Our schedule was a visit to a mirin factory and tamari brewery arranged by Takehiro. We expected it to be awesome, and not only did it not disappoint, but instead was above and beyond what we expected.
We started at the Sumiya Bunjiro Brewery which brews Mikawa Mirin. I had met Mrs. Sumiya, the daughter of the president, on a previous trip to Japan. She was not able to attend, but her husband met us there and showed us around. This factory is just over 100 years old and produces mirin from only four ingredients - sticky rice, salt, shochu and koji. There is no added sugar or anything else to enhance the flavor. What really stands out is that they make their own shochu which they then use to make the mirin. Their mirin is then aged 2 years which yields a caramel-like color and the nose of a fine sherry. This is mirin as it should be, as it originally was. (if only the rules regarding importing alcohol allowed us to bring in this product...)
Next up was the tamari brewery, Ito Shoten, which we expected to be cool but was as tokubetsu (special) as could be. The last thing we expected to find was a 200-year-old brewery tucked in a small neighborhood in Aichi Prefecture. Nine generations have been making this amazing condiment following the same family recipe. The grandfather and his grandson showed us around their factory, while the grandmother kept us full on green tea and mochi.
Tasting the tamari left me thinking I was drinking a fine wine - the flavor kept changing in my mouth. The nose had notes of caramel and dried figs and the flavor was sweet & salty with hints of dried fruits. I couldn't help but wish for a plate of sashimi to eat with it. Then we were taken inside and shown the process. The steps are the same in most shoyu brewies, expect this one was never modernized - everything is done completely by hand.
They age their tamari in 70 cedar vats that age in range from 100 years to 200 years. Their tamari is aged 3 years in these vats with river stones on top pressing the moromi (the mash of soybeans, salt and koji). Then by hand they remove the rocks one by one and shovel out the pressed moromi. At this point they spread the paste between cloths, stack on top of one another and put it under a press to extract the tamari. Lastly, the soybean oil ( I made the mistake of tasting this - it was so bad and bitter) is strained off, then it is filtered and bottled.
As we left the tamari brewery, the 85 year old grandfather waved to us as he was driving a fork lift around!
We were surprised by a visit to Nitto Jozo's shiro (white) tamari factory. Shiro tamari is the polar opposite of Ito Shoten's tamari because it is 100% wheat, not 100% soy beans. The aroma has a beautiful koji nose and the flavor packed an umami punch with very balanced salt. Shiro tamari is very different from most shoyu/tamari because it is primarily used to highlight or accent ingredients as opposed to soy sauce, which is used to season food.
When I reflected on this day, I just realized how amazing it is to meet these people behind these amazing ingredients and bring their products and stories back to North America. To think this trip started with meeting Takehiro three years ago is super special.