On today’s episode, our fermentation hostess with the mostess will be speaking with Elena from Shared Cultures in San Francisco, California. Listen to them as they deep dive into the world of koji, miso, and shoyu. You will learn about the foraging, fermenting, and selling process of all 3!
“I think that's the most important thing, that when people see ferments or just artisan goods in general, that maybe are two, three, four times more expensive. Look at the why because I guarantee you that why is worth it.”
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Cara: Hey, everyone, and welcome back to the Cultures for Health podcast. Today. I'm really excited to be talking to Elena from shared cultures. She's going to talk to us about foraging and how she incorporates that into Koji miso show you. Remember to use the code Cfhpodcast to get 25% off our website. Let's get into it. Welcome back to the Cultures for Health podcast. We are so excited today to have Shared Cultures with us. They are very well known for their work in miso and show you and foraging and all of that. And we are super excited to have them on our podcast today. This is Cara Lovett, your fermentation host. And with me. I have Elena. Elena, can you tell us a little bit more about Shared Cultures and how you got into the firmware that you got into, especially Koji based?
Elena: Yeah. So I'm one half of shared cultures. My partner Kevin Condo is also part of shared cultures. We're a two person team based in San Francisco, and we ferment misos and shoyus you. And really how we kind of got into it was through our love of mushroom foraging. A little backstory is actually when I a few years ago, I was working a desk job, and I was really depressed. And I knew that through immersing myself in nature and running, it was one of the best ways to kind of get my mind back in shape. And one of those runs I remember I always say that the chanterelles found me. I had never even noticed wild mushrooms or really I've seen little brown mushrooms, but nothing so bright like yellow, like chanterelles. I didn't know what they were. And I went to the library and I looked them up and kind of from there, it was like a three hour kind of journey to figuring out whether or not they're edible or not. And I did safely identify them as Chantrell's, and I did eat them. And then kind of from there on out, I really felt that the forest in the mushrooms saved my life in a sense. It really kind of helped me figure out, like, gave me motivation to keep on running and keep on getting out there and exploring nature. And after a while, you start realizing, hey, there are more things out here. There are acorns, there's nuts, and there's wild herbs and flowers. Maybe even the moss might be edible. I don't know. So I started really looking into all of that and started reading a lot of preservation books on how to kind of preserve the bounty of nature. And I read Sandra Cats book, The Art of Fermentation, and I stumbled upon the chapter where he talks about koji, and he mentioned that koji is also a fungi, which really was this 360 moment where I was really inspired by, wow, these mushrooms have really saved my life and gotten me out of depression. And I'm on this amazing journey of learning how to preserve them. And here I'm learning about koji, which is also a fungi, and it's also this amazing way of food. It's a way for people to preserve foods, especially in my culture. I'm Chinese American and my partner is Japanese American. And it's this fungi that's been in existence for thousands of years that have kind of nourished our people. And I had never heard about this, actually. I've never even given much thought to how soy sauce and misos were made. But certainly things that I grew up eating and I still eat today. And kind of from there. I got my partner involved and was like. Hey. And we started doing all these home projects and this was before the pandemic and we started fermenting a lot at home. Just kind of figuring out how we found a bunch of mushrooms. How do we preserve that? So a lot of our actual koji ferments in the beginning were a lot of ways just trying to figure out how we could preserve the flavors of porchinis and kind of reincorporate them into other things other than just like porchini salt or just drying them. That was kind of like the backstory of how it all really started and why we picked why we love koji so much.
Cara: That's crazy. I think the first time reading and actually kind of thinking about koji was also through Sandor Katz's Art of fermentation, that last section he has there. It's great. It's really detailed. It's a really beautiful part of that book. So that's really cool. We love his books and we love him. We've had him on the podcast and he's just a great source of information. So that's really cool. Can you tell us a little bit more about koji? Do you guys make it yourselves, maybe if you do, tell us a little bit of your process, maybe tell us best places to get it if we're a little too afraid to make it ourselves,
Elena: yeah, for sure. We do make our own koji and we actually make it in a converted refrigerator. I post about it on my Instagram so we're able to actually batch close to like £150 of koji in the refrigerator. It's a lot of work because we act the pans vertically in the converted refrigerator. So we use a commercial refrigerator that doesn't have a freezer component and it is plugged into an ink bird system. And what it essentially does, it's this wonderful incubation box that when it gets too hot in there, when you're growing the koji after 24 hours of life, it starts emitting a lot of heat and the refrigerator does take in and regulate that. However, we do go in there the next day and break up all of it. So every single individual tray, we go in there with our own hands and we actually dump it into a bucket and we mix it and then we put it back in. We essentially retrain it so it's a great way to grow koji if you don't have too much space. I visited a lot of our friends up in Maine going fermented foods. We went up there recently, precandemic, and we went to go see kind of their incubation set up, and they have a mural, like traditional koji room. And our friends here in San Francisco, Sequoia Sake, they make a lot of koji as well, and they also have a mural, but because we work in a shared commercial kitchen with six other tenants, we don't have a dedicated space. So the only way we could really hack it was putting in a commercial refrigerator, and it's been working really well. We grow all of our koji on rice, and we get this question a lot, like, why rice? Well, actually, Kevin and I just really like to use things that we really love to eat. Personally, we love eating rice. Yeah, it's one of our favorite foods. And so you can grow it on barley. You can grow on anything, really, but we like to choose the inputs that we personally enjoy eating the most. And there's something really, I think, for us, exciting about this notion of, like, rice and beans. It's really multicultural if you think about in any culture, rice and beans is such a staple food, and for us, that kind of translates into the work we do with koji. We try to think of what kind of elements do we all share in our culture and in all of our weather you're Asian or your weather or whatever Rice and beans, like, even like, in Mexico, Latin countries, it's so ubiquitous to nourishment. And so we just really like to grow our rice on koji, on rice and then ferment beans with that. So I would say that I have found good koji for sale in the Asian grocery supermarket. I know. Cold Mountain sold one. I don't know. Do you guys sell koji on your website?
