The real deal: Fresh wasabi grown on the San Mateo Coast. (Image via Half Moon Bay Wasabi)

How two local electricians started California’s only commercial wasabi operation.

First off, let’s be clear: What you’ve been eating is almost definitely not wasabi. It’s American horseradish. And green dye.

Yes, it’s easy to take the small green blob on the edge of the sushi plate for granted. With its pasty, Play-Doh-like consistency, and oft-described “horseradish” flavor, it’s no wonder that, to many, it comes as a surprise to learn that wasabi is actually a plant. You might be even more surprised to know that there’s a local farm on the San Mateo Coast exclusively dedicated to growing the real thing.

Jeff Roller stands among his Wasabi plants at Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company in Half Moon Bay on August 12, 2019. (Photo by Sinead Chang)

Tim Hall, co-owner of Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company, recalls his light-bulb moment: “I think it’s when I discovered that I wasn’t having real wasabi at the normal sushi restaurants I would go to. I started looking it up on the internet. I became more and more fascinated with the history of it, the tradition of it, the appeal of how difficult it is to grow.”

According to Hall, Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company is the only commercial wasabi grower in the state of California, and Roller said that they’re one of just a handful in the United States. Its rarity is due in large part to how difficult it is to grow.

If pinot takes the prize for the finickiest grape of the wine world, wasabi might be its counter in the condiment realm. Like the pinot grape, wasabi (which is a plant in the same family as mustard and cabbage) thrives in the coastal, foggy conditions endemic to the likes of Half Moon Bay, California, and has garnered a reputation for being temperamental and difficult to cultivate. For some, this would be a deterrent; for co-owners Jeff Roller and Tim Hall, it’s been an ever-engaging challenge.

Wasabi growing in the greenhouses of Half Moon Bay Wasabi. (Photo by Sinead Chang)

The Purveyors

Nine years ago, Hall and Roller, who had been working as partners in an electrical business for a decade, found themselves looking for the right niche in an economy hampered by the recession.

When the duo inadvertently stumbled across the idea of growing wasabi, they were attracted to the challenge — and the fact that nobody was doing it.

“There’s a certain appeal to trying something that everybody says is really hard and nobody’s really doing; there’s a certain amount of pride that you can get from pulling it off,” Roller said.

C-owner Tim Hall harvesting his locally-grown wasabi plants. (Image via Half Moon Bay Wasabi’s Instagram)

Between the two of them, they have an engineering degree, an electrical license and a couple of biology degrees from the University of California at Santa Cruz, not to mention a background in construction — a useful, if rather unlikely, formula for starting a wasabi business. They put their experience to use retrofitting old orchid greenhouses, setting up the irrigation system and understanding a bit of the biology behind growing wasabi. The rest was trial and error.

Hall explained that growing wasabi is not like growing something well-known like hydroponic tomatoes, in which case there’s so much widely available research and information about the way it’s cultivated.

“Most [information about growing wasabi] comes from Japan — it’s pretty coveted and [the info is] in Japanese,” Hall said, adding that the learning curve, while steep, is also what makes growing it fun.

The harvesting process at Half Moon Bay Wasabi. (Photos by Sinead Chang and Half Moon Bay Wasabi’s Instagram)

The Process

Located along the cloudy coastline and down a gravel road just off of Highway 1, Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company is located among rows of refurbished greenhouses. Inside, the spaces are carpeted from wall to wall with rows of verdant wasabi.

Hall said that in Japan, wasabi naturally originated on the shady banks of springs — thriving off of the cold, highly oxygenated clean water. Eventually, creeks were manipulated to create flooded terraced fields (many of which have been around for centuries) where wasabi is grown in gravel.

“Here in America you wouldn’t be allowed to divert a creek; we had to create our own way,” Hall said.

That development has involved trial and error. Roller said that their first way of mimicking the growing conditions in Japan — using gravel and a constant flow of trickling water through the gravel — had some successes but a lot of problems as well.

“It didn’t have a future, so we slowly developed a way of growing it and now we have a system that’s really working great; it’s very repeatable, predictable,” Roller said.

