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All About Toji
or Master Brewers

# 70

Aug. 2005

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #70
August 1, 2005

-- All About Toji (Master Brewers)
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events & Announcements

All About Toji

Throughout the course of this newsletter, references to toji have certainly been dropped from time to time. I usually add an explanatory term such as "master brewer," and let it go at that. But a toji represents and embodies so much more that the topic certainly warrants a more in-depth look-see.

Just what is a toji? In short, a master brewer. There may be anywhere from four to forty people brewing sake at a given kura, but there is only one toji. He (or she) is the decision maker. He calls the shots, his methods, tricks of the trade, and even innovations are the ones employed in brewing the sake. It is his expertise, experience and intuition that can make or break a sake and the reputation of the kura that produces it. As such, toji are respected or even revered, laden with massive responsibility, and the stuff of folklore and tradition.

Sake is not brewed by the kura owners; not traditionally at least. The owners themselves were generally land owners, as many of them still are today, and tended toward the aristocratic if not erudite side of society. Not for them the dirtying of hands or toiling of long hours. This was handled by the toji and his assistants, collectively referred to as "kurabito," or "people of the kura."

And who were these people of the kura? Migrant craftsmen, so to speak; mostly farmers from predominantly snowy regions that worked their land all spring, summer and fall, but were more or less snowbound and idle during the winter months. A wonderfully symbiotic (for that era) relationship developed in which these folks would travel some distance from their homes and work in a sake brewery for as much as six months during the cold seasons, and trek back home in the spring. This provided them with much-needed income when they were without work, and gave the kura owners the work force they needed, and only during the time they needed it.

Sake brewing, while laborious and strenuous, is not grunt work, but rather a learned skill and craft. Not just any schmuck can do it. And as such brewers and especially toji have always been highly respected even back in their own towns and farming villages. Since they came from relatively concentrated regions around Japan, when they returned to their homes they would to some degree exchange notes and teach each other. Over time, these toji formed guilds that developed reputations and influenced regional styles. These toji guilds, or "toji ryuha," were much more craft and tradition oriented than labor union-like. Their main objectives were to educate and train successors, to refine skills, and to uphold and improve the reputation of the sake from their region.

To a great degree, this system still continues today. All kura have one brewer designated as the toji, and almost all kura still bring in at least some brewing staff from the boonies, farmers living away from home and in the kura during the winter as they did long ago. Traditions and habits both die hard.

Significance of the Guilds

Currently, there are 26 toji ryuha remaining. Many are gone forever, as their membership dwindled to zero. At one time about 80 years ago there were as many as 10,000 companies brewing sake in Japan; now that number has dropped to a mere 1500 or so. So of course the number of toji has also declined as well. And of those remaining 26 guilds, some have but one or two members, some ten, some 50 and a couple have hundreds of members. They differ too in their degree of organization and structure. Some are loose organizations of a dozen dudes that rarely talk. Others are well-oiled institutions of learning and education, as well as protectors of workers' rights.

The names these guilds take are (thankfully) much more interesting than "Toji Local 210," and usually refer to the regions from which they hail. While this alone would not ordinarily be noteworthy, most toji guilds use the ancient place names of Japan, those that were in use before the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. For example, the large and well organized Nanbu Toji guild is from Iwate Prefecture up north, which was once called the land of Nanbu. The highly respected Echigo Toji guild is centered in what used to be called the land of Echigo, but is currently Niigata Prefecture. And the Izumo Toji guild is from the ancient land of Izumo (where sake is said to have been first brewed) in modern-day Shimane Prefecture. Once can learn a bit about Japanese history and geography (if one is interested in this kind of thing) along the way. (See what sake can do for you?)

Most have some sort of education program, but the degree of formality and structure vary widely. One toji, whose father was also a toji, told me, "Every Saturday about ten of us young brewers aiming to become toji would gather at my house and my dad would teach us for a couple of hours. That was the extent of it." Contrast that with the Nanbu Toji guild, that bastion of higher sake-brewing education, which has a regular, thorough, and comprehensive toji training program for all dues-paying members. This has helped the Nanbu Toji guild to be the pre-eminent guild today. It is the only one whose number of members has not dropped over the years, but remained steady at over 370 members that are currently employed as toji, and about 1500 guild members overall. It is also the only guild (to my knowledge) that provides an official toji licensing program, so that some members are licensed to be toji, even if they are not working as *the* toji at their kura of employment.