Cara: Yeah, we do. We sell barley and brown rice.
Elena: Awesome. Yeah. And I think that a good way to identify good koji is just firm grains with visible mycelium growing on them. And usually the color should be white, but sometimes it could be a little you know, it could be a little darker, like yellow. I've sometimes seen really old koji kind of get into, like, that blue green kind of color, and that might be a little bit just older. It's just completely mature koji. And that might be something I would stay away from, especially if you're just starting out. Those flavors can be very strong, and you're just not really sure. So I would say more stick with more white and yellow at the most. Yeah.
Cara: Cool. So we've got a koji. We've made it, we've bought it. Tell us about me. How long do you typically ferment your miso? How do you kind of choose your ingredients? Does the duration of your fermentation change based on your ingredients? Can you just tell us whatever you're willing to tell us about such cool stuff, because I see new products all the time. I'm always like, hey, that one looks so good. Tell us about that process.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. So we typically ferment our mesas from two to eight months. It really depends what the ferment is. We try to describe whether it's a sweet miso or, like, a more savory miso. So really it comes down to the two months are more based on the Japanese style of, like, shiro miso, more white miso that you see in the market. And those are typically sweeter. They have a higher percentage of koji rice, which means that the starch in the rice breaks down into sugar, and it's a faster fermentation process. So a lot of those two months miso, and that's typically a two month miso. And so a lot of our two month misos in that regard are usually more seasonal, but not really per se. It's more like what we can find at the market, at the farmers market, and then within two months bring that product to market, basically, like, ferment it and sell it. But we also have longer age misos that are aged more traditional. I wouldn't say traditionally because sheer mesos are also very traditional, like the white miso, but they're just aged for much longer. So, like, for example, like, our morale miso does go out for eight months, and we also make a black garlic miso that we also ferment for eight months. So I think that the real idea is based off of when we look at an ingredient, what kind of flavors are we trying to coax out? We just made an amazing urfa chili, ancho chili miso, and we really wanted to play on the sweet and spicy flavor. So because we want that sweetness, we're fermenting it for two months in the style of traditional sheer white miso. But then when we're thinking about, for example, our morale miso or like, a black garlic miso, we also did, like, a lime made miso. We really wanted to play upon more savory flavors, like, morel kind of remind us of, like, steak and butter. And we really wanted to coax out that savory flavor. And black garlic is already such a strong ferment, and of course, that would be delicious sweet too. Like a sweet black garlic would be delicious. But I think it's just we just look at the ingredients and really have them kind of speak to us and inspire us. And as soon as the ideas come, it's like, okay, let's do it. And we try to honor the ingredients the best we can with traditional fermentation practices.
Cara: So do you find that there are go to ingredients? Like, are there any misos that you try to keep on your shelves all the time because you just love the ingredients, you love the miso. And then on the other hand, are there ingredients that you've tried that you're just, like, you know, this one spoke to me, but then I tried it and it no longer spoke to me. It spoke to me, but it wasn't saying the right things. Do you have kind of a list of go to a list of stay away? Where do you draw those lines? I'm sure as you experience and as you do it more and more, you kind of know what that boundary is for yourself. But could you tell us maybe about what that boundary looks like for you all?
Elena: Sure. Yeah. So I would say right now we have a few kind of staples. We have our cashing miso, which we always keep in stock really, because one of the restaurants we work with is on their menu and it's almost like we have to keep it. We always have batches going for that and as soon as we sign up a restaurant partner, depending on what they want, if it's a mainstay, then we'll try to keep it in stock. But, you know, like, the cash the mainstay. We've actually recently decided to try to keep the split pee on mainstay because the split p miso is something that you can have split peas all year round, like yellow slip peas. And what's really wonderful is I think a lot of people know about it because Lenoma Book of Fermentation, it's mentioned there. So a lot of our customers have bought that miso because they're like, oh, we've heard of it before. And so that kind of helps, I think, especially because what we're doing is so new that it's really nice to have some sort of context, whether from a book or from other people who have done it before. And it's just more awareness to kind of help us in our business. But our mmiso, we're trying to keep that in stock. We actually made 350 lbs of it. That's the size of our batches now and that's going to be ready in November. We still have some for sale right now, but it's actually not that much. I mean, we batch that eight months ago and we had no idea when we made it that our company there would be so much interest in what we're doing. So we're planning for that. But who knows? In November, maybe that's 350 lbs, but hopefully it's enough and we'll see. But we try to keep the meramiso. this is the third iterate well, the new Bachelor will be coming in November is the fourth iteration, but the one that we have selling right now, it's the third. So that's kind of been with us from the very beginning. I still remember the first round miso, we made like two years ago. It wasn't nearly as good as it is now, but it's just constant iterations of methods and the percentage of Morales and things like that. But we try to keep certain things going, but it's not that we won't have it. What I'm trying to say is it's not that we don't want to have it all the time. It's just based on seasonality. Like, for example, corn miso. That's something I really love. But corn isn't in season all year round, so year after year we'll probably keep doing corn miso, but it's only going to be available once a year sort of thing.
