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The Brewer’s Table taps into umami using Japanese koji in beer

Arianna Auber,
The Brewer’s Table, located in an East Austin Quonset hut, has been experimenting with fermentation in both food and beer. [Contributed by Robert J. Lerma]

Jake Maddux is on a mission. When I arrive at his restaurant and brewery on a drizzly January morning, he and head brewer Brent Watson are setting up a tasting — three groupings of nine snifters filled with tangerine-colored beers. All 27 look the same, but it’s clear the Brewer’s Table is up to something.

In fact, the East Austin brewpub is trailblazing a corner of the fermentation world that few, if any, breweries in the U.S. have explored before. For about half a year, Maddux has experimented with the use of koji in both beer and food, making it himself.

Koji is considered an important part of Japanese cuisine. Even if you’ve never heard the name before, chances are good you’ve had things this ancient mold helps make, such as miso, sake and soy sauce. Now, it’s being found more often in Western cuisine, too, as a seasoning and curing mechanism.

Here’s how it works. Koji isn’t consumed on its own. Instead, it’s a fungus that grows on fully or partially cooked grains like rice. Koji (or, if you want the scientific name, Aspergillus oryzae) has enzymes that turn the grain into sugar, with the aim of using that sugar as fuel to grow. In cooking, the resulting culture of koji and grain, rich with enzymes, can be added to a secondary item — soybeans, for instance. That’s where the magic really happens.

An additional fermentation process transforms the flavor and texture of that secondary item. Think of the result as the indelible savory quality of certain foods called umami.

“When you think about how beer and food really relate, fermentation is a really cool common DNA,” Maddux says. “This is a fermented grain that we use in the brewery, that instead of fermenting liquid, we’re fermenting the actual grain. It’s kind of a backward way of doing it.”

So far, the Brewer’s Table has used house-created koji for one new lager, now on tap, that Maddux playfully dubbed Oooo Mommy. Malted wheat koji, he says, went directly in the mash. (For complementary flavors, smoked and unsmoked mushrooms, lemon peels and black pepper were also added.) Before the lager, koji was found in the kitchen for use in certain dishes.

“It has really cool applications with food, of course,” he says. “Fried chicken is what we started with. We’re finding a way to create incredible fried chicken by using this beautiful enzymatic property that koji has that can create umami in anything. You apply it to a protein — in our case, chicken — and it breaks down the cell walls in a way that creates a beautiful richness. It’s almost indescribable.”

The Brewer’s Table’s exploration of koji came as a bit of an aha moment for Maddux, who founded the restaurant in 2018 on the notion that beer and food are equal compatriots at the table and should be treated as such. The early days of the brewpub produced “precious, avant-garde” dishes, he says, such as hop-cured salmon and a tiny ice cream cone made with the four main ingredients in beer (hops, water, yeast and malt).

With the loss of the Brewer’s Table’s original chef last year, Maddux decided to refocus the vision and direction of the restaurant, blurring the boundaries between food and beer in a whole new way — through the use of koji.

“I realized the way we were presenting beer and food — it was here,” he says, holding his hand a couple of feet from his chest. “But there was something even closer to my face that I couldn’t see right away. It was fermentation. It was how beer and food can relate through that common process — the most ancient of processes.”

So he reached out to friend Jason White in June. White, a fermentation expert and former Austinite, had just left his job at Noma, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen with a groundbreaking food fermentation lab. Maddux, formerly of Anchor Brewing and the local Thirsty Planet, has known the ins and outs of brewing science for years. With White’s return to the U.S., he could learn a new method of fermentation.

For about two months, that’s what he did under White’s instruction. (White had developed his specialty before Noma, working locally with Uchiko, Emmer & Rye and others.)

For Maddux, the Oooo Mommy beer and koji-cured fried chicken are just a starting point in his foray into fermentation. In a small storage facility tucked next to the Brewer’s Table’s Quonset hut sit four garums, or barrels of pungent fermented meat, turning into sauce, which has a long history in human civilization. On the second level of the brewpub rests another barrel where soybeans and koji develop house miso.

Maddux also wants the Brewer’s Table to dive more deeply into koji beers. Already, Oooo Mommy has been a promising start as a surprisingly versatile option on the tap wall that he had recommended to a recent customer who was used to drinking Blue Moon, without telling him what was in it. The customer loved the beer’s lightness.

“It’s funny you say that (about Blue Moon) because someone was comparing Oooo Mommy to a witbier the other day,” Watson says as we talk in front of the three clusters of snifter glasses. “I guess I’m too close to it to think of it as a witbier.”

But perhaps that description — that a lager made with a fast-fermenting mold can be similar in flavor to the light, fruity, wheat-filled ales of Belgium — will help with the Brewer’s Table’s current challenge: figuring out how to tell restaurant patrons about koji in 30 seconds or less, the time servers have at their tables.

That’s what we’re doing with the 27 snifters filled with Oooo Mommy blends that early January morning.

Maddux and Watson want to combine the base lager with different types of housemade amazake, a low-alcohol Japanese drink made from fermented rice. Each amazake has one of the adjuncts that are found in the lager: mushrooms, lemon peels and black pepper. If they can nail down the correct proportion of lager to amazake, they might be able to isolate the flavors of the individual ingredients in three new beers that customers can taste side by side, along with the base option.

The purpose? If people can see the moving parts, so to speak, then they can understand the concept as a whole. The Ooo Mommy flight (which lacks a separate black pepper option, as the rice mixture proved too sweet) is available to order now. Maddux, who may well have the only brewery in the country making its own koji for beer, wants to spread his love of the microorganism far and wide.

“Once you realize what koji is capable of in terms of how it can affect vegetables, proteins and now beer, and then producing that in a way no one does through malted grains from our brewery instead of rice, and then the different ways you can treat it — it is just a whole spider’s web of possibilities,” he says. “Really mind-blowing. It is now my favorite thing to do.”