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Day in the life of a Miso Shokunin (Craftsman)

The season isn't quite ready actually, as you traditionally would make miso in the Fall/Winter/Spring time when temperatures are low, but my 1 year ripe spelt and soybean miso just had gone empty on me, so I had to take action as I wanted to immediately refill the barrel to keep the funky, bacteriological vibe in it rolling.

In case you are wondering, thats yeast accumulating on the sides of the barrel, not mold.

So for those of you not familiar with miso in the first place: it's a fermented (duh) soy condiment which uses a mold culture, which is called koji and is either grown on rice, barley or the soybeans themselves, as its essential base and is originated in Japanese farming culture, but there's pendants to it in Korea and China as well. I walk you through the process of it all. The pictures are a bit mixed up from different batches of miso I made.


Alright here we go. Day 1 - oh... did I mention making miso takes about 3 days (including occasional mini night shifts)? Yup, it is quite work intensive. And we eventually even start on the night before the official day one by soaking rice or soybeans overnight, if you make rice or soybean koji for your base. In case of barley or spelt (not typical as it is not native or common in Japan, but I regularly use it because it is here) you soak the grain early in the morning of day one.


Day 1:

6.00 - wash and soak barley for about 3 - 4 hours.

9.00 - heat up the Okama (cauldron) and strain the barley into the steaming cloth, which will be placed on a wooden grid inside the cauldron. For the koji you generally steam your "substrate".

Due to my setup I have to occasionally mix the barley from the outsides of the steaming bag with the inner core so it gets steamed evenly, which takes almost one and a half hours.


11.00 - get the bag of grains out and spread it on a clean working table to release the heat as quickly as possible. Traditionally this would be assisted by fanning the rice. As soon as it has cooled to about 45°C you inoculate it with tane koji (literally Koji seed, but of course its spores). Then it gets packed into racks (my method is unconventional in this way as you normally use narrow boxes to pack the growing koji) and put into the incubator.

The koji spores will now start germinating and as soon as they start growing properly they start generating their own heat which is the critical part that you're in charge of managing. Because for the first few hours your job is to keep the young koji nice and warm in a range of about 30 - 35°C and as soon as the generation of heat starts your job is ventilating it properly so it doesn't overheat. The heat production of growing koji is pretty much similar to a freshly turned compost pile so it actually has the ability to create so much heat it destroys itself.


Day 2:

6.00 - First thing in the morning swap coffee for koji. Depending on the temperature stability of the incubator the koji is already growing and therefore warming up. If you open the incubator and there's a sweet, dreamy smell of chestnut you know it's koji going on. Mix the koji in the trays to ventilate and also hasten mycelial growth.

This should be repeated every 6 hours from now on. So let's calculate: 6.00 - 12.00 - 18.00 - 00.00 - 6.00 theoretically that seems like a manageable timetable, BUT as the koji progresses heat generation will increase and if you don't work with technologies like thermostats that are linked to fans, heating devices and humidifiers, to constantly keep a perfect temperature and humidity all the time, its of course your job to do so and therefore sometimes it's better to keep checking every 4 hours which narrows your timetable into a realm of the previously mentioned night shifts. Luckily just for this night because on day three we will finally make miso. Which means we soak soybeans in the evening.


Day 3:

6.00 - After a night of occasionally checking in with the koji you start by heating up the cauldron and placing the soybeans in the cooking water. While the beans boil you can prepare your working space and measure out the salt and "seed miso", some ripe miso of the previous batch to introduce a healthy flora which will speed up fermentation.


10.00 - Soybeans should be well cooked so you can easily crush them between 2 fingers. Safe some of the cooking liquid which will go into the miso and strain the beans. Traditionally the beans, koji and salt would now be mashed together by a couple of people standing around a huge stone mortar and rhythmically pounding the mix with wooden pestles. My device of processing is a fruit mill otherwise used to grind apples before pressing them into cider, it produces a chunky style miso as some of the grains and beans are only slightly crushed, which is all you need for the enzymes of the koji to gain access and start the complex chemical process which follows in the barrel over the course of the next 6 - 12 month, or even longer, depending on the style of miso you are making.


Even though it looks very elaborate, the way I have depicted miso production here is rather basic and there's way more complexity and detail to it that could be explained but would be way too much.


Like every good tour we exit through the gift shop - I sell my miso either from our home, at the Dornbirn local market if I'm there and I'm willing to send it to any place in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. And thanks for your dedicated reading, just like the work itself it probably takes some of it to read the whole of this :)

Mixing Miso after 6 month to accelerate fermentation


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© 2019 by Max Scheffknecht