Cara: So any ingredients to stay away from? It's cool if you all like everything you've done so far.
Elena: Yeah, everything we've done so far has been absolutely amazing. It's really hard for me to pick, like, which one is our favorite because they're all different and I think the applications are different. But the other day somebody suggested that we do an avocado miso, and I was like, oh, I don't know about that. It's just not going to ferment well. I think you really need to have some sort of, like, starch or protein in there. And avocados have a little bit of protein, but I think the texture is just not going to work. Yeah, I don't know.
Yeah, I feel that I feel like misos are more for breaking down things that are a little bit hartier. And avocado is not something that I would consider to be very harty. It's already kind of already the consistency you want it to be. There's no, like, breaking down of starches and softening or anything that really needs to happen with avocado. I think it would be interesting, yes. I don't know. Something that you'd want to put on your shelves, though. That would be. So when you make these miramiso or corn miso, are you doing a certain percentage of that to a soybean based or any kind of like, lentil base or anything like that? I did two years ago. I have a two year old miso that's like 25% black beans and 75% soybeans. Do you mix beans with your forage mushrooms? How do you guys kind of play that out?
Elena: Yeah, I think it really depends on the ingredients, like how strong they are. We typically don't try to go over like 10% of the base recipe, I think, because really it's the beans and I think the bean pairing is very important too. I know that a lot of our amusement. We really highlight the seasonal ingredient that's going in there, and we call it corn miso, more chili miso. Right. But really, I think the Maine is really also super important because it actually is like 40%, 45% of the recipe, and we really try to make sure that the bean or the legume or that main source of protein really pairs well with the seasonal ingredient we're trying to do. And it totally varies, like, for the chili miso. So I did a test patch, and we kind of started off with like 5%, and it was like super spicy, and I was like, oh, maybe we got to tone that down to like 3%. So it kind of just really depends. I can't really come down to the percentage because I think it's just a delicate dance on what you're seeking in your flavor and how strong the ingredients you're putting in and how complimentary they go with the beans and the coaching you're using.
Cara: So it's really a trial and error. Choose the things you like, see how they go. Maybe make small batches at first, and then kind of scale them as you like them. If you yeah, if you find something you really like, make 350 lbs of it.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. I would say every single batch we do, I think that we try to start with a small test batch, but sometimes we did a black bar, like me, so that's an eight month permit. We weren't going to sit around and make a small jar and then wait eight months down the road. That's kind of like, okay, let's just take a bet and just do it. And with the black garlic, I can't remember what the percentage was, but we put a lot in there because we're like, it's either going to taste really good, or we're going to have to scale it back. Honestly, out of all the ferments we've made, trial and error, they all taste good. I think once you start really fermenting and getting a feel for koji, it's going to taste good. It's just how strong do you want it to taste? And do you want more black garlic flavor? Do you want more of the flavors of, like, we use black bean, so I wanted more. Do you want more flavor of the proteins in the bean to be expressed out fully? So there isn't a right or wrong answer, I think, in the percentages.
