Marukan Vinegar has been slow brewing the world’s finest rice vinegar since 1649 and subsidiary Marukan USA, based in Paramount, California, has brought the Japanese specialty to consumers in the United States. Home cooks to top restaurant chefs alike have enjoyed the taste of mild, organic Marukan rice vinegar –a perfect addition to dressing, dips, sauces, soups and marinades or directly on vegetables.
The secret to Marukan’s success is time says Jon Tanklage, president and chief operating officer of Marukan USA. “What we like to call the ‘Marukan difference,’ is using the same all-natural process for centuries and that starts with making our own sake the old-fashioned way,” he explains.
Centuries of tradition
This tradition dates back to the mid-1600s in western Japan when the company was established by Yasutsugu Hanzaemon Okada. His eldest son, Kanzaburo Yasushisa, moved the business to Fushimicho in Nagoya. Kanzaburo was adopted from the Okada family into the Sasada family and started production of refined vinegar.
“Marukan is still owned by the same family and Denzaemon Sasada is the owner and chairman,” shares Tanklage. “The Sasadas have long-running ties to the family that owns Kikkoman Soy Sauce. Kikkoman was one of the first companies to make a market for Japanese food items in the U.S.”
Kikkoman first launched U.S. distribution in the ‘50s. “This was long before most grocery stores had Asian/ethnic food sections and at first there was some difficulty entering the market because grocers didn’t understand the item,” explains Tanklage. “Kikkoman realized it needed to start a U.S. distribution network to enter the market and Japan Food Company [JFC] was formed.”
With family ties to the Sasadas, Kikkoman started selling Marukan rice vinegar through JFC, making the company one of the first on U.S. store shelves about 41 years ago. “Our parent company is celebrating 366 years in 2015, but Marukan USA has been running for a little over 40,” adds Tanklage.
The Marukan difference
While Kikkoman certainly helped Marukan get a start in the U.S., the label has become a consumer favorite for superior taste and quality – the product of a time-tested process.
“We’re using the same natural process used to produce rice vinegar for centuries by making our own sake,” says Tanklage. “Other companies buy commercial rice alcohol or make it out of rice syrup, not using real rice, but a highly processed byproduct.”
Marukan’s rice vinegar is made through the slow and delicate fermentation, refining and aging process, resulting in a quality “jun-mai”, pure and non-GMO rice vinegar that’s naturally gluten-free. “Using our own koji mold from Japan, the bacteria ferments the rice and breaks it down into simple sugars and starches,” explains Tanklage. “The koji consumes the sugars and makes alcohol or sake. This is called moromi in Japan. From there, a second fermentation process turns the alcohol into vinegar.”
Tanklage emphasizes the time it takes to craft a fine, smooth rice vinegar. “By taking our time and really crafting it the way we want, you can taste the difference,” he says. “The process creates smooth, mild rice vinegar, with more depth of flavor; something that can be lost when you try to rush the process or add unnatural ingredients.”
Expansion on the horizon
This process takes place in Marukan’s 25,000-square-foot Paramount plant. “Between the plant and the office we have about 65,000 square feet in total and 30 employees,” details Tanklage.
But with the popularity of the specialty food and ethnic foods market in recent years, Marukan has large orders to fill and expansion is well within sight. “We’re currently working on a facility in Griffin, Georgia, to double production and supply a large customer base on the East Coast,” says Tanklage.
The new $13 million, 100,000-square-foot plant and sake brewery will create 15 jobs with production set to begin in early 2017. “It has been my dream and vision to build Marukan’s second U.S. plant in the east,” says Denzaemon Sasada, Maruakan chairman. “This location in Griffin is ideal for our natural brewing method and we are very excited to join many other quality Japanese companies who have found a new home in Georgia.”
A cut above
More production space will allow Marukan to cater to a growing customer base. As the nation’s leading maker of 100 percent organic rice vinegars, Tanklage says customers today expect a higher standard.
“Not all of our customers are making sushi at home, most of them are simply using the product right out of the bottle, making a salad dressing or adding it on their food,” he says. “We even have health advocates that add the vinegar to smoothies or drink it to aid digestion. Consumers know what they want and although we’re not the cheapest bottle on the shelf, they know by paying a little more, it is of higher quality. There’s economy in quality.”
Amid other players honing in on the Asian foods market, Marukan stands out in terms of high-quality, non-GMO and organic ingredients. “Home cooks are recognizing the health benefits and using our products as marinades or dressings and top chefs have always loved the way our rice vinegar highlights a dish by balancing acidity and tenderizing proteins,” says Tanklage.
In the last several years Tanklage says the company has also increased efforts in consumer education and community involvement. “Our owners really value education,” he says. “We’ve participated in a unique scholarship program in Paramount, contributing over $150,000 to a scholarship fund which will help 24 students per year attend college. We’ve also opened our plant to the community, hosting tours and luncheons. It’s been a focal point to get more involved; we also sit on a number of boards in town to help improve the business climate in Paramount.”
From Paramount to a soon-to-be East Coast plant, Marukan USA is making its presence known in North America, increasingly becoming a consumer favorite for expertly crafted rice vinegar steeped in centuries of tradition.