Iio Jozo Brewery's "Fujisu" Rice Vinegar
Iio Jozo Brewery’s unique range of beautifully-flavored, all-natural, umami-enriched rice vinegars has redefined rice vinegar’s role in the modern Japanese pantry, becoming a key seasoning used by cooks to create Japan’s light, yet rich tasting cuisine.
While some form of acid is the most important seasoning after salt in Japanese cooking, rice vinegar has been something of a stepchild in the Japanese kitchen. It is accepted but not loved; it is useful but is not appreciated. Japan’s cooks favor the country’s broad range of tart citrus for cooking and garnishing foods because of their fragrant aromas, beautiful colors, and natural flavors. Two other native acidic fruits—sour ume green plums and astringent shibugaki persimmons—are also given special attention. Among Japan’s fermented cooking ingredients, the gentle acidity of sake and soy sauce, coupled with their pleasurable umami richness, means that they too are more often used than rice vinegar to add a touch of brightness to foods and to help balance the flavor of dishes. And rice vinegar is almost never brought out to the table to dress foods. Instead, vessels of tangy sausu, a Japanese variation of Worcestershire sauce, and chu-no and tonkatsu sausu, thick types of brown sauce, can be found prominently positioned nearby whenever fried foods are served.
Rice vinegar is used in Japanese cooking as a workhorse to season the rice used in sushi, make pickled vegetables (even then salt is used much more often), and create the obligatory sunomono dish whose role is to feature a sour taste in a multi-course kaiseki meal. It is also given the chore of being a flavoring for foreign-inspired dishes, typically sweet-sour and salty-sour dishes. Rice vinegar’s neglected position as a seasoning in the Japanese pantry is due to its sharp smell, insipid color, and pungent taste. All of these attributes go against the grain of what a good food should be in Japan. Food is expected to reflect the goodness, richness, and harmonious balance of nature.
The Japanese attitude towards vinegar is reflected in the ancient moral story of “The Vinegar Tasters” that was brought over from China. In the story, three people stand around a vat of vinegar and, after trying it, are asked to describe its taste as either sour, bitter, or sweet, thereby revealing their perspective on life. Japanese tasters find that the vinegar tastes sour. But the twist in the Japanese version of the story is that because Japan’s tasters believe that life is sweet, their reaction simply means that they have an issue with vinegar.
Rice vinegar brewers have long tried to meet Japanese taste expectations in various ways, but this has typically meant adulterating their rice vinegar unnaturally and artificially. Some makers add sugar to make their sharp rice vinegar more mellow. Other makers purposefully brew a light-tasting rice vinegar but then boost its umami with artificial MSG. However, Iio Jozo, a small, artisanal brewery in northern Kyoto prefecture, has perfected a recipe for making all-natural rice vinegars that meet Japan’s food requirements. Its rice vinegars have gentle aromas, beautiful honey, chocolate, and red wine-like colors, and an acidity that barely tastes sour. Above all, their deep, rich umami elevates their ability to contribute to Japan’s light, yet rich tasting cuisine. In recognition of the important role of Iio Jozo’s rice vinegars in the Japanese pantry, its “Fujisu Premium” rice vinegar was chosen by a panel of experts, consisting of chefs, artists, designers, and writers among others, for inclusion in “The Wonder 500,” a government-sponsored program that identifies and promotes a select group of “local products that are the pride and joy of Japan.”
Located in a one-lane village on the shore of a bay of the Sea of Japan, Iio Jozo Brewery has been making rice vinegar since 1893. It is the last artisanal maker of rice vinegar in Kyoto prefecture, and the current brewer is fifth generation Akihiro Iio, who together with 19 other employees, makes between 250,000 and 300,000 liters of vinegar a year. Brewing rice vinegar is straight-forward, and entails allowing sake (rice wine) to ferment a second time until it becomes sour. Most of Japan’s mass-producers of rice vinegar do this in a few days or months by buying inexpensive sake, adding an off-the-shelf acetic acid bacteria (acetobacter) to the alcohol, and submerging mechanical acetators into the brew to quicken the fermentation process by increasing its exposure to air. These vinegars are sharp tasting and pungent unless enhanced artificially in some way during the process. The kind of mellow, rich, and uniquely flavored rice vinegar that Iio Jozo makes, on the other hand, requires quality ingredients, beneficial microbes captured from the air during natural fermentation, and long, slow aging.