Cara: It's good to know. That's definitely something that I don't think I've played with as much as I'd like to kind of getting out of the traditional 100% soybean and trying other things. I've made a few batches of 100% soybean, and unfortunately, they have not survived. But the black bean one that I have, I haven't tried yet, so I'm hoping it's okay. It's a couple of years old, so we'll see. But I'm hoping it's okay. But I'm really happy we're talking to you today because I get more into me. I'm secretly asking you all the questions, which is great, but let's take a second and switch shoes into Shoyu, because I think Shoyu is also a really cool premise that not a lot of people know about. So yeah. Tell us about your show you process. How do you typically ferment it? Does that change based on ingredients? How do you fluctuate ingredients? Is it to your miso process? Is it completely different? Give us all the goods. Give us all the details.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. So the way we make our shoyu is traditionally just like how you would make a soy and a wheat soy sauce, but instead we sub it for lentils and quinoa. So really we steam the lentils. We cook the lentils and we toast the quinoa just like how you would do for soy sauce. And then we grow koji on it. So we use a strain that's more used for making soy sauce. Different enzymes really, over time. Don't really know the science behind all the different types of cojones. Yeah, we source ours from Japan, and I basically ask, like, hey, I'm making this. What do you suggest? So they kind of tell me what to use. And we inoculate the lentils in the quinoa, and then we let it incubate for 48 hours. And after that, we pull it and we mix it into a brine that we prepare overnight. I think we use 10% salt. I'm not 100% sure, actually, only because we keep everything in a log, and sometimes we have so many experiments. I know we did a split pee shoyu, and that was like 12%. And we actually made a soy sauce, like an actual soy sauce when we first started, and I think that when we did like 12% too. So we're always playing around with the salt percentages, but afterwards, the biggest thing with making soy saucer show you is really the daily maintenance or the monthly maintenance of it. It really needs fresh oxygen. So when people, bigger companies make sure you they have these agitators, these machines that kind of agitate everything and stir it almost like on a daily basis to maintain the health of the ferment. But for us, we're so small batch, we actually just hand stir every single bucket that we make. So that's the main difference between shoyu making and miso making. Miso making, you don't really have to maintain it after you ferment everything, you pack it into the barrel or the jar, you put some weight on it, and you're good to go. But with shoyu it's really temperamental, and you really have to stir it almost religiously to make sure that there aren't any bad movers moving in on your ferment. We've had show shoyu kind of go really yeasty on us, and it really changes the flavor of the ferment. It's not necessarily bad, but I would say it's not like, ideal, and especially if you're putting in so much work into making a batch. We used to sell these soy sauce kit. Basically, we grew the koji, and then we sent it out and we provided instructions, and we've had a lot of people not stir it daily, and then they send me an email or text and be like, hey, yeah, it's not working. It's like, oh, it's not working because you're not stirring it. And it's kind of a valuable lesson, even though that they lost their, you know, they lost their ferment, but they kind of then understand through the process like, how precious soy sauce really is. And after storing it, we ferment ours for eight months. And then afterwards, what we do is we press it by hand. And we use a hydraulic press that we built. We didn't build the hydraulic press, but we bought a hydraulic press online from Northern Tools.com or whatever. And we ended up getting we went to a plastic company here in town, and we had custom boards fit for that hydraulic press. And then my partner actually went and bought I can't remember what the tool is called, but he basically drilled or made little grooves into each one. So he hand cut grooves into these cutting boards and these custom plastic cutting boards so that we could essentially press soy sauce out more efficiently that way. And it's kind of funny because we call it soy sauce, but it's really hard. Like, what is it? Because ours is not soy based, but there really isn't a name for it out there. So we've been just using shoyu because it's the Japanese word for it. But it's hard to we really try to think about what should we call this, but it's like there is no name. And to come up with your own name seems a little weird. I don't know,
Elena: I'm like, oh, I don't really know. But I think the short you process is actually a lot more it's a lot more work than just making me so and I think you have to be a little bit more not in tune, but you really have to pay attention to your ferment a little bit more. It's not just packet and leave it. It's more of like that daily maintenance. And then, of course, draining and pressing that soy sauce is a huge endeavor. Most people don't realize. But after you press your mash, it's really cloudy because it's essentially cloudy bean water for eight months, right? And so we struggle with this a lot because we really try to refine it. And that goes through an additional, like, a couple of cheesecloth pressings to really get it to that clear state that we're all very familiar with. And sometimes we do have, like, some sediment in there and it's like, well, we try our best, but actually the sediment is so delicious because that's like that bean kind of particles. It's like when you get a coconut water and do you want the pulp or do you not want the pulp? I like the pulp. I think it just adds more character. But I think as consumers, we're so used to not seeing the sentiment that we become very removed from the whole making of food in general, where it's so disassociated that we've had customers ask us, what is this murky stuff on the bottom? It's like, well,
Cara: am I going to die?
Elena: That's lentils and that's quinoa. That's it? Yeah, it's set in it.
Cara: Yeah. I was just popping a bottle of Kombucha the other day, and there was a little baby SCOBY on top. And I was one of those I literally said I was like, some people like to bite and swallow that little baby scobie on top. And some people like to strain out. I think it's the same thought process of do you like your kombucha that's just like strain kombucha or do you eat the fruit out of the bottle? We are making pineapple kombucha recipe. Do you eat the pineapple? Do you eat the little baby SCOBY that goes on top or do you like just the drink? I think it's kind of the same thought process of like, how pure do you want your food? Right?
Cara: It's really interesting, though, to see people's different opinions on that because you're definitely right.
Elena: I mean, it's part of it, it's part of the food. But I think Kevin and I struggle with this a lot is we try to be as no waste as possible. So we ended up actually just using a lot of the cloudy stuff or we'll sell it to restaurants who at the end of the day, they totally understand what the product is and they're happy to take it in a court container, cloudy and all. But to a consumer who's not used to seeing that, it's tough. So a lot of it has to do with education. And I think of just being very open and honest. Like, this is how things are made. There is natural sediment even in apple juice, you know, and it's very hard for people to get past that sometimes because I think that they've never made it themselves, so they don't understand or they just don't know, but just openly talk about it. Like, hey, sediment is super natural and it's super delicious. It actually helps a lot with this no waste thing, too, because you don't have to feel like it's an off product. It's part of the product. It is the product.
