Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
A little taste of Japan – with big health benefits – is being made at a most unlikely spot
in Western North Carolina.
Think of miso soup and your mind most likely makes a connection to Japan or your favorite Japanese restaurant, but there’s a surprising link to Western North Carolina and miso that most people don’t know. It’s a great ice-breaker line at a party: Did you know that the world’s largest organic miso manufacturer is located in Rutherfordton? It’s true. The American Miso Company churns out about 700,000 pounds of handcrafted miso every year. It’s marketed under the Miso Master Organic Miso brand.
“We are a tiny company with a big presence,” says Leila Bakkum, sales manager for American Miso Company. “Nobody knows we exist. All this beer is getting attention and no one knows we’re here. We’re the world’s oldest fermented food. My objective is to awaken people to how versatile miso is as an ingredient. I have lots of miso fantasies.”
It takes a little over an hour to arrive at the American Miso Company plant in Rutherfordton from Asheville. This after traveling part of the way on I-40, and then venturing off the highway to wind around what seems like continuous curves past nondescript trailers, fields, and small houses. Even upon arriving at the facility, there’s nothing out of the ordinary to capture the imagination in this rural setting. Right off the two-lane road, there’s simply a series of buildings surrounded by empty trailers, refrigeration units, and cars of employees. Twenty-three workers make their living here—treasured jobs in one of the lowest income counties in Western North Carolina. Two dogs amble their way to greet the rare visitor who shows up at this site, their tails wagging with appreciation at a soft pat on their heads.
Joe Kato, the miso master, leads the way through the operation after stretching a net over his salt-and-pepper hair, which is pulled back into a small ponytail, and another one over his beard. He also wears a long coat-like smock and provides the same for visitors.
The smell of steamed rice hangs heavy in the air. It’s a Wednesday and that means it’s mixing day, so the activity in the first production building is constant with six workers synchronized in sort of an organized chaos. Giant vats filled with rice are inoculated with spores of Aspergillus oryzae (similar to the probiotic bacteria found in yogurt) to create what’s known as koji. This is the first step in creating miso. Workers pass by with a fully inoculated bin of white rice and wheel it into a closet, where the rice will “sleep” overnight. At the same time, other workers are scraping trays of the koji rice into buckets, and others are raking cooked soybeans into vats, adding salt, and mixing the ingredients together.
“The fermented rice is the key ingredient,” says Kato. “We mix it with soybeans and sea salt. There are only three ingredients mixed together.” He takes a pinch of the koji rice and holds out his hand for his visitor to sample. It tastes like steamed rice, only drier and sweeter.
As the workers continue their synchronized duties, Bakkum says, “There are few miso shops anywhere that are this labor intensive. Most miso factories do everything by machinery. Ours is handmade.”
There are different varieties of the miso they produce. Mellow White Miso and the Traditional Red Miso are the most popular, but they also sell Country Barley Miso, Brown Rice Miso, Sweet White Miso, and Chickpea Miso. The difference is in the proportion of the three main ingredients that they use, as well as the length of time spent fermenting. The chickpea variety exchanges the soybeans for chickpeas.
Kato walks to the back of the building to open a door, revealing dozens of vats of miso that are fermenting. Each vat is covered with plastic and has river rocks interspersed on top in order to press out the air. Short-term fermentation is used for the lighter colored miso varieties. Kato says these vats are kept at 80 degrees for about 30 days. At the other end of the spectrum is the long-term fermentation, which creates the deeper colored miso and requires room temperature as the fermentation process carries out over one to two years.
Kato has been with the company for more than 20 years, but he admits it hasn’t been consecutive. He left for awhile during the ‘00s to open Heiwa Shokuda restaurant on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville. After running it for several years, he ultimately sold it and decided to return to his post as miso master.
He leads the way out of the first production building and enters a second where another crew awaits the finished miso to pack and ship. They package the miso varieties in 8 oz. and 1 lb. tubs for retail consumers, and 4 lb., 15 lb., and 40 lb. for wholesale accounts and manufacturers.
Entering the final building, Kato points to the massive casks—each one standing seven feet high and eight feet wide. It’s here that the long term miso is stored as it goes through the fermentation process. “These barrels are mostly cypress,” Kato explains, “but we have some older ones that are oak. Arrow Tanks in Buffalo, New York, makes these for winemakers, but we asked them to make some for us. We started with eight and now we have 55.” Each barrel holds 8,000 pounds of miso. Behind the barrels is another room—a cooler filled with cases of miso ready to ship.
“Miso Master Miso is available in virtually every single natural food store in the country,” says Bakkum. “We are in every Whole Foods. [Asheville] is also the home of Earth Fare, and we are the only miso on the shelf there.
