Yasuo Yamamoto’s Trending Tradition

A Visit to the Yamaroku Soy Sauce Brewery

  • Interview: Hiroko Yabuki
  • Photography: Cailin Hill Araki
Yasuo Yamamoto

In the macrocosm of food technology, Yasuo Yamamoto, the fifth-generation soy sauce brewer at Yamaroku Soy Sauce in Shodoshima, Japan, occupies a role that has him overseeing its smallest members: microbes. These eukaryotic, single-celled microorganisms are some of the oldest players on earth, and are responsible for creating products like beer, pickles, cheese, kombucha, soy sauce. At the crux of “healthy” and “natural,” fermented foods have surged in popularity, despite having been around for longer than we have. The conditions required in order for the process to happen might be specific, but are fundamentally simple. Born from a long line of soy sauce brewers, Yasuo Yamamoto took over the business on his 30th birthday. In an effort to bring it back from the brink of collapse, Yamamoto focused on removing additives and synthesized flavors from the production process, instead favoring traditional natural brewing methods.

The practice of planning or designing a product with an imposed limitation on its use obscures our perception of technological fecundity. Superseded by an obsession with how we look when we’re doing it, it matters less whether we get the job done. From AirPods to the countless re-vamped models of the same vehicles released yearly, we’ve tailored our minds to believe that a smaller window in which to obtain a product is connotative of its quality—and a subsequent impetus for desire. If this tells us anything, our fascination with what’s novel perpetuates our trend fatigue, and so too do we grow weary of planned obsolescence. A reason for our re-invigorated interest in traditions that yield smaller-batch, higher-quality products. The future dates itself—and tradition, in 2020, becomes the cutting edge of technology.

Much like other food industries worldwide, the production of soy sauce has been industrialized, the majority of which utilizes metal tanks that allow for dramatically shortened brewing times. The wood vat-brewed soy sauce pushed by Yamamoto, in spite of its popularity, represents less than 1% of domestic production, and is exponentially more costly in terms of production time and labor. While most breweries balk at opening their facilities to the public, nominally due to the impact it may have on the yeasts that are critical to their operations, Yamaroku accepts all visitors, reservation or not, at any time of year, all for the sake of exposing soy sauce brewing to as many people as possible—almost 40,000 annually. Due to its intense flavor, industry chefs prefer a subtler soy sauce, and 95% of Yamaroku’s sales are to home consumers—a testament to the sustained interest in fermented products. But with trends in an inherent state of flux, it’s difficult to envision a future where the traditional brewing of soy sauce is sustained. Already the craftsmen specialized in creating the gigantic wooden barrels needed for the brewing of soy sauce are nearly obsolete.

Yamamoto hosted SSENSE at his brewery, and from his position on the forefront of tradition, shared with us his insight on the future of trends.

“I take a fundamentally hands-off approach; my policy is to leave it to the yeast. Even if I don’t do anything, the yeast will diligently do its job. By contrast, production methods that use tanks rely on the introduction of a specific set of yeasts to ripen the mash. By doing so, the usual two-year long ripening period can be brought down to as little as three months, and they say that by being able to control the yeast, the quality of the product can be guaranteed. To be honest, I completely disagree with this view. In the first place, to think that humans could control yeast is utterly absurd.”
“The fact that manufacturers in a given area would cooperate to such an extent isn’t unique to the soy sauce industry, but it’s surprisingly rare. For wood vat-brewing methods to live on to the present day is largely due to the presence of this network.”
“The brewery has been reconstructed many times since the late 19th century, and has settled into its current form. On those occasions, it appears that by repurposing and integrating the old lumber, they preserved the existing ecosystem of yeasts.”
“It has quite a bit of character, being very rich and profound with even a bit of sweetness to it. ‘It’s just like you,’ is what people tell me. It’s strange, but the flavor of a soy sauce resembles the person that made it.”
“I say it over and over, but I really do believe that yeast has consciousness. This is the proof: the vats that are most often viewed by the visitors that tour the brewery produce far better tasting soy sauce than the vats that are in hard-to-see places.”
“Sadly, the number of wood vat craftsmen has decreased dramatically, and by the end of the 2000s, there was only one place left making vats in the handmade tradition. Thinking that this was terrible, first, we ordered nine wood vats. Then, in 2011, aiming to revitalize the industry, we started up the Wood Vat Craftsman Revival Project. The next year, I invited some friends to apprentice with me under a craftsman and to try to make a vat ourselves. Since then, every January, we gather up volunteers and work together to promote the art of crafting.”
“It’s entirely possible that we’ll need the next generation of wood vats a few decades from now. If there isn’t anyone around to make them by then, that’ll be the end of it all. According to a report by the Japanese Soy Sauce Association, there are 2500 wood vats remaining in Japan, of which about 1100 are in use on Shodoshima. It may come to happen that they’d all disappear in the future, which will be the death of real soy sauce.”
“The craftsmen needed to make the vats used in the production of miso, vinegar, and sake are decreasing, in that order. We need to have the foresight to look 100 years into the future and move accordingly.”
“World heritage needs to be safeguarded, both as the remains of something that may disappear soon, and as culture.”
  • Interview: Hiroko Yabuki
  • Photography: Cailin Hill Araki
  • Translation: Vincent Malik
  • Date: March 16, 2020