Cara: Yeah, definitely. So taking another kind of turning direction, here something that we get a lot of questions about. I think I see a lot of concerns over when people are first entering the Fermentation world is time.
Cara: Time it takes to make something. Time it takes to ferment something. I've heard you say eight months, two months, all of that. Those are long times to wait for something. How do you kind of work that into your daily life? Like the making and waiting, but then also, how does that work for you guys as a business, having to wait eight months for a permit? It's really hard, as you were saying earlier, about the 350 lbs of miramiso. So you don't know if it's going to be enough, but you're hoping it is. How do you manage that? How do you manage that on a personal level? How do you manage that on business level? Because I think that's one of the hardest things with Fermentation is well…
Elena: we haven't really figured it out yet, per se, but we are starting to figure that out, especially this year. So last year we didn't plan anything. It was really. Like we just made things when we had time to make them, and then we made them and then they became available. But we started doing shop updates kind of later last year, and this year we kind of really fully adopted that as our strategy. So we actually sat down at the beginning of this year and planned out every single shop update that we'll have. I believe we have like four or five or maybe five or six. I can't remember. I know in the holidays we're going to do two, one in November and one in December for gift giving. But what we did was we planned out all the days that we're going to do the shop update on the calendar, and then we backtracked. We really decided, okay, what kind of ferments do we want available for December? We listed them out, and then we kind of figured, okay, is that feasible to do? If we want to do five or six firm ends available in December, when do we need to start that? And then same thing for November. Same thing from like, we're going to have one in July for the summertime, and we just had one for spring. And we basically wrote down all the furniture we wanted to have and do and make available for those specific shop updates, and then we backtracked. So, like, for the morale musical, for example, we wanted it ready in November, so we started at eight months ahead. So everything is kind of on the Google Calendar, and it's really actually the main thing that we use to keep track of everything is Excel. So we have everything laid out as a plan, and then we just follow, okay, this is the week we have to start this project, otherwise it's not going to be done and ready by a certain day that we need it to. And that's kind of how we are planning. Our production schedule is really just planning backwards from when we need it to be available.
Cara: Do you ever come across something at a farmer's market or foraging that you're like, wow, that would make a really good me? So it's not in my books, but like, that let me make that. How do you kind of work that into your schedule? Or is it not a challenge? Do you do small batches when you find something that's interesting, that's seasonal?
Elena: Oh, definitely. It's funny because I get ideas all the time and I go to the farmers I actually work at the farmers market for another farmer right now on Saturdays. So I'm actually at the farmer's market every single Saturday for the most part, and I'm always inspired. But just last week, I picked up some fava beans. I picked up 5 lbs of fava beans. I've actually made a dried fava bean. When we first started, we did a dried we did a fava bean miso using dried fava. And that was one of my all time favorite misos, but it's very expensive to make and maybe not commercially, like, buy. Well, it's hard because we do them miramiso, and that's also not very cheap to make either. But I'm going to make a fava bean miso later today just for fun, because it's something I truly enjoy, but it's for me, it's for my own personal use. But in terms of putting it into the batch schedule at this point, not that there's room for change, but if we wanted to change something, we would have to be okay with taking something out. Because when we do a batch, we batch three times this month, and it was the most grueling thing I have ever done, personally. Not like ever. I don't want to like, maybe that's a little bit of exaggeration, but if you think about it, it's a lot of work if you're steaming 150 lbs of rice, cooking 150 lbs of beans, roasting and processing all the vegetables. Like, we did a merpa miso, and that was basically cutting and roasting onions, carrots and celery. And that was within itself and like an eight hour job. And then we had to ferment all of that, and that took another, like 5 hours. It was so tiring. And for us to do those kind of big batches more than two times a month, it's a lot. So we did three times this month just to kind of keep up with production, but as a two person team, and sometimes we're lucky to have volunteers like community and friends who say, like, hey, I would love to learn. I'm like, great, come on in and help out. But it's a lot for two people to do. For the most part, we don't count on the help ever. So it's hard. If we see something that we really love, it's like, okay, I write it down. I have a kind of a book of ideas. And we made a wild forage leak miso this year for a spring shop update, and we basically forged in the cleaning of those wild forged leaves. It was a lot of work. And that's something that, although it actually is sold out on our website right now, and it was super popular, but the amount of work that went into the cleaning of the leaks because there's so much dirt attached to them, we probably spent that was one of those misos, like, let's not write down how many hours we spent making this because we're not going to make money. We can't charge for our time for this miso. And so things like that, we also kind of take into account. And we learn because even though we made, like, going back to the earth of chili mesa, we just made the earth of chilies. And the angel chilies are very expensive. I think they're about $75 a pound, dried. They're very expensive. And we're happy to support because they're quality chilies, but we didn't have to process them. We didn't have to wash them. We didn't have to dry them. All we did was buy them and run them through the food processor just to get them in even chunks and then we fermented it. As opposed to our merpla miso or that wild forged leak miso was telling you about, like the man hours it took to scrub those dirty leaks and really clean everything out to ensure that there's no dirt on them. And also, you know, like the cutting and the processing of the onions, carrots and celery, those are things that, although the inputs were cheap, in a sense, they're not. Because the hours it took to process everything, especially in the Bay Area, if you're talking about a living wage, minimum is like $17, right? But if you're talking about a living wage, I would say if we were not just doing it, we're not paying ourselves right now, but if we were to pay employee $25, $27 an hour to do this work, we would not make money off of it. You know what I'm saying? It's like certain things like that actually as the business part. Is something that we're learning every single day is like although ideas seem really great on paper. It's not until you do it once and you write down all the processes that go into it. They're like. Wow. Even though this is a delicious like. I'm so excited about the merpawn. Honestly. I don't know if I'm going to make it again because it's not profitable. And it's one of those things, I think that you have to go through it and then be like, okay, wait, maybe in the future I'll do something else. Same thing with the fava bean. Those ones would be easier, even though at $6 a pound fresh and you shuck them, maybe they're $12 a pound after their hulled, but it's less work than having to, like, process a bunch of I don't know, it's the processing work now that I'm really starting to take into account as we figure out our future misos.
