The Best Miso in North America is Made in Conway
By Laura Sayre, Photos by Dan Little
The first thing I notice as I approach the production facility at South River Miso is the wonderful smell—earthy, sweet, complex, inviting. The kind of smell that makes you breathe deep and open your eyes a little more widely. Christian Elwell smiles as he steps out the door to greet me. “The smell is often what people comment on first,” he says.
Tucked into a green slope north of Conway, South River Miso has been the life project of Christian and Gaella Elwell. In operation since 1981, the company currently employs 14 people and produces 120,000 pounds of miso a year, selling directly to customers via their website as well as in natural foods stores nationwide.
The labels on their jars describe what is made here as “the only unpasteurized, certified organic miso that is entirely handcrafted in the centuries-old Japanese tradition,” and as Elwell shows me around, I come to appreciate what this means. Miso-making in Japan was traditionally a rural enterprise, and the tools and techniques in use here are similar to those found in a traditional Japanese miso shop (few of which remain today even in Japan).
The production room is compact and neatly organized, with windows looking out over gardens and fields to the river below. In the center of the room is a wood-fired masonry oven, which warms the building while also being used to steam the rice and slow-cook the beans that go into the miso. Many of the utensils and trays used to prepare the miso are made of wood, as are the enormous vats in which the miso is aged (from three weeks to three years, depending on the recipe). All of the work is done by hand, with precise, careful gestures that have an almost agricultural feel to them.
Miso is the result of a two-step fermentation process bringing together a grain and a bean. First comes the fermentation of the grain—traditionally rice or barley. The grain is steamed in a large stainless steel cauldron, allowed to cool slightly, and then “seeded” with Aspergillus oryzae, a strain of mold selected for miso-making over hundreds of years. The mold is allowed to develop on the rice for two days in a small, warm, wood-lined space called a koji room. The fermented rice, covered in fine white fungal filaments, is called koji.
The koji is then mixed with salt (more salt for the longer-aged misos; less salt for the shorter-aged misos) and allowed to sit again overnight. Meanwhile, the beans (traditionally soybeans, but here sometimes aduki beans or chickpeas) are slow-cooked in the cauldron, again using wood-fired heat. The salted koji is then combined with the cooked beans in a mixing box, a large flat trough that can be set on the floor. The mixing, too, is done in the traditional fashion, carefully treaded underfoot by the miso master. (A video of this, from the Cooking Channel show “Food Crafters,” can be seen on the South River Miso website.) A small amount of “seed miso”—mature miso from a previous batch—is mixed in at the same time.
When the mixing is complete, the miso is transferred to the vat room. It takes multiple batches to fill a vat; when the vat is full, it is covered in cloth, sealed with a wooden lid and then weighted to press out any remaining air. The aging period allows for a second, anaerobic fermentation, with different microorganisms at work, including the bacteria Lactobacillus delbrueckii and Pediococcus halophilus.
On the morning I visit, three batches of chickpea miso are under way . One batch of rice is steaming in the cauldron. Another batch is in the koji room, where a miso-maker, Yukio Doyama, is transferring it from the koji “crib” (a large wooden box) into dozens of shallow wooden trays. Two other miso-makers, Peter Alexanian and Jamie Paul, are working with the third batch, gently scraping the koji out of the small wooden trays through a sieve into 20-gallon white tubs. Later, we watch as Alexanian and Paul spread the freshly steamed rice from the cauldron on muslin-lined, table-sized wooden trays and then inoculate it with the koji starter.
From the beginning, all of South River Miso’s ingredients have been organic: the rice, the barley, the soybeans, the adukis, the chickpeas. Most, for the moment, are not local: At one point they were getting organic soybeans from a farmer in Belchertown, but he left the area, and although Elwell feels it would be possible to source more of their “commodities” locally, “it would require overcoming a variety of logistical and human challenges.” One testament to that potential: In the garden is a small paddy of heirloom rice the Elwells have been growing for home use for the past 30 years. The wood for the oven comes from David Lashway in Williamsburg.
And while the quality of the ingredients is clearly essential, Elwell emphasizes that “the human element, the connection” that is created through their non-mechanized production process is just as important. South River Miso’s approach to miso-making is rooted in the macrobiotic tradition, but also in biodynamics.
“Miso is in some ways a biodynamic preparation,” Elwell says. “Food is more than just substances to be digested; it is a carrier for cosmic forces.” He smiles again. “I’m 70 years old, I can say these things now.”
Tips for cooking with miso
Unpasteurized miso is a live food. Use a clean spoon each time you reach into the jar.
When making soups or other hot dishes, add miso at the end of the cooking process, not at the beginning. Boiling may destroy some of its beneficial properties.
An opened (or unopened) jar of miso will keep in the fridge for a year or more.
For further reading Christian and Gaella recommend the book Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2015)