More Than Just Soup: Unpacking the Versatility and Benefits of Miso at a 100-Year-Old Brewery

Miso, a traditional Japanese ingredient brewed from soybeans, is synonymous with the Japanese diet. For hundreds of years, it has enjoyed unwavering popularity in Japan, giving a potent kick of umami to dishes like ramen, nabe, onigiri, and more. Owing to its delicious and versatile flavor and myriad of health benefits, miso has also seen an uptick in popularity overseas recently. In order to learn more about this quintessential condiment for this edition of our “Culture of Japan” series, we sat down with a miso connoisseur at the 100-year-old Minemura Brewery in Niigata City.

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What Is Miso? The History and Ingredients of Japan’s Universal Condiment

Miso is a traditional Japanese paste-like ingredient generally made from (steamed or simmered) soybeans mixed with rice or wheat inoculated with “koji,” which is a mold commonly used to make fermented products like sake and soy sauce. After the addition of salt, this mixture is left to ferment and mature to form a semi-solid paste rich in umami. Most regions of Japan proudly produce their own miso with unique flavors, colors, consistencies, and more, achieved through different brewing and fermentation techniques.

Miso has long been a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, boasting a history stretching back millennia. The exact origins of miso are murky, with the two most prevalent theories arguing that miso either came to Japan through ancient China or the Korean Peninsula, or that it was created in Japan during the Yayoi Period (300 BC-250 AD) from salt preservation. Most likely, it was a combination of the two, first inspired by similar overseas condiments before being further developed in Japan.

One of the earliest known recordings of miso comes from the Taiho Code written in 701, which refers to a condiment called “mishou,” described as a lumpy soybean paste. During the Heian Period (794-1185), miso grew into a prized delicacy often used for medicinal purposes. The ubiquitous miso soup made its debut in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), alongside the custom of the humble samurai diet of a bowl of miso soup with vegetables and rice.

Afterwards, the increasing production of soybeans in Japan allowed everyday people to make homebrewed miso during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), with it finally becoming established as a common, everyday ingredient used across numerous dishes in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Nowadays, while miso consumption in Japan is in gradual decline, over 340,000 tons of miso were still produced in 2022, and a Japanese cupboard or fridge without a handy packet of miso is still seen as an anomaly.

The Different Types of Miso in Japan

Like soy sauce, sake, and other fermented foods, the characteristics of miso vary widely. While all miso is made from soybeans, additional ingredients like rice and wheat can drastically change the flavor, furthered by ingredient ratios, fermentation times, and more. Broadly speaking, miso can be separated into the following:

Classified by Ingredients:

  • Rice miso (kome): Soybeans are blended with rice inoculated with koji. By far the most common type of miso, accounting for around 80% of production. 
  • Wheat miso (mugi): Soybeans are blended with wheat inoculated with koji. Primarily made in the south of Japan (Kyushu, Shikoku, Chugoku).
  • Soybean miso (mame): Only soybeans are used, with the koji applied directly to the soybeans themselves. Primarily made in the Tokai region of central Japan, with the most famous area being Hatchocho near Nagoya. 
  • Mixed miso (chogo): A blend of two or three of the above.

Classified by Taste:

  • Sweet (amakuchi): A lighter, less salty, sweeter taste often made by increasing the amount of koji in the brew and reducing the fermentation time. It can be further split between the less salty “amamiso” and saltier “amakuchi.”
  • Salty (karakuchi): A heavier, saltier taste often made by using more soybeans in the brew and increasing fermentation time. Accounts for 75% of all miso production.

Classified by Color:

  • White miso (shiro): A pale yellow with whitish hues made with a larger percentage of rice with a shorter fermentation time. Often has a sweeter taste. 
  • Lightly-colored miso (tanshoku): A deeper, golden yellow. Uses less rice and more salt than white miso. Often has a mild taste somewhere between sweet and salty miso.
  • Red miso (aka): A reddish brown, occasionally even blackish miso made through long fermentation and maturing periods with a high salt concentration. Generally salty and savory in taste, with exceptions.

+ Dashi Miso: A type of miso with “dashi” soup stock already mixed into the paste, allowing you to make miso soup without buying dashi separately.

