Americans with a drink on menus and shelves that represents their heritage; it’s changing makgeolli’s perception from an “old-person drink” to something that’s fresh and exciting; and it’s introducing this beverage to a whole new audience. Across the board, Makku is resonating with imbibers. Carol attributes this to Makku’s stand-out, modern branding, as well as to its timing. “We’ve entered the market at a time when anything that innovates [in beverages] is really on the rise, as well as sparkling anything,” she says. In its original iteration as well as flavors like blueberry and mango, Makku is both: a sparkling refresher, but an innovation on what that means.
Because Makku has been selling through retailers since its official August 2019 launch, Carol says she didn’t feel the overwhelming rave reviews from consumers directly at first. But over the past year, she’s been getting letters and hearing from fans, and it’s exciting to see people getting behind this product. They’re both embracing something with tradition and history and adding something new to their rotation. At this point, it doesn’t seem like it will be long before makgeolli gets the distinction it deserves as its own beverage category.