Rice vinegar was a late addition to the Japanese pantry (which partly explains its subordinate role). Sake only became widely made and broadly available in the 1600s. It took another two-hundred years for rice vinegar to show up in kitchens across the country, being largely driven by the adoption of sweet-sour and salty-sour dishes brought to Japan by Chinese emissaries, Portuguese and Dutch traders, and European chefs from the early 1800s onwards. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that it was only in recent decades that a rice vinegar brewer like Iio Jozo has completed the cycle of transforming rice vinegar into a truly Japanese acidic seasoning. The process was started by Akihiro’s grandfather Teronosuke in 1964. Concerned about the agrochemicals in the rice used in his vinegar, he began growing his own organic rice on terraced fields high in the mountains above the fishing village of Ine on the Tango Peninsula, where strong sunny days and very cool nights produce an exceptionally flavorful rice. The rice is carefully planted and harvested by hand by volunteers who come from Japan and abroad to help for four days each year in the spring and autumn. To further ensure the quality of his vinegar, Teronosuke also began making his own sake with this organic rice.
His son Hiroaki (Akihiro’s father) took these practices a step further by significantly increasing the rice content in the vinegar. He did this in two ways. He fortified Iio Jozo’s homemade sake with more rice to brew a pure, rich, full-bodied junmai sake that is characterized by a touch more acidity than other types of sake. He also developed a recipe for making rice vinegar that included equal parts of sake, water, and existing vinegar, essentially creating a double-brewed type of rice vinegar similar to the mellow, deeply flavorful, and slightly sweet double-brewed type of soy sauce called saishikomi. As a result, Iio Jozo's red label "Junmai Fujisu” rice vinegar contains the equivalent of 200 grams of rice per liter vs. 40 grams for standard, commercially-produced rice vinegar. Its blue label “Fujisu Premium" rice vinegar contains the equivalent of 320 grams of rice per liter. This significantly greater rice content gives Iio Jozo’s rice vinegar a milder flavor and more healthy nutrients than other rice vinegars. It also significantly amps up the umami in the vinegar.
When Akihiro joined the family business after graduate school, he worked alongside this father to perfect their rice vinegar. A key enhancement was tempering its sour smell, which is very off-putting to Japanese eaters because of their sensitivity to aroma as a key attribute of a food’s flavor. To achieve this, they developed a secret method that, in part, consists of creating a robust starter malt (koji) for their sake. The final steps include adding a unique acetobacter that has lived in the brewery for over 120 years. It forms a thin film on the top of the rice vinegar after a few days and subtly initiates the process of turning the alcohol into vinegar. The tanks are then covered with wood and straw mats to allow them to breathe and ferment naturally (without mechanical acetators) for 100 days to be further flavored by the microbes in the air and acquire their unique soft taste. Once fermentation is completed, the rice vinegar is decanted and aged: 250 days for the “Junami Fujisu”and “Fujisu Premium” rice vinegars and 10 years or more for Iio Jozo’s “Akasu Premium” red rice vinegar. To stabilize the quality of the rice vinegar yet preserve its nuanced flavor and delicacy, it is pasteurized for a brief one minute by being run through a pipe heated at a low 70 degrees Celsius.
Since taking over the family business, Akihiro’s focus has been on helping cooks better understand how to use Iio Jozo’s rice vinegars. While most cooks know how to use vinegar to add an appetizing and refreshing sour flavor and bite to foods, they often don’t understand or under-utilize its ability to season foods. Acids, in general, heighten foods’ flavor, and when used properly as a seasoning, less salt is needed to help make foods taste more like themselves. Acids can also lighten and brighten dishes by balancing and rounding out other sweet, salty, starchy, and rich ingredients, all the while going undetected in a dish.
Rice vinegar is especially good at being an acidic kakushi-aji (secret ingredient) because its neutral flavor does not skew dishes the way wine and other fruit vinegars do. This is especially true of Iio Jozo’s rice vinegars because of their soft aromas and mellow flavors. And because Iio Jozo’s rice vinegars are so rich in umami, it means that less animal fats and oils are needed to make foods rich and satisfying. One way that Akihiro demonstrates the power of Iio Jozo’s rice vinegar is by using it to season the rice that forms the bed for sushi. It lightens the starch of the rice and makes the raw seafood topping more savory and appetizing. You don’t need the salt or umami of soy sauce to finish the sushi. As Akihiro likes to point out, you don’t even need the seafood topping to feel like you’ve had a full, satisfying mouthful of food—the well-seasoned rice is enough.