Cara: So maybe a good piece of advice to our beginner fermenters who don't have a lot of time to put into a ferment but want to get one going is use input ingredients that are simply processed. You start with recipes that are simple, that don't require a lot of cutting, cleaning stuff,
Elena: for sure. I would look into dried chilies, for example. That's a really great place to start. Or even anything that's already dried. Like, you could buy dried garlic, for example, and put that in. You don't have to process the garlic yourself. Certain inputs like that. I feel like there are so many wonderful seasonings out there, like sumac. I get so excited about so many things. My problem is
Cara: yes, the problem is deciding which one, which one do you do next? That's the real struggle.
Elena: Yeah. And then for us, it's also how can we source it as seasonal and as local as possible because our main thing is we really try to support our farmers in our community. And so for us, there might not be people out there that are offering like, black garlic, dried, for example. So we have to make it ourselves. And that way I'm getting the garlic from a local farmer in Gilroy. But that's our values. But translating that into something that's already, like looking for ingredients that are already processed is kind of harder, especially when you're just shopping at the farmers market for ingredients.
Cara: Yeah. So do you think that owning it and kind of turning this passion of yours into a business and kind of thinking about it more business like of labor hours and stuff like that, do you think that's kind of changed the way that you look at thinking about your fermions, your miso and your show you in particular? And has that kind of affected your process and the way that you run things in the way that you think about things good, bad? Tell us how that business side of the passion has kind of intermingled for you and worked for you.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. I think the business part is something that my partner are both really because they really start taste different flavors. Are you picking this up?
Cara: Sorry, can you restart that answer? I just lost you.
Elena: No worries. I think that my partner and I are always learning about the business side every single day because a lot of what the creative process is always like, first being really excited about something and then you think about whether or not you make money. A lot of and I would say that's definitely true, we never think like, oh, we're going to be making, we're going to be making money first and then think about the flavor. But I think that we're trying to be a little bit more mindful in putting both of them side by side. Now, like, are we going to make money and is it going to be delicious? Because at the end of the day, we've had some ferments in the past where it's like, wow, we've basically gave this out for free. I've talked to a lot of makers, actually, where we all have similar sentiments, where we put so much work into something and then at the end of the day, you sell it for X amount of dollars because you think that that's what the market will pay you for it. And then you walk away with like, wow, I basically paid somebody money so that I could make this for them. Now when we're thinking about everything we're making, we really tried because at the end of this to be a full time job where we can live off of it sustainably. I think that the biggest challenge, though, with fermentation products is that you don't really realize that the money, it's not a cash flow business. It's not like you're selling coffee or making bread where you're able to have a fast turnaround time. So that's an extra layer of complexity, especially with longterm ferments such as ours, that extra layer of complexity. I'm not saying it's a problem unique to us. I know, like, cheese makers and wine makers all have the same problem, but that's an additional fact of consideration, is that we're not getting paid until after our ferments are done, right? So on top of that, that's been something that we've been talking a lot about, too. And we kind of decided that we want to continue making things that we really love and that really speak to us. But also, don't be afraid to charge what you need to make it work. And if you put a price out and it's too expensive and it doesn't sell, then, you know, like, okay, I can't charge that much money. That's not going to be something that works for me. But time and time again, I tell my customers, it's so funny because I say this, but then also we just priced some of our misos for $20 and it made me so fearful because I don't want to price out folks. But the matter of fact is, like, morales are very expensive and prices are going up. And if I want we've had people ask me like, oh, you should do a pistachio miso or you should do x, y and z miso. And it's like, I would love to, but I'm going to have to charge you what it costs to make it because the inputs that we use are not cheap and the price needs to reflect that. And I think a lot of times sometimes I know early on when we first started, we were comparing ourselves to products on the market that are at scale. So when you go to the wholefoods and you see a miso for $7 for a whole tub, right, you're like, wow, I need to compete with that price. And actually you don't. Actually, yeah, it's a different world. You're a small batch. You're making everything by hand and you need to price in your labor accordingly and know the cost of your goods and then just put your product out on the market and be like. This is what it costs for me to make it. And this is what it cost for me to have to be able to provide this for my community at the living wage that I deserve to earn. Hopefully. Luckily for us, we're still not there yet. We're at this point where all the money from our business goes directly back into the business. We're really trying to get a warehouse or manufacturing space in the city. And in the san francisco, the rents are about like $3.50 to $4 a square foot. So we're looking at a 3000 square foot warehouse that could be $9000 to $12,000 a month. And again, going back to some of our ferments, we're just sitting on inventory on our money, on our investment. We don't get paid until two to eight months. Honestly, beyond anything else, that's been the most tricky part, I think, for us to navigate. And we're still here to I guess we're like year two and a half now into the business, and every day we're learning things. And it's like, I'm happy to share any of those insights with people who are considering doing this because I think you really have to. I mean, we do it because we love it, but it's tricky to be able to sustain yourself with a salary when you're basically waiting on all your investments
Cara: and you're selling it for less than you're actually making it for. That's really hard, too.
