Greetings Sake Lovers !
Are you familiar with the term toji? Do you know who or what one is? Traditionally speaking, the toji is the person in charge of the entire brewing process. In English we might call them a master brewer or brewer meister. It’s basically just another word for the foreman in charge of the entire brewing process. Whether you know of them or not, in today’s article, we take an in-depth look at the role, origin, history and future of the most highly skilled craftsperson in sake brewing — with a few surprises along the way.
It may surprise you to learn — well it did us — that the most popularly supported theory about the etymology of the word toji suggests that it may have derived from the similar sounding word for ‘housewife’ in Japanese (it is written using different Chinese characters). Acually this is much less farfetched than it might sound because we know that 2000 years ago, in the Yayoi period, in the era that sake was believed to have been discovered, the craftsperson of sake was a she not a he. To elaborate further, back then, it was female deities who brewed sake — as an offering to the gods.
Toji as in master brewer = 杜氏
Toji as in housewife = 刀自
This thesis may seem somewhat ironic when you consider that old taboo of the ‘female in the brewery’. It makes you wonder if those against female brewing had skipped history classes.
The Origin of the Modern Toji
The first modern toji were in fact simple rice farmers; farmers who had turned to the craft as a form of seasonal work in the agricultural off-season: in the summer rice was grown; in the winter sake was brewed. The majority of them had never brewed sake before but they were naturals — mainly because they understood the rice better than anyone else. Before long, these farmers had started to outsource their skills to breweries all over Japan with guilds setup to manage the outsourcing process, one for nearly every region, excluding Tokyo. At the height of the toji era, some guilds had over 1000 members and hundreds of toji. There are three particularly famous guilds, each of which is still going strong today.
3 Most Famous Guilds
The following 3 toji guilds often go by the pseudonym ‘the big three’.
To date, this guild has nurtured over 372 toji, an Alumni that has yet to be surpassed. The only prefectures / areas where you won’t find Nanbu Toji are Okinawa and Kyushu, a testament to its sheer size. This guild was started in an area called Kitakamigawa, located in the Tohoku region’s northernmost prefecture Iwate. The current base is located in Ishidoriya Town.
Originating in the centre of the southern region of Niigata, this is the biggest toji guild in Japan in terms of number of affiliated bodies. The majority of breweries in Niigata have at one time or another employed a toji from this guild. With a total of over 281 tojis, this is the clear number.2.
It was started by the world-famous ‘brewers of Nada’ (Nada being one of the undisputed birthplaces of sake) in Sasayama City in Hyogo Prefecture. As well as being a very attractive guild and having a hand in nearly every famous brand of sake the region has ever produced, its teaching achievements spread far beyond just the regional itself also helping to define a large number of regional styles still in existence today.
Other guilds worthy of a mention include: Izumo Toji, Sannai Toji, Noto Toji and many more.
The Path to Toji
Although the final step to becoming a toji, even today, takes the form of an exam and or practical examination, in the early days, aspiring brewers would first have to work their way up through an unforgiving traditional hierarchy that in some cases might take years even decades to ascend. The conventional route is to gain experience brewing sake and climb the ranks. Most tojis build up referrals from reputable breweries, creating a portfolio. It all starts with a brewery requesting your services as a toji. Another, slightly quicker route to toji is to train at one of the main agricultural faculties at one of the specialist universities that teach fermentation. The final route, is to build up a reputation working at one of the bigger breweries.
An Era Without Toji?
It’s no secret that due to a rapidly declining birth rate, in the more rural parts of Japan, young people are becoming something of a rarity. A lack of young people means that the pool of toji successors is getting smaller and smaller. The effects of this so-called ageing population problem are of course being felt outside the brewing industry as well but are particularly significant in the case of the toji profession. Traditionally speaking, the retirement age of your average toji would be considerably higher than the national average; that has always been the case. But the toji is not an immortal being. A lot of the tojis are now in their late 60’s or older. A large number are in their last days of brewing. An era without those toji is now to some extent inevitable.
Hardest hit guilds
For every 10 toji there were in 1985 there are now only 5 left.
There are now only 6 left!
Once said to boast a membership of over 60 toji, there are now only 6 left.
There are a number of ways in which the industry has changed to compensate for the lack of Toji.
An Era without Toji
Some breweries have simply done away with the system altogether. These brewers question the original logic behind the toji entirely: putting all your faith, all the responsibility on the shoulders of one person who is only going to be around, once a year for about 3 months and letting him dictate the style, taste and direction of your sake.
Next Generation of Toji
Some breweries have simply started to look closer to home for their next toji — for example, to their own offspring. An overall drop in alcohol consumption means that a lot of breweries simply don’t produce the volume that they used to. As a result, a lot of breweries have had to cut their workforce. These days, it is not uncommon to find a brewery that brews sake with a team of just one or two people — a large number of the breweries we showcase at KURAND are of this ilk. There is an upside to this though. For starters, the hierarchy is gone, and with it the biggest obstacle to becoming toji. Furthermore, the brewers of today quickly learn to multitask becoming able to handle all the tasks that were once entrusted to one person. What you have is someone who has gained all the experience required to become a toji just by brewing sake on a daily basis.
Modern changes to the toji system have also seen an influx of female and foreign entrants.
One of the most famous examples is the British toji Philip Harper. Although we must point out that he is actually continuing the original tradition of toji; i.e. seasonal worker.
The ageing population problem is being felt in the agricultural industry too. In some parts of the country there simply aren’t enough farmers and abandoned rice fields are a common sight. Seeing this has motivated some to start growing their own sake rice, a move that represents a return to the old principles of brewing.
So in a sense, we have come full circle. The brewers of today have effectively returned to their roots so to speak. From an age with toji, to an age without… or it may be more correct to say: the next generation of toji — to say otherwise would be nothing short of a paradox.
The KURAND lineup includes sake brewed by a number of upcoming toji and fresh young talent.
We are also proud to count an ex-toji in our ranks here at KURAND. Look out for Aoto san, our purchaser (the chap in the photo above).
At KURAND we make a point of displaying the faces of the craftsperson on front label a bit like they do with organic produce because we believe that sakes tastes so much more delicious when you know who made it and why…