Julia Mellor, Founder and CEO of The Sool Company, is a well-known figure in the Australian community in Seoul. Filled with energy and passion for Korean culture and traditional alcohol – Julia dedicated close to 10 years to becoming an expert of ‘sool’ and runs several brewing classes to share her expertise with brewing enthusiasts around the world.
But how did Julia’s Korea journey begin? Read on to learn more about her experiences teaching English, navigating visa/ language barriers, and becoming a successful business-owner in Korea!
Teaching English abroad post-graduation
Having graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts in 2006, Julia didn’t have a fixed plan of where to take her Journalism and International Relations knowhow. Like many young Australians in search of inspiration, she decided that spending time abroad teaching English would be a great way to explore a new country while figuring out where to take her professional career.
While China and Japan were two of the more popular teaching destinations among her peers, Julia was drawn to follow a path less travelled – and, with the assistance of one of her university colleagues, she secured a teaching position at YES Youngdo in Seoul.
“Teaching English definitely came with a lot of perks – my hagwon (private academy) was great, my apartment was great, and overall, the lifestyle was great as well. Of course, I was especially lucky since my first company was introduced to me by a trusted friend – but not everyone is so fortunate. Not all jobs are created equal in the private education system in Korea, so I highly recommend checking job postings shared by experienced teachers to make sure you apply for a decent school.”Julia Mellor
Interested in finding out more about how to secure a teaching position in South Korea? Read a break-down of the application process here.
As is often the case with those that venture abroad on a journey of self-discovery, Julia’s one year in Korea quickly turned into two, then two became four and so it went, with 2020 marking her 14th year here. Yet while teaching English was her entry-point into building a life and career in Korea, Julia quickly realised that without a formal background in Education it would be difficult to progress professionally within the ‘hagwon’ system. This brings us to Julia’s encounter with a hobby that would lead her to spend over a decade in Korea and make her an expert in Korean traditional alcohol.
The first sool chapter – Makgeolli Mamas and Papas Korea(MMPK)
While the dynamic and fast-paced lifestyle of Seoul was one of the reasons Julia chose to stay in Korea beyond that single adventurous “year abroad”, it quickly became apparent that it was also a city with a quick changeover of people. So in part of her efforts to build a close-knit community, Julia joined her Canadian friend, Monica Barkley, to launch ‘Makgeolli Mamas and Pajeon Papas Korea’ (later dropping ‘Pajeon’ to simplify the name to MMPK).
“One of the things you are bound to face as an expat abroad is the loss of your friends as they move on to pursue opportunities back home or in another country. For me, years 4 and 5 were the hardest, because many of the friends I had made while working as an English teacher in Korea had left. In some ways, Makgeolli Mamas and Papas started as a means to fill that social void, by creating a community of those interested in Korean makgeolli.”Julia Mellor
Between 2012 – 2017, MMPK was a dedicated social community that gathered once per month to enjoy makgeolli and dinner at one of Seoul’s numerous dedicated makgeolli bars. These gatherings focused on a discussion of makgeolli brewing and flavour spectrum, which Julia found herself increasingly leading as an expert on the topic.
From community to a career
While MMPK initially started as a social community, it soon became clear to Julia that she was genuinely passionate about the subject and was constantly looking for opportunities to develop her understanding of traditional Korean alcohol. Through MMPK, Julia got to meet Professor Hyojin Jo of Susubori Academy, who would become one of the key mentor figures to guide her to becoming an expert of ‘sool’.
As Julia regularly attended more and more brewing workshops and visited numerous traditional breweries around Korea, it became clear that picking up Korean language skills was an essential step to deepen her expertise on the subject, particularly since there were limited resources available in English. She formalized her brewing education by attending four of the most renowned institutes for Korean alcohol education, courses she would not be able to undertake without Korean language skills.