The main three in terms of numbers and reputation are the aforementioned Nanbu and Echigo guilds, followed by the Tanba Toji guild from the Tanba region of Hyogo prefecture. They are collectively referred to as the "San-dai" Toji (The Big Three). Other important guilds today are the also aforementioned Izumo Toji, the Noto Toji from Ishikawa Prefecture, the Tajima Toji also from Hyogo, and the Hiroshima Toji from you-know-where.

Why All the Hullabaloo?

After all, they're just master brewers, right? Well, yes. But in truth, a good toji possesses an amazingly well honed set of skills. Making sake, and especially making great sake, is not something that can be done by the book. The stuff has a life of its own, quite literally. And just how it develops is a function of a gazillion and one factors, like this year's rice crop, weather, the harmony (or lack thereof) between brewing personnel, and more. Factoring all these in, and through the veil of these myriad variables, knowing when to lower the temperature or raise it, how to minutely adjust this or that, and what precise moment to press away the ambrosia from the fermenting mash - this all calls for a focus combined with a sixth sense that is not found in the average individual. And then to do this year in and year out, and to have almost everyone agree on how good the sake is, is nothing short of amazing.

The craftsmen on this level have very highly refined senses, and the sight, taste, and smell of a fermenting mash will tell them more than a thermometer, hydrometer, or any other instrument. A finger dipped in a tank is more reliable than a computer controlled temperature gauge. The sound of a bubbling, fermenting mash is more revealing than that day's chemical measurement of alcohol or specific gravity.

Is every toji like this? Heavens no; of course not. Many just get by, as does the sake they brew. But behind every great sake is, rest assured, a great toji. And, while in actuality toji were seasonal employees, with a recurring six month contract, in truth there is great loyalty between toji and kura owners. Sure, there are politics and friction from time to time. Even toji are human, after all. But more often than not a toji will spend most if not all of is career at one brewery. Are there exceptions? Yes. Famous ones. But they are the exception, not the rule. Often, toji become almost part of the family, being called "oyaji" (uncle) by the owning family.

Also, beyond the brewing responsibilities, toji are in charge of lots and lots of paperwork, like filing tax reports (sake is all about taxes, mind you!), accounting for every grain of rice, and sending brewing plans that show how each grain will be used before the brewing season even begins. While hardly as glamorous, this grunt work is just as vital to the survival of the kura as a company.

The State of the Art:
What is the current state of the toji system?

Changes in society, culture, and the sake industry itself have led to many changes in the toji system. While the number of kura has been slowly whittled down to about twenty percent of what it once was, society has changed the number of options available for people everywhere, so that fewer young folk would consider a career in which six months of each and every year is spent away from home, working and living in a kura. The owners, too, have looked the future squarely in the eyes, and determined that hiring local people, and not counting on farmers from the distant countryside, is the only way to go.

And so, over the past decade or so we have seen in the industry a spate of home-grown toji, local hires that are then trained to take the reigns from the old master when he retires. These local folks may or may not join or belong to the guild of their benefactors, or even another toji guild. This seems to have waned in importance as well.

Long ago, it was all quite secretive. Brewers of one guild shared their secrets, but guarded them zealously from outsiders. Today, however, that is not the case, and in the unified struggle of sake against all other alcoholic beverages, there is much more of a spirit of cooperation, I think. Even in these modern times, each guild has its specialties, its tricks, its unique aspects of the brewing process that make it special, and styles of sake in which they (more or less) specialize. But in truth, a good toji from any guild can brew any style he or she chooses, and usually this is done at the bequest of his employer, the kura owner, anyway. As such, these distinctions between the groups are becoming blurred, and with that blurring fades the reliance on the guilds of old. 

Still, their importance is recognized and respected by many. Consider the capital-laden largest brewers: several of the largest companies employ six or more toji, each in charge of a different brewing facility, and each from a different guild. This ensures the company as a whole will get the best of all worlds.

More interestingly, we have over the last decade seen an increase in what is known as "Owner Toji," brewery owners that are doing the brewing themselves, functioning as toji and businessmen. This is really almost superhuman, albeit almost necessary too for many kura, and some see this as the way of the future especially for smaller kura. And even more interestingly, we have seen the appearance of women toji. This was unheard of long ago, as women were not even allowed inside the kura itself. But this tradition too fell by the wayside, and today perhaps a dozen places can boast fine sake brewed by a female master brewer.