Most areas of Japan also boast their own miso brew created by mixing elements of the above. For example, northern Japan tends to produce red, salty rice miso; the central Tokai region is known for dark soybean miso; the west Kansai region is partial to white, sweet rice miso; and the southern areas of Japan are all about wheat miso. Below are some common miso types and their respective regions:

Salty Red Rice Miso:  Hokkaido Miso, Tsugaru Miso (Aomori), Akita Miso (Akita), Sendai Miso (Miyagi), Aizu Miso (Fukushima), Sado Miso (Niigata), Echigo Miso (Niigata), Kaga Miso (Ishikawa)

Sweet Red Rice Miso: Edo Ama Miso (Tokyo), Gozen Miso (Tokushima)

Sweet Lightly-Colored Rice Miso: Etchu Miso (Toyama)

Salty Lightly-Colored Rice Miso: Shinshu Miso (Nagano)

Salty, Dark Soybean Miso: Tokai Mame Miso (Aichi, Gifu, Mie)

Sweet, White Rice Miso: Kansai Shiro Miso (Kansai region: Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, etc.), Sanuki Shiro Miso (Kagawa), Fuchu Shiro Miso (eastern Hiroshima)

Sweet, Lightly-Colored or White Wheat Miso: Setouchi Mugi Miso (Ehime, Yamaguchi, Hiroshima), Kyushu Mugi Miso (Kyushu region: Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, etc.)

Often, these miso types are tied to the characteristics of each region. For example, Tokai mame miso, which forgoes the use of rice or wheat to yield deep umami with hints of acidity, developed from the hot and humid climate of the Tokai region, which caused the fatty acids in soybeans mixed with rice/wheat to become acidic and deteriorate. Brewers realized that this could be prevented by applying koji directly to the soybeans themselves, and while modern technology has largely solved these former issues, locals continue to proudly enjoy this one-of-a-kind regional flavor today.

So, while you’re traveling Japan, make sure to sample the local miso to discover the differences and learn more about the region itself. Miso also makes for a great authentic, local souvenir!

Minemura Brewery - Over 100 Years of Miso Brewing!

The medley of flavors and hefty history make miso anything but simple and straightforward. To get to the core of what makes miso so special, we visited the historical Minemura Brewery in Nuttari, Niigata City. Founded in 1905, Minemura Brewery was just one of many miso breweries that once lined the now reclaimed Kurinoki River in Nuttari, a neighborhood long-famous for fermented delicacies.

While Nuttari has changed significantly, Minemura Brewery has not moved from its original location, and continues to prosper through a seamless blend of time-honored tradition with contemporary innovation. Minemura Brewery is split between three buildings: the two antique white-walled “dozo” storehouses serving as shops, one of which was built in the late Edo Period (1603-1868) and the other during the Taisho Period (1912-1926), and the miso brewery in the back. While preserving the traditional facades, the shop interiors have been tastefully renovated in chic modern Japanese style, offering visitors a comfortable space to delve into the vast world of miso.

The brewery itself is a surprisingly large complex packed with fermentation barrels, brewing equipment, packaging machinery, and more, churning out traditional recipes with modern efficiency. Minemura Brewery also offers brewery tours (currently unavailable), tastings, miso-packing experiences, workshops, events, and more, helping to foster a knowledge of miso while keeping the ancient culture of Nuttari alive. You can read more about “fermentation town” Nuttari in this article.

The Characteristics of Echigo Miso

Minemura Brewery specializes in Echigo miso, which is the miso of modern-day Niigata Prefecture in northwestern Japan, formerly known as the Echigo Province. As Niigata Prefecture is the largest rice-producing region in the country, local breweries have long utilized this abundance to make rice-based kome miso. While each brewery has its own unique take on the recipe, Echigo miso generally presents a mild salty (karakuchi) flavor achieved through a balanced ratio of soybeans and rice, along with a color that lies somewhere between red miso and lightly-colored miso with a grainy, thick texture from whole rice grains. Being less potent than other red varieties like Tokai mame miso and Tsugaru miso, Echigo miso is more suited for those seeking a bold, piquant flavor without any intense pungency.

Along with prosperous rice farming, the climate of Niigata was also a big factor in establishing the ancient local miso brewing culture, with the frigid winters curbing spoilage during the delicate brewing process while the hot summers encouraged rapid fermentation. 5,018 tons of miso were made in Niigata in 2019, making it one of the largest miso producing regions in Japan, although it is dwarfed by nearby mega-producers like Nagano (217,999 tons) and Aichi (37,835 tons).

While being the definitive Echigo miso producer, Minemura Brewery is also an innovative, trailblazing brewery striving to both develop the craft and safeguard ancient recipes. This is seen in their “hanni-hanmushi” method of both simmering and steaming soybeans, developed to create a new style of Echigo miso that balances umami flavors with a whiter color inspired by the rice and snowfall of Niigata Prefecture. While simmering soybeans yields lightly-colored miso, it comes at the expense of losing the umami. On the other hand, steaming amplifies the umami but rapidly darkens the color. However, by first briefly boiling the soybeans before the umami is lost, the darkening from steaming is reduced, and a whiter, umami-rich miso worthy of Niigata is born.

