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Elphin Couple Spent 30 Years Perfecting Tempeh: The Noble BeanBy Jeff Green
Photo: Susan Brown, Rosemary Kotze, Dean
Long before Walmart started selling organic produce; before there were Loblaws Organics products; before wheat-free, gluten-free and low cholesterol products were even contemplated; before the 100-Mile Diet and the Local Food movement, Alan and Susan Brown left their friends at Plenty Canada near McDonalds Corners and moved to Toronto to start a food business.
The Browns had lived at The Farm in Tennessee, a vegetarian communal project that is still going strong today, and it was there that they learned about tempeh, a product made of fermented soybeans, which was originally invented in Indonesia at least 400 years ago.
Although tempeh is now a specialty product in North America, it was not known at all back in 1975 when it was being incorporated into the diet of people at The Farm. The Browns were a young couple when they learned how to make tempeh. They learned that it is a highly effective protein source, which was much in demand for a vegetarian community. They came to Canada and became involved with Plenty, which at the time was a small community on the model of the Farm.
The Browns, Alan in particular, had an entrepreneurial bent, and when they started developing a small-scale manufacturing process to make tempeh for sale, the idea of doing it at Plenty was the first plan, but in the end it turned out not to be a good fit. So the couple headed off to the big smoke - Kensington Market to be precise - and started up their business.
A few years later they were drawn back to eastern Ontario. “We spent one weekend looking at dozens of places, and then we found this property and snapped it up,” Alan recalled last week from the little factory behind their home on the Elphin Maberly Road, just south-west of Elphin.
So, over 25 years ago, Noble Bean, which is what they called their company, moved to Elphin, and the Browns have built their business, and their lives, ever since, in the process becoming a living example of how a small-scale local food business should be run, with hands-on owners who are completely committed to the product they make.
At first they made tempeh in a small, converted trailer, which is still part of the 1,500 square foot hybrid building where the tempeh is made today.
Noble Bean is a certified organic, kosher product, and so the process through which the tempeh is made is subject to the scrutiny not only of Canadian and Ontario health and safety inspectors, but also a rabbi from Ottawa and organic regulators as well.
Both Susan and Alan work in the shop, and Susan supervises most of the production and the work of two other workers, currently Rosie Kotze from Elphin and Dean from Playfairville.
In what is a smooth-running operation, dried soybeans are transformed into 350 pounds of tempeh each day, five times a week. A year’s supply of organic soybeans sits in a tractor trailer at the far end of the property, waiting to be brought into a room where they are poured into a wood and mesh box. A fan and a dehumidifier are employed to further dry out the beans until the moisture content is down to 10%. At that point the beans are hulled, and the casings are sucked out by vacuum tube (the casings help to feed the pigs at a neighbouring farm in exchange for eggs).
The beans are put in porous sacks and boiled. They then go into a machine that resembles a commercial drier for the surface moisture to be spun out of them.
Finally the cooked beans are ready to be turned into tempeh.
At this point the beans are full of protein, but the human body can't get at all that protein. Something needs to be done to alter their chemical state.
Hundreds of years ago in Indonesia, they would be left exposed to the air, and naturally occurring bacteria would form a white mold over them in a matter of days.
Modern tempeh making, just like modern production of beer and wine, requires that for both health and taste reasons, the fermentation must be a controlled reaction. The culture that is used at Noble Bean is Rhizopus oligoporus, which is imported from The Farm in Tennessee or from other sources. The culture is mixed into the cooked soybeans, which are put into plastic that has been punctured with dozens of tiny holes. Then bags are flattened and placed on metal trays that you might see in a hospital cafeteria. The trays are placed in incubators, which maintain a temperature of over 30 degrees centigrade for 24 hours to incubate the culture.
After 24 hours, the beige soybeans have a white coating (technically it is fibrous mycelium) that is infused throughout the Tempeh cakes. Not only does the mycelium hold the cakes together, it has altered the chemistry of the soybeans, breaking them down so they can be readily digested.
“It also reverses the anti-nutrients in soy,” said Susan Brown, particularly the trypsin inhibitor that prevents digestion of protein, and phytic acid, which impedes the absorption of certain minerals including zinc, calcium and iron.”
Once the incubation is complete, the Noble Tempeh is flash frozen, and sold in stores as a frozen product.
Along with regular Soy Tempeh, Noble Bean makes Sea Veggie Tempeh, Quinoa Tempeh, and Three Grain Tempeh by adding ingredients before the tempeh is incubated. In addition, Noble Bean also sells tempeh burgers, in which the tempeh cakes are sliced and marinated before being frozen.
Over the years, the Browns have continually fine tuned their manufacturing process, all the while building up a market for tempeh in health food stores in Perth, Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal in addition to their original sales base in Toronto and through the Ontario Natural Food Co-op
But in the past few years, the market for tempeh has been exploding. The increased interest in healthy protein and gluten-free products has only made the market even stronger, and even though they invested $40,000 a few years ago in upgrades to their production facility to be able to produce as much as they do now, the market is now demanding more and more.
“Our sales were steady through the ’90s, but they are now going up every year,” said Alan Brown, “and in 2011 they are up about 13%.”
The Browns are not planning to expand their business again, however. After 30 years they are planning to retire and have put Noble Bean up for sale, even though it is more profitable today than it has ever been. It will be the new owner who will have the opportunity to build up the production to meet what looks like a limitless market.
The Browns don’t only produce tempeh; they have also become adept at cooking with it.
Like tofu, its more famous cousin, tempeh is a food that has a more neutral flavour than other sources of protein. What that means as far as cuisine is concerned, is that it provides the texture and allows other ingredients and spices the opportunity to shine. Ginger and garlic, mushrooms and almonds are all very well suited to cooking with tempeh.
In Indonesia, dishes such as Tempeh Sambal Goreng are part of the national cuisine, and a number of websites and cookbooks have sprung up with recipes that use tempeh in other Asian dishes such as Tempeh with Shiitake mushrooms and garlic sauce, and Sweet and Sour Tempeh. It is also used as a meat substitute in Italian and Mexican dishes.
Tempeh burgers are available at the Elf Inn Express locally, and Noble Bean Tempeh is sold at Local Family Farms in Verona, Tara Natural Foods in Kingston and Foodsmiths in Perth.
For further information, check out Noblebean.ca