The Iio Jozo Brewery has a tasting room where visitors can learn about its rice vinegars. It was recently expanded by Akihiro to host a growing number of daily visitors and groups of chefs that have come from the Culinary Institute of America and elsewhere to learn how to use Iio Jozo’s vinegars to better season food. Akihiro has also sponsored the creation of an excellent new Sicilian-Japanese restaurant called Aceto in the nearby port town of Miyazu to demonstrate first-hand how its vinegars can make foods bright, light, and rich all at the same time.
Iio Jozo makes four different types of rice vinegar that vary by mellowness, umami, and complexity of flavor due to differences in ingredients, brewing method, and aging. All are made with the best organic ingredients and Iio Jozo’s innovation and craftsmanship. While they can be used interchangeably depending on your own preferences, each is best used for certain types of food and cooking techniques as outlined below. There are two key considerations to keep in mind when using Iio Jozo’s rice vinegar to season foods. Add the rice vinegar after salt and before additions of umami. Experiment and be liberal in your usage, you’ll be surprised by how much better your cooking will be.
Junmai Fujisu (Pure Rice Vinegar)
Fragrant, soft, with a slow mild sourness, it is specially designed for cooking and can tolerate high heat and long cooking. Add a few drops to water to macerate onions, shallots, and garlic and to preserve the color of raw fruits and vegetables (other than green ones). Use a few spoons in soups, stews, stir fries, sweet-sour and pasta dishes to reveal the nuanced flavors of a medley of ingredients. Use it in marinades and braises to tenderize and enrich meats. Add a touch when making noodles to lighten the starch and minimize the gluten released, helping them be soft yet chewy. Add to pasta water to prevent the noodles from sticking.
The premium version of Fujisu rice vinegar has a more rounded, gentle aroma and flavor, and lots more umami. It is light yet very rich, and is designed to finish foods at low, no, or quick heating and to garnish foods at the table. Add a few spoons to fresh tomatoes, berries, and citrus to macerate them and help preserve their colors. Use it to make sushi rice, salad dressings, and sunomono vinegared dishes. Splash it on grilled fish and meats, sweet roasted vegetables, and fried foods. Use it to deglaze pans and lighten gravies. It is a good substitute for the tang of light, umami rich cultured dairy products like creme fraiche, yoghurt, buttermilk, and sour cream when trying to avoid animal-based foods. This is a good rice vinegar to have in a cruet on the table for drizzling on all kinds of foods.
Akasu Premium (Red Vinegar Premium)
Made by fermenting and aging Iio Jozo’s sake lees for ten years, this is the richest and most complex of Iio Jozo’s rice vinegars. Yet, it is still very light bodied. It is used by fine sushi chefs when making the classic style of sushi called “Edo-mae” and by French chefs to make light yet rich sauces for beef and other meats. It can be used to add a rich, flavorful character to all kinds of foods: pickles, salad dressings and vinaigrettes, casseroles and braised dishes, and classic sweet-sour dishes like caponata.
Genmai Kurosu (Brown Rice Vinegar)
Made from organic brown, unpolished rice grown in Tamba (a mountainous region west of Kyoto famous for its grains and beans), it is mild and rich like Iio Jozo’s other rice vinegars but more aromatic and flavorful—slightly malty as would be expected from a whole grain vinegar. It is excellent in dashi, broths, and stocks, helping to clarify, brighten as well as enrich and deepen their flavors. It is also good for Chinese and other Asian dishes. Full of nutrients, it is a healthy, tasty alternative for any cooking and finishing use of vinegar.
Iio Jozo also makes several other types of all-natural, small-batch vinegars in its house style using the best ingredients found locally and elsewhere in Japan. Two of these are delicate yet rich versions of apple vinegar (Nigori Ringosu) and fig vinegar (Ichijikusu). At Aceto, chef Yasuhige Shige uses the apple vinegar to refresh the tender white fish and seafood carpaccio he serves. The fig vinegar was initially made at the request of chef Joël Robuchon. Sweet, complex and rich, it is uniquely light-bodied for a fig vinegar, and is a wonderful substitute for balsamic vinegar to create lighter versions of classic dishes like caponata. Three other vinegars are made from uniquely Japanese ingredients—black soy beans, purple sweet potatoes, and sour ume plums—and are highlighted below.
Beniimosu (Sweet Potato Vinegar)
A ruby red vinegar made from purple sweet potatoes that comes in two versions: a tart, earthy natural version and one sweetened with honey. Akihiro’s father Hiroaki drinks a tablespoon daily mixed with water as a health tonic. It is also refreshing mixed with club soda or beer, as is done at Aceto. It is a uniquely flavored vinegar that should be experimented with in drinks, dressings, vegetable dishes, fruit salads, and desserts.