Minemura Brewery also serves up a red Echigo miso typical of the region called “Fukkoku Shikomi,” which uses a traditional steamed soybeans recipe to draw out a full-bodied flavor harking back to old-time Niigata. These are bolstered by another six different miso types of varying ingredient ratios, maturation times, and more, forming a lineup complementing dishes of all kinds.

So, how does Minemura Brewery actually make their miso? Join us in the brewery to find out!

How Is Miso Made?

Guiding us through Minemura Brewery was Marketing Department head Jun Kobayashi, who joined the company five years ago, inspired by their creative marketing and stylish packaging. After a tour around the store, we ventured into the beating heart of the brewery.

Contrasting from the clean, sleek, customer-orientated storefront, the miso brewery bristled with humming industrial machinery, hard-working miso-makers clad head-to-toe in white coveralls, and the alluring aromas of miso at various stages of production. Despite the factory atmosphere, Minemura Brewery had an atelier-like flair, and individual brewers tended to their part of the process with passionate, caring attention.

Before stepping in, we were given an elastic mesh cap and shoe covers to protect the brewery from outside germs. While invisible to the naked eye, surrounding us was a delicate ecosystem of microscopic beings lending their abilities to help make the products we love. An invasion of outside bacteria can have devastating consequences, and rigorous hygiene is a necessity. In fact, many breweries won’t allow in those who have recently eaten natto, another Japanese fermented soybean dish, as the bacteria used in natto fermentation can take over the brewery and ruin the miso!

Despite the complexity of flavors, the miso-making process is surprisingly straightforward and easy to understand. To start, Jun Kobayashi took us to the back of the brewery, where the ingredients for miso are prepared. Here, milled white rice is steamed and inoculated with “tane koji” fermentation starter to be turned into “kome koji” (malted rice), while soybeans are washed and soaked in water. After this, the soybeans are boiled, steamed, and mashed and mixed together with the kome koji plus salt and water and made to begin fermenting.

The machine pictured above on the left handles the steaming and inoculation of the rice, while the one to the right is a conveyor belt that transports the kome koji rice, mashed soybeans, and salt into the mixer to be blended. In the background is also a storage unit where the kome koji rice is kept to proliferate before being added to the brew.

Next, this mash is transferred to large boxes covered with plastic to begin fermenting. During this time, the koji mold and other bacteria will begin turning the protein into amino acids, while the starch is saccharified into glucose, both creating the rich umami that defines the taste of miso. To encourage rapid fermentation and ensure perfect conditions year-round, these boxes of miso are stored in heat rooms with a temperature of around 30°C-32°C, allowing Minemura Brewery to make miso much faster and more often than traditional brewers, who had to rely on the natural climate.

As outlined, the length of fermentation will depend on the type of miso. Minemura Brewery’s white miso is fermented for a relatively short period of around two months to keep the flavor light and refreshing, while the red miso is aged for around 4-6 months, allowing a deeper flavor to develop.

Afterwards, the boxes of finished miso are transferred into several large vats, where they are mixed together with a claw-like machine (pictured above). This is done as the outer and inner layers of miso can ferment differently and form an uneven flavor, making it a vital step in guaranteeing the final products are all of the same quality.

Unlike many breweries, Minemura Brewery's miso forgos the next step of pasteurization, leaving all the natural goodness intact. Instead, a dash of alcohol (called “shusei”) is added to each finished batch, which immediately halts the fermentation process to prevent the flavor and color from continuing to change while stopping gas from being produced in the container.

Minemura Brewery also makes “additive free” miso without any alcohol or pasteurization, instead inserting holes into the packages to release gas so that the miso can be enjoyed in its purest form. This full-scale lineup allows Minemura Brewery to honor the traditions of miso while supplying a wide selection to suit all palates and lifestyles.

Finally, after many months of brewing, mixing, and fermenting, the finished miso is packaged. Along with their adjacent brewery-direct store, Minemura Brewery ships their miso to supermarkets and shops all throughout Niigata, and their products can also be purchased online and at several specialty stores across Japan.

When asked what the most difficult process of miso brewing is, Jun told us that perfecting the kome koji rice, which can make or break a batch of miso, requires great care and skill to ensure the koji mold has prospered and that the rice is thoroughly inoculated. In this way, miso brewing is comparable to sake brewing, which also uses kome koji as a base ingredient. Miso is also very similar to soy sauce, differing mostly in ingredients like wheat and brine as well as the final pressing and filtering into a liquid.