Elena: Yeah. And that's been a lesson I think we've learned from some of our ferments. We're trying to be smarter every single year. But you don't get smarter, I think, unless you make the mistakes. I think the mistakes are really important because if you don't learn from your mistakes and you're not learning, you're not growing.
Cara: Yeah, I'm just going to throw a quick PSA out there about kind of my thoughts on grocery store miso versus maybe what you're selling. I think when people see the $7 versus the $20, they're like, oh, I'm just going to go with the $7. Miso is miso. I encourage people to look at the ingredients that are going into it, to look at what is actually being made with and who's making it, because I think that that's really important. Because aside from the fact that you all are making miso, you're making miso that you're not going to see on the shelves every day. Right. We're not seeing corn miso on the shelf every day. We're not seeing wild lake miso on the shelf every day. You see your red and you see your white, and you don't really see much outside of that. So I think when you see something that's maybe two, three, four times the price of what you can find in the grocery store, why is it that price? Is it because it's unique ingredients? Is it because they're locally sourced? Is it because that vendor is doing a lot with the community? All of those things, I think, play a role. You guys aren't just making miso there's a lot of people looking to you, and what you're doing is kind of a leading example of what Koji and miso and show you fermentation is. I've been following you all for a while now, and I think when I think of Koji, I think of Koji Alchemy, for sure, but I also think of you guys. Right. And so I think that $20 is worth it if you actually look what's going into that jar. Right. And I think that's the most important thing, that when people see ferments or just artisan goods in general, that maybe are two, three, four times more expensive. Look at the why because I guarantee you that why is worth it.
Elena: Yeah, definitely it will be
Cara: the community that's worth it. Sourcing ingredients that are local, that support your community, that's worth it. Educating people, that's worth it. Trying something different, all of that is worth it to me.
Elena: Yeah, for sure.
Cra: Yeah. I think people don't like they don't necessarily know, they just see dollars, but I encourage people to see more than the dollars because treat yourself. Some things are really worth that extra few dollars. And I think something like me. So that takes so much time and love and the uniqueness of what you guys do is just 100% worth it. I just wanted to throw that out there because as I heard you talking, I was like, yes, but it's all for the greater good. I definitely think you all are doing the good work.
Elena: You struggle with that a lot. We are just ourselves. I think we are very price conscious only because we're not paying ourselves right now and we're frugal, but we're not frugal with food when it comes to supporting our food community. We know how much love and time goes into making handcrafted food, and we're more than happy to support that. But sometimes we do think, like, are we pricing people out and X, Y and Z and that's kind of not hurtful. But I really want to think about it's hard to think about, right? Because you want people to be able to buy your food and enjoy it. But as a maker, it always comes down to, like, I can't create these things if at the end of the day, I can't sustain myself. And that's the one thing that we keep going back to. It's a tough thing to say, but it's like, how can you love everybody if you don't love yourself? You just have to do what you have to do. But it's a tough conversation, I think, that a lot of makers struggle with because we want to be able to have everybody enjoy it.
Cara: Yeah. So taking one last turn and kind of wrap up our podcast, you mentioned a little bit in the beginning how you got into foraging and foraging got you into fermentation. Can you talk a little bit about how why you make that connection? Do you still try to make things with what you forge? Can we buy that on your website? Or is that more of a homemade stuff? Are you able to forage in quantities big enough for sale, all of that good stuff and maybe any last tips, tricks and advice you have for us when we're going to make or buy our own misos and coaching?
Elena: Yeah, definitely. I would say that. Yeah. I still really enjoy foraging. I forge a lot of things that I see just walking around, personal use, I think, and I try to post about it, like, oh, this is a peppercorn tree. They're all in bloom right now. They're everywhere. This is what to look for mushrooms too. But a big thing of what we do now, I think because we're trying to be more legitimate in a sense. Like not just we make everything competition and for health reasons, we actually try to buy most of our ingredients from verified suppliers because with the health safety plan, it has to be traced to a supplier, right? So we want to make sure that all our mushrooms right now we go through far less fungi and they provide wild mushrooms as well. And we can trace each lot number back to the main source. So it's tough because obviously when we're first starting out, we're using all of the forage mushrooms and all the things that we grow to love. But nowadays as we're starting to grow and really legitimize everything that we're doing, we need to have a paper trail. So we do source everything from a verified source. And sorry what was the other question?
