The Day – Not your average soy sauce fermenting in North Stonington

North Stonington – Bob Florence lifted the lid off one of more than 40 barrels of moromi, a Japanese word meaning mash – in this case a fermented mash of wheat, soy and koji, which is mould. He made this mash last January, which means he’s ready to start pressing into the soy sauce anytime.

He planted some tiny wooden tasting spoons. The flavor is instantly recognizable as soy sauce, also called shoyu, but instantly recognizable as something unfamiliar to Kikkoman, although the distinction is hard to describe. Florence, a chemist, was entrusted to her business partner James Wayman.

Wayman paused.

“This one has real caramel undertones,” said Wayman, chef and managing partner of Nana’s Bakery & Pizza and Grass & Bone in Mystic. “I get a bit of stone fruity and apricot stuff.”

“Its shoyu, it’s not your everyday soy sauce. It’s not that salty bomb, it’s more like scotch,” said Julian ElFedayni-Connell, chef at the Tin Peddler in North Stonington. He concluded, “It’s like somebody cares. It’s not overproduced, it’s not kicked out.”

It’s one of the products from Moromi, a fermented foods company that Florence founded with his wife, Debbi Michiko Florence, and Wayman. It operates from a facility outside the roundabout on routes 2 and 184 in North Stonington.

Debbi “is a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up in California and spent many childhood summers dining across Japan,” Moromi’s website describes her. She has written over 20 children’s books and recently gave a talk at the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center in Stonington as part of her Food and Gender series.

The center is hosting a virtual fermentation conference later this month, called Kojicon, and Bob Florence is set to give a talk on “the process, community, and philosophy of making koji and shoyu.”

In addition to shoyu, Moromi makes miso, a semi-solid ferment using rice instead of soy. Moromi sells sendai red miso, a savory variety in the style of what goes into miso soup, and shiro miso, which is sweet and less commonly used by Americans.

On Moromi’s website, a 5-ounce bottle of shoyu or an 8-ounce packet of shiro miso sells for $15, while sendai red miso and moromi chili sauce are $20. Area stores that carry Moromi products include Nana’s, Fiddleheads in New London and Sandy’s Fine Food Emporium in Westerly.

The company has also garnered national media attention.

In a recent article about the only sustainable sushi restaurant in New York, The New Yorker paid tribute to “soy sauce made by a guy named Bob in Mystic, Connecticut.” For Martha Stewart Living, it deserves a place in a condiment lover’s gift guide.

But Florence sees himself as a guy who is just trying to make really good soy sauce.

The process and appeal of shoyu

Making soy sauce begins with roasting and crushing wheat, which Florence obtains from Still River Farm in Coventry. The soybeans — which come from the Midwest, though Florence tries hard to source them locally — go into a pressure cooker until they’re “as soft as an earlobe.”

He then places the wheat and beans on a table in a small room and shakes the koji spores – from Japan – on top. Koji mold grows on beans and wheat for two days; the room temperature reaches 90 degrees the first day but Florence turns on the air conditioner the second.

This completes the first stage, then moves on to the second stage: making the mash, which is where the kegs come in. Some processes are similar to making beer, although Florence noted that “this industry does not have an artisan angle equivalent to that of beer”. does, and I think he should.”

Florence, 62, said she has always enjoyed cooking, a common trait among chemists. He traveled for work in Japan in the 1980s, exposing him to a lot of Japanese cuisine.

But what was the specific appeal of making soy sauce?

“It’s technically very difficult. It’s really difficult to make soy sauce,” Florence said. He noted that between the different types of soy, wheat, and salt, there are many ways to make soy sauce (and he pulled out paper to mathematically illustrate his point).

One of Florence’s goals is to help cooks have fun in the kitchen.

In Chester, Grano Arso has put on its menu duck confit glazed with maple chilli, fennel pollen and Moromi shoyu lees, the solid part left over from pressed soy sauce. Millwright’s Restaurant and Tavern in Simsbury created a dish that included Nantucket Bay scallops dressed in a soy sauce mixture.

The Tin Peddler served roasted eggplant with shoyu, Japanese mayonnaise and green onions, and tenderloin tartare over jasmine rice with shoyu. Vintage in Colchester used shoyu to accompany the duck wings and beef cheeks.

Brown Butter Southern Kitchen and Bar in New Orleans served shoyu-seasoned roasted carrot mash alongside smoked, candy-glazed pork belly.

From industrial chemistry to fermentation

Florence grew up in Syracuse, NY, studied polymer chemistry at Syracuse University, and spent her early career working in industrial chemistry for General Electric. At that time, he and Debbi – whom he met on a plane in Dallas 24 years ago – were living in Shanghai.

After his division was sold to another company, Florence worked to build factories in China for Apple, but he saw the environmental destruction it caused in the countryside. After leaving China in 2009, he moved to the Bay Area and worked for Solazyme, a startup that worked on using fermentation technology to convert algae into fuel.

Florence said the biofuels industry hasn’t fared well, given that fracking has driven oil prices down: “The technology works, but economically it was a disaster.”

But that industrial fermentation served as a bridge between his work in industrial chemicals and his “little business here in Mystic,” which he and Debbi moved to in 2012. Emerging from his startup background and “licking my wounds,” he decided to slow down and try to do something local.

He started out researching cheese, but moved on to making small-scale soy sauce at home.

Around 2018, he reached out to Wayman on Instagram and brought him some samples. Wayman provided some feedback, but Florence wanted to get more involved, so he got to the bottom of it: He wrote to the heads of 15 soy sauce companies and visited three in Japan.

Florence said that while Kikkoman is “like a single note,” small family businesses “make soy sauces that are more like a chord, with a beginning, middle, and end, and lots of different flavor notes that linger. a long time, in addition to salt.”

His mentor in Japan was Kyosuke Iida, president of Chiba Shoyu. In a video posted on Moromi’s website, he speaks in Japanese and holds up an English sign saying that “Bob San likes to cook and (is) passionate about fermented foods”, and that Florence is similar to Doc from “Back to the future”. “

Florence said “Iida-San was drawn to our relationship because I could step outside the boundaries” of Japanese standards on the type, color and composition of soy sauce. He could take advantage of Wayman’s passion for hunting wild mushrooms or ferment soy sauce with locally grown cayenne peppers.

During a Friday round, Florence opened a barrel that ferments with sweet kelp from Stonington Kelp, giving the shoyu a briny flavor.

He formed Mystic Koji LLC in 2019 and began operating out of the North Stonington plant, where bread for Nana’s Bakery & Pizza is also made, in December 2020.

“It’s been a slow build, which is good, because I basically do everything myself, and I like how the business is growing right now,” Florence said. “It’s at a good pace.”

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