Touring Minemura Brewery gave us profound insight into the intricate, multifaceted nature of miso brewing. It was inspiring to see how the basic formula of miso has remained virtually unchanged since their founding over 100 years ago, and how they have tactfully reinvigorated this time-honored craft with attractive modern flair.

Like Minemura Brewery, many miso producers all throughout Japan offer tours of their facilities, and getting a tour is no doubt the best way to deepen your understanding and appreciation of this wondrous superfood.

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

Classic Japanese Miso Dishes

Within a humble pack of miso lies boundless culinary potential. But before getting creative, Jun advises starting from the standard Japanese dishes that define the ingredient.

By far, the easiest and most common of these is miso soup. Jun says that the kind of miso used for miso soup depends on your taste, however, whiter miso is generally lighter and easier to drink, which can be better for first-timers or picky children, while those who enjoy piquant, salty flavors like olives and blue cheese may prefer the heavier red miso.

To make miso soup, you also need “dashi,” which is a kind of soup stock made from the extract of fish, meat, seaweed, or vegetables to add a subtle yet noticeable base of umami. Minemura Brewery also sells dashi in a variety of flavors and ingredients, sourced from local specialists.

Here’s our recommended simple miso soup recipe:

  1. Simmer the dashi in water.
  2. Add ingredients (like tofu, spring onion, wakame seaweed, mushrooms, etc.). Turn off or lower heat once ingredients are cooked.
  3. Use a ladle and long cooking chopstick to slowly melt the miso into the water. How much miso you use will depend on your preference, so start slowly and continue tasting until you’ve found a suitable amount.
  4. Serve immediately.

Other popular miso-based dishes in Japan include:


Miso is one of the most popular flavors of ramen, alongside “tonkotsu” pork bone broth and soy sauce. Miso ramen is synonymous with Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, and was conceived in the city by the manager of a local ramen restaurant in 1955. There are also popular miso ramen renditions in Sendai, Niigata, Nagano, and more, and it is on the menu at most ramen chain restaurants throughout Japan.


Udon is a kind of thick Japanese noodle made from wheat. There are numerous ways to eat udon, such as the common “kake udon,” which sees the noodles served in a bowl of hot dashi soup. One lesser-known yet equally delicious recipe is “miso nikomi udon” from Aichi Prefecture, where udon is boiled in a broth of miso with ingredients like kamaboko fish cakes and spring onion. Miso can also be used to make fried “yaki udon” and several other regional arrangements.


Nabe collectively refers to Japanese hotpot dishes. Many of these use miso as a broth, such as “ishikari-nabe” from Hokkaido, “shishi-nabe” from Ibaraki, “sakura-nabe” from Tokyo, and “akakara-nabe” from Aichi.

Miso Dengaku

Tofu, potato, eggplant, konjac, and other ingredients are placed on individual skewers and cooked before being covered in a miso-based sauce, sometimes lightly roasted again to caramelize the miso. “Gyo-den” is the same recipe but with fish - particularly popular with “ayu” sweetfish. Saikyoyaki, another similar dish which originated in Kyoto, has the fish marinated in a white miso-based sauce before being grilled.


Tsukemono refers to a number of pickled dishes in Japan made using all sorts of ingredients and techniques, while “miso-zuke” specifically defines those pickled in miso. This was originally done for preservation, and is now used to add flavor. Tsukemono are often served as an accompaniment to set meals, or enjoyed together with a drink. Minemura Brewery prides itself on a sizable lineup of miso-zuke, which started from their tradition of burying daikon radishes in barrels of miso to be shipped out as a gift to customers. Also popular is “kizami miso-zuke,” which are miso-zuke minced into small pieces used as a topping for rice. Meat like pork slices or tripe, popular in Japan, can also be marinated in miso.


Kiritanpo is a local dish found in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan made from mashed rice on a wooden skewer. After being fried, kiritanpo are often coated in miso, or added to nabe.


Aemono are small side dishes made from pre-prepared and seasoned vegetables. A wide variety of ingredients and dressings can be used, and miso-based aemono are called “miso-ae.”


“Itame” means “stir-fry” in Japanese, and miso-itame is a simple yet delicious meal of meat and vegetables stir-fried in a sauce made from miso often mixed with soy sauce, sake, and sugar.


“Ni” is a style of Japanese cooking where ingredients are simmered or stewed in sauce. Miso-ni uses a miso-based sauce, and is often used to cook mackerel.