It used to be that toji from a particular guild stayed fairly close to home, in other words, within the prefectures neighboring their locale. While for them, living as they did in mountain farmland, this may still have been a significant journey (before trains, anyway), they were still in at least the same part of the country. But with the decline in some guilds and the maintaining of numbers in others, combined with modern transportation infrastructures, toji of traditional guilds are traveling much farther than before. The most obvious example of this is that Nanbu Toji, originally from up north, can today be found as far south west as the Kansai region and beyond, encompassing Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka.

Famous Toji

There are a handful of toji that have made a name for themselves as famous master brewers in the industry. While normal folks on the street might not know of them, much less give a hoot, within the brewing world they are famous. These might include the toji of Urakasumi, Nishi no Seki, Umenishiki, and the toji at Jokigen of Ishikawa (after leaving Kihuhime, where he became famous).

Then there are the Noto Toji Shiten-o, or the "Four guardians of heaven" toji of the Noto Toji guild, obviously referring to the four top toji of that guild, now brewing at Kaiun, Jokigen, Masuizumi and Tengumai. If nothing else, we consumers can always count on sake from these breweries to be of sterling quality, no matter what grade we choose. There are many more like this up and coming, too, that are just now making their marks.

* * *

So, how do we consumers know who the toji is, or what his or her guild is, or if guild-less or an owner? Very often, these days, that information is given on informative back labels. In Japan, it is also commonly found in almost any source of information on a given sake or kura, be it books, magazines or the internet. While it may take a while for interest in such things to enter the realm of interest of sake fans in countries outside Japan, that time will surely come. There are countless facets of the sake world that are dripping with history, culture, and curiosity. It is *so* much more than just a tasty drink. The world of the toji and all they embody and represent is just one of those gleaming aspects.

Good Sake to Look For

● Urakasumi (Miyagi Prefecture), Honjozo, Junmai-shu, "Zen" Junmai Ginjo
It is hard to say enough good stuff about this kura, yet, there are likely few readers that have not heard of it. In a word, nothing they make is unimpressive, and everything they make is under priced. The current toji is immensely famous, as was his uncle, who was also his predecessor. Here, I am recommending their honjozo, their junmai-shu, and their very popular and well-known "Zen" junmai ginjo. All are simple, staid, and clean, yet flavor laden and deceptively rich and deep. Balance is the name of the game in Urakasumi sake, and all of them exhibit this in spades.

● Nishi no Seki (Oita Prefecture), Junmai-shu
Nishi no Seki, or "The Western Gate," is to western Japan what Urakasumi is to the east. One of the first kura to boldly go forth where no kura had gone before in producing fine sake that would carry them far into the future, and even more impressively, Oita is much more a land of shochu (a distilled beverage) than it is of sake. But this fine company is tied in on many levels to the roots of ginjo sake production. While all of their sake is great, and their daiginjo sake is indeed rich and exquisite, this relatively inexpensive junmai-shu is all I will ever need. Rich, heavy, and gently sweet, it maintains a presence and personality like no other sake can. With surprisingly exquisite balance for such a voluptuous, full-frontal flavor profile, Nishi no Seki is far better at room temperature than chilled, and stands up to warming with courage and finesse.

● Kaiun (Shizuoka Prefecture), Junmai Ginjo "Yamada Nishiki"
One of the "Four Guardians" of the Noto Toji has been brewing here since 1968, and in my mind he is easily one of the most impressive toji in Japan. Kaiun sake, and in particular this junmai ginjo, is rich and dense in one moment, light and dancing in the next, settled and balanced in one fleeting instant, and lively and mirth-filled in the following. And, of course, there is that balance exhibited by the sake of all great toji. Kaiun also makes a junmai ginjo called "Taka Tenjin" that, while sharing many qualities of the richer sake above (especially that imparted sense of mirth), is more refined and delicate, with much of the rich, dense nature taking a back seat to a refined, light, spritzy dancing fruitiness.

● Gassan (Shimane Prefecture), Junmai Ginjo
Made by an Izumo Toji, this sake is one of the tops in the nation when it comes to winning gold medals at the national new sake tasting competition. Nutty, slightly sweet and autumnal-fruity, this junmai ginjo presents a richness propelled all about the palate by a prominent but very functional acidity. Clean in the finish and just as aromatic in the middle as it is before you sip it, Gassan has a knack for working its way into your psyche and creating an addiction-like fondness for it almost without your conscious knowledge. Such subtlety is to be prized, methinks.
Sake Events and Announcements

Sake Seminar at Takara, August 27, 2005.
On the evening of Saturday, August 27, I will hold the next sake seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic for the evening will be sake rice varieties: their importance, differences and characteristics. Each sake presented this evening will be made from a different sake rice. The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. No deposit is required.

Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.


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