The natural foods industry is where we thrive, but slowly but surely conventional chains are waking up to the benefit of having miso on their shelves. Miso is one of the most versatile ingredients you’ll ever encounter.
That’s where we’re seeing a lot of growth—restaurants and manufacturers. For example, Brad’s Raw Kale Chips adds miso as a flavoring.”
She says some of the Asheville area restaurants that buy Miso Master Organic Miso include Heiwa, Doc Chey’s, Chestnut, Early Girl, The Hop Ice Cream Café, Vortex Doughnuts, and Gan Shan Station.
So how did Western North Carolina become the site of the world’s largest organic miso manufacturer?
Its history goes back to 1979 when John and Jan Belleme traveled to Japan to learn how to make traditional miso from the Onozaki family. The Bellemes are noted for writing several books, including 2004’s The Miso Book: The Art of Cooking with Miso, as well many articles about miso, which educate readers about its health benefits. Their interest in a macrobiotic diet is what ultimately inspired their study in Japan. With support and encouragement from famed macrobiotics expert Michio Kushi, they took action on their dream to bring miso making to the United States.
“It was a high risk situation,” says John Belleme of the decision to learn the trade in Japan. “People in Japan have been making miso for generations. Whether we could learn it in nine months was questionable, but we did it.”
The story of what happened in Japan is quite remarkable. They flew into Tokyo with the knowledge that someone would meet them at the airport and take them to a miso shop that was aware they were coming. But the driver didn’t know anything about this plan. Amid the confusion, he located a miso shop and drove them there. “Before the owner committed to anything, the man drove off and left us. It turned out to be the best place in the world to wind up and we were dumped there,” says Belleme.
The miso shop owner and his family welcomed the Bellemes into their 300-year-old unheated house and began to teach them the traditional way of making miso. None of them spoke a word of English; Belleme had only gone through a three-month language class, and his wife didn’t know any Japanese.
“We had an extraordinary teacher who was willing to go out of his way to teach us the basics,” says Belleme. “The likelihood of it being a success was pretty extraordinary. If we had wound up at another place, it’s unlikely it would have happened. We wound up with a man who had a lot of integrity and compassion.”
The Bellemes returned to Western North Carolina and built the company in Rutherfordton, chosen because of the environment.
“You need ambient temperatures to ferment the miso,” explained Belleme. “There’s a phenomenon called the Isothermal Belt. It’s a strip of land, not very big, [only] about 20 miles wide by 80 miles across, and Rutherford sits in that band of land. We wanted to have the company in North Carolina, and this area is more warm and humid than in surrounding areas.”
After about six months, he brought Mr. Onozaki to the United States, along with his oldest daughter and her new husband. They came to monitor the operation and make sure the traditional Japanese miso making techniques were being used properly. “They worked with us for about six months,” says Belleme.
American Miso Company was an initial partnership between Belleme, Sandy Pukel, and Barry Evans. Pukel had owned a natural foods store where Belleme had served as manager and Evans was a frequent customer. The Bellemes learned how to make the miso and the others provided funding. It was originally called Erewhon Miso Company; Erewhon is the name of a company owned by Michio Kushi and his wife, Aveline, but Erewhon ultimately went bankrupt and the partners changed the name of the miso factory to American Miso Company.
Today, Barry Evans remains the owner of American Miso Company and the Great Eastern Sun, which is the distribution side of the operation based in Asheville. “After about seven years of making miso, I trained someone else to do it,” says Belleme. “Barry Evans bought me out.”
Health Benefits of Miso
Miso Master Organic Miso is touted as “the finest miso in the world,” and that claim is based on the strict standards to prepare high quality organic miso using ancient traditional Japanese techniques.
They’ve achieved many certifications—their miso is Certified Organic, Verified Non-GMO, Certified Gluten-Free, and Certified Kosher. The company also takes care not to use additives or preservatives to speed up the fermentation process, such as alcohol. “We let our miso age naturally,” says sales manager Bakkum. “Other brands add fermentation accelerants.”
Miso is known for having many health benefits. It’s loaded with helpful bacteria, vitamins, protein, and dietary fiber, among others. “If you look in The Miso Book that I wrote with my wife, there’s a chapter on Miso Medicine,” says Belleme. “There are pages of documented medical benefits and it’s all based on research.”
One recent study—published in 2013 by the Journal of Toxicologic Pathology—reveals that miso is beneficial in reducing incidents of radiation injury, cancer, and hypertension. Even though miso is relatively high in sodium, the study says, “It is better to refrain from excessive intake of salt, but it may be recommended to consume miso soup to prevent lifestyle-related diseases including hypertension.”
As miso master Kato puts it, “Miso is the best natural food in the world.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…