By: Seyong Shin
We use up to 21 different local ingredients to make our vinegars, including three different types of local rice and various types of Asian herbs. Most of these ingredients are grown on our own farm, which sits alongside our brewery at the foot of Mani Mountain on Ganghwa Island. The remaining ingredients are sourced from the highest quality farms or agricultural co-ops in Korea. We never compromise in terms of ingredient quality. All the ingredients we use are peak harvested throughout the year during the most optimal season for each respective ingredient. If there is even one ingredient that does not meet required standards, we do not produce any of that vinegar during that year.
As each of our ingredients are harvested, they are then prepared for the brewing process. For some ingredients, that simply means cleaning and air drying it for some time. For other ingredients, it requires more intensive processes. From scratch, the preparation time alone can take three years. For example, wheat, barley and other ingredients are grounded, mixed and handmade into a traditional Korean fermentation starter called “nuruk” (similar to a malt), which is then separately fermented for one year. We also combine ginkgo, ginkgo leaves and other ingredients into a special mixture that is also independently fermented for three years (according to a proprietary, patented process), even before it can be used as an ingredient for our vinegar. This ginkgo mixture is used in almost all our vinegars and contains a few of our 107 secrets.
Brewing the Vinegar
Hot temperatures are a must when making our vinegar, as it produces the best results during the natural fermentation process that follows. Accordingly, we brew all our vinegar only once per year, over 3-10 days, during the hottest seasonal period of every summer. The dates differ from year to year depending on the weather conditions, and like our ingredient standards, we do not produce any vinegar if the weather is not suitable in any given year.
The cooking and brewing processes are labor intensive and require specialized equipment. First, we cook three types of rice in handmade cast iron pots using wood-fire furnaces (the most effective method for steaming rice). We then break down the “nuruk” and prepare the remaining ingredients. Once ready, we mix all the ingredients together in special earthenware urns that are handmade from pure soil, enabling our vinegar to breathe throughout the ensuing fermentation process. These urns are handcrafted exclusively for us in Oegosan, a province in Korea known for its traditional pottery. During the final stage, we add purified natural spring water sourced from the aquifers of Ganghwa Island, a province in Korea renowned for its clean spring water. We then wrap the urns in heavy blankets to trap the heat and let nature take its course. Although it typically takes about 21 days for the ingredients inside the urns to turn into vinegar, the initial brewing and fermentation process can take up to three years.
Aging the Vinegar
Once our vinegar is fully brewed, we move the urns into caves where both the temperature and humidity are controlled. As our vinegar ferments and ages, we migrate the urns to different caves (with differing temperatures) according to recipe, season and age. Every day, for up to 30 years, our artisans clean the urns, recycle the air within the urns, stir the vinegar as necessary and then test the fermentation progress, all by hand. When they stir, they use special handcrafted stirring rods made from a particular type of lightning-struck wood, which was discovered ages ago and was shown to produce the best fermentation results. They always gently stir in one direction according to a specific pattern, never changing direction because the turbulence of sudden changes can cause stress to the microorganisms.
Our fermentation and aging processes are based on a lot of tradition, but it is also ingrained with tremendous emotion. Because vinegar is a living microbiome, it becomes more delicate and sensitive the longer it ferments and ages. In spite of extreme care, there are times we need to discard urns after a few years due to suboptimal fermentation results. Our consummate artisans work hard to make sure that rarely happens. They strongly believe vinegar is a living organism that can be greatly impacted by how it is treated, so they make every effort to care for each urn of vinegar as if it were a loved one. So much so that they often play calming music in the caves to provide a meditative environment. And they never, ever allow anyone who is angry or upset to enter the caves.
We Are A Skincare & Wellness Brand Born From Passion and Tradition
For me and my family, making vinegar is not just a job or a business. It is a true passion. We have dedicated our lives to this craft because it embodies a higher purpose for us. We make our vinegar to help promote holistic inner and outer wellness in others, and in some small way, to help improve people’s lives. Even more than our secret recipes, formulas or methods, working to fulfill this purpose is my family’s proudest tradition.
Seyong is the Co-Founder & Co-CEO of 107. He is also the CEO of HANEGA, the parent company of 107 and one of the oldest and largest aged vinegar breweries in Korea.