Junmai Kuromamesu (Pure Black Soy Bean Vinegar)
Made entirely from creamy, rich black soy beans grown in the Tamba district of Hyogo prefecture and aged for 10 years, this hard-to-make and rare vinegar (there is only one other brewer in Japan producing this type) has two times the umami of Iio Jozo’s “Fujisu Premium.” It is a vinegar equivalent of a well-made soy sauce, which relies on acidity instead of salt to add brightness to foods and also depth and complexity to dishes. Its unique earthy and slightly bitter taste make it an excellent seasoning for the rich, meaty dishes of Chinese and Western cooking, while its sturdiness enables it to withstand high heat and long braising. Packed with vitamins and nutrients, it can also be used as a health tonic.
Umesu (Sour Plum Vinegar)
Made from Iio Jozo’s brown rice vinegar (genmai kurosu), sour ume plums, and raw sugar, this vinegar tames the extreme sourness of Japanese ume plums and gives their flavor depth and richness. It can be used in classical Japanese sunomono dishes and, like Iio Jozo’s sweet potato vinegar, should be experimented with in drinks, dressings, vegetable dishes, fruit salads, and desserts. Also use it to brighten pork and game meat dishes.
Iio Jozo offers a variety of blended sauces using its vinegars as a base and combining them with other high quality, artisanal ingredients. They are essentially pre-mixes for special applications and include:
Sushizu—rice vinegar mixed with dashi and mirin to season sushi rice.
Ponzu—a cooking and dipping sauce made from a mixture of rice vinegar, soy sauce, yuzu and kabosu citrus juice, and dashi.
Shabu-shabu Sauce—a dipping sauce for hotpot dishes (nabe) made from rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, dried scallops, and konbu seaweed.
Chao-chao Sauce—a dipping sauce for dumplings and other foods made with rice vinegar, black soy bean vinegar, mirin, salt, konbu seaweed, dashi, and powdered sansho berries.
Pickurusu—a pre-mix, combining rice vinegar, raw sugar, salt, dried tomatoes, and flavorings, for making delicious pickles overnight.
The dashi used in these blended sauces is made by the venerable Uneno in Kyoto, the mirin is Fukuraijun made by Hakusen in Gifu, the konbu is from Rishiri Island, and the soy sauce is made by Daikoku in Hyogo prefecture.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Iio Jozo Brewery 飯尾醸造
373 Odashukuno, Miyazu 626-0052, Kyoto Prefecture
Tel: +81 (0772) 25 0015
A shop and tasting room at the brewery are open every day from 8:30 to 17:00. Staff, including Akihiro Iio, the current president and fifth generation brewer of Iio Jozo Brewery, and his father Hiroaki, will happily conduct a sampling of its vinegars for visitors. They may also give you a tour of the brewery behind the shop. To make sure there is someone available who speaks English, it's best to email them in advance and make a reservation. The shop sells the full range of the brewery's vinegars as well as its blended sauces. Many stores in Japan sell Iio Jozo's products and you can also find them abroad, but you won't find as full a selection elsewhere.
Miyazu is easy to get to from Kyoto. There are trains and express buses from Kyoto Station and the ride takes about 2 hours. The trains and buses also stop at Amanohashidate, in case you want to make that your base in the area. You can also go to Miyazu or Amanohashidate from Osaka via train and express bus. By train, you'll need to change at Fukuchiyama. The total ride is also about 2 hours. Iio Jozo Brewery is about ten minutes from Miyazu or Amanohashidate by car.
Miyazu & Amanohashidate
Miyazu-Amanohashidate has long been a get-away and seaside resort for the citizens of Kyoto and Osaka. While its main draw is the pine-covered sandbar known as Japan’s “Bridge to Heaven” (Amanohashidate), it's also a great place for foreign visitors to stop and catch their breath as its great food, relaxing environment, and choice of many different types of inns and small hotels make it easy to spend a couple of days there. The mountain side of the sandbar is called Kasamatsu Park and is jammed with tourists and amusements. The other side, which is where the train and bus stations from Kyoto are located and is called Amanohashidate, is charming and also relatively quiet. It's a small area centered on Chionji Temple, and has the usual kind of lively shops, tea houses, restaurants, and inns found in temple districts. From here, there is a bridge across a canal to the southern end of the sandbar, where you can take walks and bicycle rides, sit under the pine trees, and go swimming in the bay as local residents do in the morning. Near the bridge is a pier that provides boat tours of the bay and which can also take you to the fishing village of Ine on the Tango Peninsula.
