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It's not your average soy sauce fermenting in North Stonington

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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 fermenting mash of wheat, soybeans and koji, which is mold. He made this mash last January, meaning it's ready for him to start pressing into soy sauce at any time.

He stuck in a few tiny wooden tasting spoons. The flavor is immediately recognizable as soy sauce, also called shoyu, but immediately recognizable as something that's not the familiar Kikkoman brand, though the distinction is hard to describe. Florence, a chemist, deferred to business partner James Wayman.

Wayman paused.

"This one has a real caramel overtone to it," said Wayman, chef and managing partner of Nana's Bakery & Pizza and Grass & Bone in Mystic. "I do get a bit of the stone fruity, apricoty kind of stuff."

"His shoyu, it's not your everyday soy sauce. It's not that salt bomb; it's more scotchy," said Julian ElFedayni-Connell, chef at The Tin Peddler in North Stonington. He concluded, "It tastes like someone cares about it. It's not overproduced, it's not pushed out."

It's one of the products from Moromi, a fermented food company that Florence founded with his wife, Debbi Michiko Florence, and Wayman. It operates out of a facility off the traffic circle at routes 2 and 184 in North Stonington.

Debbi "is a third-generation Japanese American who grew up in California and spent many childhood summers eating her way through Japan," Moromi's website describes her. She has written more than 20 children's books and recently gave a talk at the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center in Stonington as part of its series on food and gender.

The center is holding a virtual conference on fermentation later this month, called Kojicon, and Bob Florence is scheduled 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 red sendai 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 8-ounce pouch of shiro miso sells for $15, while red sendai miso and chili moromi sauce are $20. Shops in the region that carry Moromi products include Nana's, Fiddleheads in New London and Sandy's Fine Food Emporium in Westerly.

The company also has drawn some national media attention.

In a recent article on the only sustainable sushi spot in New York City, The New Yorker gave a shoutout to "soy sauce made by a guy named Bob in Mystic, Connecticut." To Martha Stewart Living, it's worthy of a spot on a condiment lovers gift guide.

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

The process and allure of shoyu

Making the soy sauce starts with roasting and cracking the wheat, which Florence gets from Still River Farm in Coventry. The soybeans — which come from the Midwest, though Florence is working on getting them locally — go into a pressure cooker until they're as "soft as an earlobe."

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

This completes the first stage, and then it's on to the second stage: making the mash, which is where the barrels come in. Some of the processes are similar to making beer, though Florence noted "this industry has no equivalent craft angle that beer does, and I think it should."

Florence, 62, said he always liked cooking, a common trait for 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 really super challenging. It's really hard to make soy sauce," Florence said. He noted that between the different types of soybeans, wheat and salt, there are many ways to make soy sauce (and he pulled out some paper to mathematically illustrate his point).

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

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

The Tin Peddler has served roasted eggplant with shoyu, Japanese mayo and scallions, and tenderloin tartare over jasmine rice with shoyu. Vintage in Colchester has used shoyu to accompany duck wings and beef cheeks.

Brown Butter Southern Kitchen and Bar in New Orleans served up shoyu-seasoned roasted carrot puree alongside smoked and sugarcane lacquered pork belly.

From industrial chemistry to fermentation

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

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

Florence said the biofuel industry didn't fare well, considering fracking caused oil prices to plummet: "The technology works, but economically it was a disaster."

But this industrial fermentation served as the bridge between his work in industrial chemistry and his "little business here in Mystic," where he and Debbi moved in 2012. Coming off his startup experience and "licking my wounds," he decided to slow down and try doing something local.

He started off researching cheese but pivoted to making soy sauce on a small scale at home.

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

Florence said that whereas Kikkoman is "like a single note," smaller family-owned companies "make soy sauces that are more like a chord, with a beginning, middle and an end, and a lot of different flavor notes that linger for a long time, besides just 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 a sign in English saying that "Bob San loves cooking and (is) passionate about fermented foods," and that Florence is similar to Doc from "Back to the Future."

Florence said that "Iida-San was attracted to our relationship because I could go outside of the bounds" of Japanese standards on the type, color and composition of soy sauce. He could take advantage of Wayman's passion for wild mushroom hunting, or ferment soy sauce with locally grown cayenne peppers.

In a tour Friday, Florence opened a barrel that is fermenting with sugar kelp from Stonington Kelp, giving the shoyu a briny flavor.

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

"It's been a slow build, which is good, because I'm essentially doing everything myself, and I like the way the business is building right now," Florence said. "It's at a nice pace."

e.moser@theday.com

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