Whatever you think of tofu — that it’s an insipid white blob, a rubbery conduit for other ingredients, a stand-in for meat favored by people who wear socks with their sandals — Dan Brewer and his fledgling company, MOFU Soy, will likely change your opinion.
In the basement kitchen of St. Louis University’s Salus Center, Brewer spends his off hours late into the night, transforming bags of soybeans, water and dashes of coagulant into a hand-crafted product that has quickly earned a loyal local following among chefs and shoppers.
“It can be just as special as any other product you bring home for dinner,” Brewer said as he made a batch on a recent weeknight, a black cap backward on his head and arms spattered with tattoos. “It’s not just a substitute for something. It can stand on its own.”
Making tofu in the Midwest — the land of plentiful soybeans — would seem like a logical enterprise. But the Midwestern appetite for tofu, or lack thereof, hasn’t prompted many entrepreneurs to capitalize on the convenience.
Appetites, however, seem to be changing, both here and on the coasts, as more people are seeking out tofu for health, ethical, environmental and even epicurean reasons.
MOFU is one of handful of small-scale tofu makers that have cropped up in recent years, partially in an effort to reclaim tofu’s reputation. Sure, it happens to be healthful, they say. But it tastes good, too — if it’s made with care and attention.
“It’s a revolution against bad tofu on the mass market, simply put,” said Minh Tsai, owner of Hodo Soy Beanery, a smaller tofu maker based in Oakland, Calif. “If you eat our tofu, or the tofu produced by MOFU ... you’re likely to return to eating tofu. If you eat mass-produced tofu, you’ll probably never eat it again.”
Brewer, 28, is a dietitian and chef by both training and education, a duo of factors that uniquely positioned him to see tofu in a new light.
“As a dietitian, I’d always loved tofu,” he said, “But then when I made it myself, I fell in love with it as a chef. I realized it was way more than a tasteless white blob.”
Brewer — who is not a vegetarian, by the way — was working toward a master’s degree in nutrition at SLU, focusing on culinary entrepreneurship, and had to come up with a project for a class.
Having tinkered with tofu in culinary school, he decided to pay it a revisit. “Nobody here was making tofu locally,” he said, “at least not the way I thought it should be made.”
So he plunged in, teaching himself how to make tofu by reading books and watching instructional videos in Chinese on YouTube that he asked an exchange student to translate.
After a bit of practice he produced some batches he was happy with, and his tofu started getting some attention. At a cooking demonstration Brewer was doing, a chef tried the tofu, then asked him if he could make more.
MOFU — a portmanteau of Missouri and tofu — was born.
“I said I’d love to start using it, and we were one of his first accounts,” remembered Matt Bessler, a chef at Schlafly Bottleworks. “Most people are used to buying tofu and masking it, or using it as a carrier for something. But we have people ask for it on pizza, or cold on a salad.”
The company’s memorable name has helped, Bessler said. “We used to not sell a lot of tofu,” he explained. “But once we started selling MOFU, and we put the name on the menu, people started ordering it. It caught on.”
Today, just about two years after MOFU first launched, the company is still tiny even by small-scale standards. Hodo, for example, produces 1,000 pounds of tofu a day. Phoenix Bean, another artisan producer in Chicago, can make about 2,000 pounds a day at full capacity. MOFU, by comparison, produces 240 pounds in a very busy week.
Brewer now teaches in the nutrition and dietetics program at SLU, while also managing the Salus Center kitchen, which is officially called the Food Innovation Center. The kitchen — formerly that of the Incarnate Word Hospital, and still retaining its hospital-esque sterility — operates as a processing center for locally produced school cafeteria foods and other small food startups.
But when he’s not teaching or managing, Brewer makes tofu.
A couple of nights a week, with the kitchen mostly empty, he turns on some tunes — usually his preferred electronica or deejay — and begins to cook. He hauls bags of soybeans, soaks them for several hours, then simmers them in huge kettles to make soy milk. He separates the solids out, then throws those away, and cooks the remaining milk with a coagulant, making it separate into curds and whey.
During this process, Brewer explains, he’s able to extract more protein — and flavor — from the beans. Then he presses it, cuts it and packages it, all by hand.
“At the end of the day, I’m exhausted,” he said, pressing tofu into a large pan. “It’s probably the most laborious thing I’ve ever done.”
It’s also pretty relaxing. “There’s definitely a Zen quality to making tofu,” he said. “It’s very meditative. I don’t use a recipe book.”
Brewer’s process is not unlike that used for centuries in Asian countries where small-scale tofu makers are on virtually ever street corner and nearly every mom-and-pop shop makes its own product.
“There’s always fresh tofu, and it’s still warm when you get it,” said Jenny Yang, owner of Phoenix Bean, remembering her childhood in Taipei. “It’s supposed to be eaten fresh, and usually you don’t leave it for a week.”
When tofu first started gaining a measure of popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s, production was much as it was in Asia — in small batches by small producers. But when its reputation as a health food grew, production started to consolidate, until only a few big players dominated the market.
“You had hundreds of manufacturers, and then it became just like the dairy industry,” explained Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America. “The ones that were able to manufacture in larger facilities and had the aggregate marketing capacity — they began to grow.”
But now, Chapman said, people increasingly want local purveyors of tofu, and not just in Asian communities.
“Americans are trying to get in touch with where their food comes from,” she added. “What’s interesting to me is that this is coming full circle.”
Hodo’s Tsai believes the current wave of interest in artisan tofu has emerged because producers have improved their marketing and message.
“It’s not that what we’re producing is better than what they produced 30 years ago, it’s that it’s better than what’s being produced for the mass market now,” he said. “We’re educating people now. Thirty years ago it was about the environment and health. We’re saying you have to eat it because it tastes good. That’s the difference.”
Brewer says he hasn’t had to do any marketing at all — and can barely make enough to keep his clients happy. “There’s a lot of buzz for how small we are,” he said.
But there’s room to grow. He — and his business partner and wife, Kristin Fleischmann Brewer — recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising $7,000 to improve packaging. He recently enlisted local farmer Rusty Lee to grow soybeans for him — an experiment for Lee. And eventually, Brewer might invest in equipment, and perhaps, make MOFU his full-time job.
Still, he’s not in any real rush, instead heeding advice from Tsai, who told him to take things slow and grow organically — lest his tofu end up the tasteless victim of his own expansion.
For now the 240 pounds he makes in a productive week feels about right, and Brewer seems genuinely surprised that MOFU has come even this far.
“I started this with $1,000,” he said. “I’m just some dude in a kitchen making tofu.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had the wrong name for Incarnate Word Hospital.