Of course, for Julia, learning Korean wasn’t simply a pathway to becoming a sool expert – she was determined to have her own business, and for that, mastery of the local language was paramount. “I knew every step of the way that I couldn’t run a business if I didn’t speak Korean”, she emphasised.
With a clear goal of securing an independent visa to run her own business, rather than being tied to a particular employer that ‘sponsored’ your working visa, Julia juggled her teaching job, MMPK and study commitments to build up the skills and knowhow to advance her career in Korea.
“Unless you’re a young professional who plans to spend a few years in Korea before heading home, it’s important that you think about your visa and side hustle options from the start. For me, teaching English while studying Korean was a great way to balance having an income while preparing for the next stage of my career.”Julia Mellor
A few years down the line, with solid fluency of Korean and an approved F-2-7 long term resident visa status, it was time to transition MMPK from a community to a business.
“Changing from a community to a company was really hard. One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to communicate that the information and services that used to be provided for free, through the MMPK informal gatherings, would now be incorporated into the new business model. We also needed a new name, as it was clear to us that ‘Makgeolli Mamas and Papas’ wasn’t going to go global. Since the new business would focus on traditional Korean alcohol, we settled on “The Sool Company” becoming the industry leader in normalizing the use of the term “sool” refer to Korean alcohol in English.”Julia Mellor
While the initial shift may have been a little strenuous, The Sool Company has become a well-known entity within the community, winning support from locals, expats and tourists alike. During the unique pandemic challenges of 2020, Julia launched an online makgeolli course and a community for brewers (Makgeolli Brewers Hub), to boost online engagement and connect sool enthusiasts around the world. She also has expanded her consultancy for start-up makgeolli breweries around the world, with clients in Australia, Europe, and The United States.
Korean language skills and why they matter
While Julia’s journey in Korea may have started with teaching English, it was the Korean language that would prove a vital ingredient to her success as an entrepreneur in Seoul. Determined to tap into Korean materials relating to sool, improve her ability to communicate with local brewers, and establish the foundation for building her own business (including getting the visa points linked to your Korean language abilities), Julia found time to dedicate herself to Korean language study while working.
“Platforms like Talk to me in Korean didn’t exist back then, so I mostly relied on good old fashioned textbooks and focused on picking up the language from the immersive environment. One of the tricks I used was trying to listen to people’s conversations and seeing how much I could pick up – which was definitely one of the advantages of living in Korea.”Julia Mellor
Typifying Julia’s hands-on approach to Korean studies, her advice for language students keen to put their studies into practice included talking to taxi drivers. “It’s expensive, but a lot cheaper than getting a language tutor”, Julia quipped.
“Practising Korean with taxi drivers was definitely my go-to when it came to language practice. I found it was a great way to build confidence in speaking Korean – as you are speaking with people you will likely never see again, so you can practice conversations over and over. You have control over the topics and they can range from the weather to cultural differences or international politics. I even sometimes made up various life stories just so I could practice new vocabulary.”Julia Mellor
Looking for more Korean language study tips? Check out this Beginners Guide by one of our Co-Founders, Olly Theobald!
Today, Julia is well established as an expert in traditional Korean alcohol – successfully running a number of businesses and frequently presenting workshops in English and Korean alike. She is a graduate of the Korean Integration Program and has passed Level 5 of standardised Korean language proficiency, and is a proud F-2-7 visa holder (although recent revisions to the application/ renewal process have added complexity to maintaining visas in this category). She has also served a two-year term on AustCham Korea’s Board of Directors and is re-applying to renew her term in 2021.
If you find yourself living in Korea or elsewhere, Julia emphasised the need to immerse yourself in the local environment and to, “Think of everything you do in a foreign country as a learning opportunity”. Whether you are looking for an adventure abroad as an English teacher or dream of starting your own business, Julia’s story is an inspiring one to keep in mind – imbued with tireless energy and passion for exploring new things.
Interested in finding out more about Julia’s take on working in Korea or keen to delve into the study of sool?
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