Cara: Tips, tricks and advice for people who are looking to get into Koji Fermentation Miso shoyu. You making all the above.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. I would say the Sander Cass's art of Fermentation is really wonderful. The Noma Guide to Fermentation is one of my favorite books of all time. I really think that it's not only just a beautiful book to look at because there's so many pictures, but honestly, I think the steps are very clear and easily you can kind of look at a recipe and be like, wow, this is using porcini mushrooms, but maybe I could do shiitake mushrooms. You can easily sub things out. Like even the split pea miso that they used to use yellow split peas. You could use lentils, you could use beans. You can just sub that go out and for something else. So I think that the steps are very clear and I like how they have pictures. And then I know people on your podcast have talked about this before, but like Miso Tempeh natto, that's a really wonderful book. And I also really like this book. It's the book of Tofu and Miso. It's by William Sherloff and his partner. I believe it's a pico or something. But I love that book. I think William Sherloff has done a lot of work, I think in soy based Vermont and kind of like the OG, I think, of anything that has to do with soybased ferments. And if you just go to the Soy Info Center online, he has archives and archives of the history of Koji and the history of Tempeh and all of these amazing soybased ferments. And it's kind of his life's work. And that's a wonderful free resource that you can access online or you can buy his book. And those are kind of some of definite the resources we use when we first got started. And then we really leverage our Instagram community. I know that we're pretty active on Instagram and any questions people have on anything that we do. If I'm not too busy, I love to just engage and tell you what we're doing. But instagram in general, I think people are pretty open with the Koji Hashtag or the Koji builds community hashtag. I find that everybody is very open on Instagram, on projects and things that they're doing and willing to share.
Cara: To all of our beginner fermentors and season fermentors out there, share your projects on Instagram and maybe you'll hear back from someone who has ideas and wants help or can offer advice. I think that goes both ways to not only look for those things, but do your own posts and see what kind of feedback you get from those as well.
Elena: Yeah, definitely. I know I started with on Instagram just going through like, posts of people and asking the questions and then doing the project myself. That's how I got connected to Jeremy Mansky. Like, I sent him DMs and it was like, hey, and totally get it sometimes. Sometimes people I know when you send out DMs, they don't really respond right away or it's not like intentional, it's just Instagram the app. Yeah, people are busy and it's hard to remember sometimes with the Instagram app because it's not like an email you can reference back to. It just kind of disappears as the notifications keep coming in. So just kind of be persistent and ask your question. And I think most of the time, everyone is just so friendly and willing to help when there's time.
Cara: Yeah. koji Builds Community, definitely.
All right, well, do you have any anything else you want to tell the listeners?
Elena: No, I had a great time.
Cara: Make miso, make shoyu, just do it.
Elena: Make miso, make shoyu, just do it. Yeah. Honestly, I think that koji is really intimidating to people, but honestly, it's not that hard. It's just like anything, you just have to practice. And I think with Koji in particular, it takes a little bit more practice because I teach Koji Fermentation classes kind of on Zoom or in person. And a lot of it is really just kind of experience of doing it over and over again and feeling the grain and feeling it in your hands and that muscle memory of like, oh, this feels right and this smells right. And after a few iterations, it's really like you'll start growing Koji, like, no problem. It's just being able to get through those first failed patches. I've had so many failed patches in the beginning. You get through it and you're like, wow, yeah, you learn.
Cara: Yeah. I think it's very similar to sourdough in that process of it's. Like, do it. It's probably not going to turn out right the first time. So try again and then try again and keep trying, and eventually you will get it. You'll get the process, you'll figure it out, and especially with the feel of it. I talk a lot about sourdough hydration and water percentages and all of that. And it always comes back to you just got to know your dough. You got to know the feel of your dough. Sure. Similar process of like you got to know the feel of it. But once you know, you know, you just got to put in the effort and the patience to get there.
Elena: Definitely. It's not like you're going in there with a thermometer thing like what's the water activity level and what's the hydration percentage just by feeling your ferment, you know, that Springness or how it's bouncing and feeling in your hands that you know that it's ready to be baked. It's the same thing with Koji and I think that a lot of people get really intimidated with ferments, but there's so many great resources out there and so many people that are willing to share. And as long as you have the passion and the drive to just get these projects going and don't feel so defeated, everyone gets there eventually and they're worth it. 100%.
Cara: Totally. Well, thank you so much for coming on today and talking to us. I definitely learned a lot and I hope our listeners did too.
Elena: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate your time and letting me share my story or our story of shared cultures and what Koji and Miso and show you is all about.
Cara: Thank you. Have a good day.
Elena: Have a great day.
Cara: Thank you Elena, for coming on the podcast and talking to me. I really enjoyed the conversation and if you all did too, please check out their website and their Instagram page, shared cultures. They have a lot of amazing products. And remember to check out our website as well. Use the code CFH podcast for 25% off. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.