In recent years, Miyasu-Amanohashite has been re-incarnating itself as a gastro-destination, taking advantage of the region's excellent seafood and other high quality foods being organically produced by local farmers. Many of the local restaurants serve seafood from Ine, which can be had in a range of styles, including classical and home-style Japanese, Italian and French fusion, and sea-to-table. Akihiro Iio created the innovative Sicilian-Japanese restaurant Aceto to support this effort.
Housed in a handsomely renovated, 120-year-old ochaya (geisha tea house) located in the old entertainment district of the port of Miyazu, Aceto is a Sicilian-Japanese restaurant opened last year by Iio Jozo to demonstrate the ways vinegars can be used to season dishes. Chef Yasuhiko Shige does this brilliantly by subtly showcasing the fresh flavors of the Sea of Japan's famous seafood and other locally-produced ingredients through his inspired cooking. Open for dinner only from Wednesday through Sunday, a meal here alone is worth making a trip to visit the Miyazu-Amanohashidate area.
Aceto offers several set menus at dinnertime. Given the quality of the food, chef Shige’s innovative cooking, and the chance to experience a variety of ways that acidic seasonings can be used to make foods more delicious, the chef’s special 10-course omakase meal is recommended. Here are some dishes included during an autumn dinner.
Konpira Udon is a simple restaurant opposite the harbor of Miyazu that has been in business for over thirty years serving delicious home-made udon noodles in a hearty, umami-packed broth made from konbu seaweed, katuso bonito and jako sardines, and shiitake mushrooms. When these three types of umami-rich foods—glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate, respectively— are combined, they create an exponential explosion of deeply satisfying deliciousness. Chef-owner Masahiro Kabata uses Iio Jozo’s “Junmai Fujisu” rice vinegar to make his udon noodles and its “Genmai Kurosu” brown rice vinegar to make its dashi soup. The dishes come as basic as bowls or hot or cold noodles and go on from there to being filled with any combination of tempura shrimp and vegetables, fried chicken, scrambled egg, and other items. All ingredients are local and organic, making the food healthy and nutritious as well as comforting. The restaurant is open daily for lunch from 11:00 to 15:00.
Wine and Inn Chitose
Located in the temple district of Amanohashidate, very near to the base of the bridge that brings you to the southern start of the pine-covered sandbar, Wine and Inn Chitose is a destination in itself. The inn is designed for quality and managed for comfort—four large suite rooms in the main building and three in the annex across the road, indoor and outdoor hot baths, and a guest-only lounge partitioned off in the Cafe du Pin a few doors away. Run by the same family as the inn, the cafe is a great place to relax, read, have coffee, tea, or something stronger, and watch the boats go and up down the canal. The inn's excellent restaurant has a French theme, but is really another Japanese restaurant in disguise that features local, seasonal seafood and other dishes. The vinegars used in its cooking are all from Iio Jozo.
The Tango Peninsula
Miyazu-Amanohashidate is also the main gateway to exploring the nearby Tango Peninsula and its dramatic scenery, quaint villages, and rich cultural heritage. Stretching from the hot spring resorts of Kumihama Bay in the south, around the dramatic coastline where the beautiful fishing village of Ine is located, and ending at the port town of Miyazu, the Tango Peninsula is one of Japan’s oldest settled regions. At one time it was a power center called the kingdom of Tango, and as a result, the peninsula is filled with ancient Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and kofun burial tombs, as well as with large plateaus of rice fields, quiet farm towns, and fishing villages. Today there are natural hot springs resorts and small secluded inns throughout the region, making it an excellent place to visit. It’s also convenient, being a leisurely two-hour ride from Kyoto by car or public transportation.
The Chirimen Kaido Road
Just outside of Miyazu is the Chirimen Kaido Road, which takes visitors through some of the small towns in the region that produce its main craft—silk fabric. Weaving silk fabric was first done in and around the towns of Kyotango, Yosano, Amino, and Taiza about 1,200 years ago. It is a cottage industry still done largely in small workshops and people’s homes. Of the silk fabric produced in the area, the most famous is Tango Chirimen, which is a uniquely woven type of silk crepe developed 300 years ago. It is a slightly textured silk fabric made by alternately weaving the warp, which uses untwisted raw silk, and the weft, which uses raw silk twisted about 3,000 times per meter. The result is a fabric that is softer than regular silk and which diffuses light in ways that give the fabric rich, vibrant hues. The prosperity of the local silk merchants can be seen in the well-preserved homes of the area. Some of these homes, as well as silk weaving workshops and a museum can be visited.