Clockwise from top: Jeff Roller tending to his plants; harvested wasabi plants; spring blooms on wasabi plants. (Photos by Sinead Chang and Half Moon Bay Wasabi’s Facebook)

They are now are better able to control the environment and effectively sterilize and prevent diseases from affecting the plants. Hall said that they grow their wasabi hydroponically, using sensors to water the plants. The process of dosing plants with nutrients is also automated.

Another issue? The plant takes two years to reach maturity, making it more prone to disease and infection.

“[Wasabi] is very demanding and difficult to grow because of the precise growing conditions and the slow growing rate,” Hall said. “Say you have lettuce and a six-month turnaround. You could do a lot of trials and you could make changes. [Wasabi] takes two years to grow; it’s a long time to find out what changes you make.”

Nevertheless, Roller and Hall have developed a rhythm.

“It’s like a machine out here,” Roller said. “It’s a constant — it never ends. It’s like the mail, it never stops.”

Days are spent doing everything from harvesting plants, to receiving “plant starts” and getting those going, to scouting for bugs, diseases or other problems. Maintenance of the plant is key because wasabi is the plant. There’s no in-between step. No additions. You grow it. You grate it. You eat it.

(Image via Half Moon Bay Wasabi)

The Product

A little-known fact about wasabi paste is that it is produced from the rhizome of the plant—essentially a sort of creeping root stalk. However, if you were to take a bite off the end of the rhizome, it would be tasteless. Roller said that you have to grate the rhizome as finely as possible, working it into a paste.

“There’s an oxidation process that happens and then [as a result of] that oxidation, a certain compound creates the heat and the flavor…you have to consume it within 20 minutes of when you create it or else there’s no heat; it just tastes almost pretty plain,” Roller said.

In restaurants, chefs store the wasabi in a tin to delay the oxidation a couple of hours.

Most of Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company’s customers are in California, with a concentration in the Bay Area. Their distributor delivers to Japanese groceries like Nijiya Market in Mountain View, and Robbie Wilson, chef and owner of the Palo Alto restaurant Bird Dog, features their wasabi as part of his wood-grilled avocado dish.

“The Half Moon Bay wasabi is utilized in an unadulterated application: freshly grated to order,” Wilson said. “Balance is paramount with any composition at Bird Dog, i.e., salty, sweet and sour. Thus, the addition of fresh wasabi facilitates an ideal note of nasal-clearing spice, sans any lingering jalapeño or chile-like effect.”

Local restaurants using Half Moon Bay Wasabi in their dishes (clockwise from top left): the wood-grilled avocado at Bird Dog; yellowtail jack sashimi donburi at Ramen Shop in Oakland; Japanese bluefin tuna from Robin in San Francisco; tai sashimi from Ramen Shop. (Images via HMB Wasabi’s Facebook)

While the rhizome is what’s most often sold, the entire plant is edible. Melanie Rogers, owner of small fermented food business Slow Brine, started using Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company’s product a little over a year ago in her Coastside Kraut. While she was working at a farmer’s market, Hall introduced himself. Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company was interested in finding someone who would be able to use the less typical part of the plant.

Rogers said that through that introduction, she had a chance to learn a little more about wasabi and the pickling traditions in Japan that utilize the entire plant.

“I felt super fortunate. There are so few growers of fresh wasabi. As much as possible, I like to work with local farms,” Rogers said.

Currently, Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company operates out of 35,000 square feet of greenhouse, but Roller said that they’d like to make it three times that.

“We think we have the efficiency to bring the price down a bit and then we can start to attract some of the [smaller] restaurants,” Roller said.

Hall foresees that eventually they’ll need to bring someone on to take it to the next level in terms of marketing and increasing production. In the meantime, he said that they’re always in research and development, getting their system nailed down to where it’s consistent.

So for now, their unlikely wasabi operation looks to continue, evolve…and hopefully one day sway the tide against that green blob imposter, or—as Rogers puts it—“bring it to the masses a little more; it’s sort of our goal.”

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