Onigiri are triangular rice balls filled with ingredients like salmon, salmon roe, tuna, kombu seaweed, or umeboshi wrapped in a sheet of dried nori seaweed. Onigiri are also delicious with a spoonful of miso paste either inside the rice ball or spread on top and lightly roasted. Miso-zuke also makes for a great onigiri filling.

Unique Japanese Miso Dishes

With miso consumption declining in Japan, producers like Minemura Brewery are always experimenting to expand their lineup and customer base. At the crux of this are miso-flavored sweets, cheesecakes, baumkuchen, rice crackers, and more, which utilize the saltiness of miso to form an exquisite contrast from sweet, creamy flavors like milk and caramel. If the pungency of miso is too offputting, trying one of these miso-based sweets may provide a gentler pathway into enjoyment.

Incorporating Miso Into Western Cuisine

Contrasting with its waning popularity in Japan, recent trends show a steady incline in miso consumption across the globe. Along with miso soup, ramen, and other Japanese dishes, miso can be easily incorporated into Western cuisine for an unorthodox yet delectable tang.

Miso-based dressings go great with any salad, while a dollop of miso will spice up fried vegetables and excite pasta sauces. Miso makes for a great marinade for chicken and kebabs, or an irresistible alternative to teriyaki sauce. It's a unique and healthy dip for carrot or parsley sticks, and, as demonstrated by Minemura Brewery, can be mixed into the batter of cakes and other sweets to invoke a deeper, multilayered flavor. Or, miso can simply serve as a flavorful alternative to salt.

Generally speaking, the milder white miso is a better fit for Western cuisine, as it is more versatile and less likely to overpower the other ingredients. Miso is safe to consume without cooking, and will generally last for up to a year without going off. However, the use by date can differ depending upon the type, so check the label carefully.

The Health Benefits of Miso

Miso is also enjoying a boom as a superfood. The health benefits of miso have long been acknowledged in Japan, with an old Edo Period proverb saying “give your money to a miso shop rather than a doctor.”

First of all, miso is loaded with nutrition, like protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals like potassium, as well as amino acids, salt, and more, making it an easy way to incorporate these essentials into your diet. Also, while sweets are plentiful, miso is generally eaten with healthy ingredients like vegetables, fish, and tofu, and will help make them tastier to promote a healthier diet. The soy protein in miso can also lower cholesterol, while vitamin E, saponin, and dietary fiber are known for improving skin health and appearance.

Unpasteurized miso in particular is chock full of beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, which can improve gut health and aid digestion. Although cooking with or consuming miso will eliminate their numbers, their remains are said to feed existing probiotics in the gut, helping to nurture a healthy digestive environment. Furthermore, koji fermentation makes the nutrients in soybeans more absorbable, allowing the body to reap even greater health benefits than from regular soybean dishes.

While it’s currently impossible to say for certain, miso has also been the subject of much scientific study showing a myriad of other potential benefits. This includes encouraging the proliferation of vitamin-producing bacteria in the gut, reducing the risk of certain cancers, and supporting brain health. However, keep in mind that miso is high in salt, so those on a low salt diet should be careful.

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

Miso as a Souvenir

According to Jun, before the pandemic, international visitors from across the globe often visited Minemura Brewery seeking out miso to bring home. Particularly popular amongst this crowd were the sweets and rice crackers, which allow a taste without the hassle of dealing with “raw” miso. However, miso can be stored without refrigeration even after opening (although it is best kept out of direct sunlight and stored in a cool, dark place), making the smaller packages like those pictured above fantastic as culinary souvenirs of Japan (just be aware of your home country’s customs regulations).

Miso: The Foundation of Japanese Cuisine

Miso has long stood as one of the foundations of Japanese cuisine, from the soul-warming miso soup to a plethora of beloved dishes like ramen, onigiri, and nabe. With lots of regional varieties to explore, boundless potential to enhance your cooking, and a swath of remarkable health benefits, now is a better time than ever to add miso into your diet! From our tour of Minemura Brewery, we were able to see the shape of this ancient craft in the modern era, and discover just how much effort and know-how goes into making this fermented superfood. Next time you visit Japan, add a miso brewery to your itinerary and deepen your understanding and appreciation of Japan’s extraordinary miso culture!

Top picture: PIXTA (upper left); Minemura Brewery (bottom left)

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake, reading, and traveling to as much of Japan as possible. Hot springs, historical sites, and untouched nature are some of his favorite things about Japan. He enjoys writing about traditional crafts, offbeat yet charming towns, and interesting local stories.
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