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Newsletter Archive 2007

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Sake World - Sake Newsletter


Oct. 2007



The "Tail" of Toji

The "Tail" of Toji
During a recent stop into a local sake shop, I was presented with a flyer advertising a "sake of the month" club. While I usually pass on these, this one caught my attention. It was being offered by Nihon Meimon Shukai, known overseas as the "Japan Prestige Sake Association," a marketing arm of a well-known distributor that handles about a hundred mostly blue-chip sake breweries. This particular club was focused on the sake of particular toji, or master brewers, and each month sends two bottles pitting two toji against each other, one young, the other not so young. The ages of the not-as-young-as-the-other-guys group were 72, 73, 74, 73, 80 (easily the sprightliest of the group) and 64. The young'ns were 36, 40, 42, 43, 44, and 35 years.

All of the toji in this taste-off club belonged to active toji guilds, and in fact this is the point of the exercise: to teach consumers about the various toji guilds and experience some of their characteristic work. But as I read through the literature, it exacerbated in my mind how much things have changed, and in fact, how the tale of toji is more like the tail of toji, in other words, the tail end of hundreds of years of culture and history.

For more in-depth background information on toji, perhaps more than anyone in their right mind might want to know, please see the Archive 2005 Story and also the 2006 story. But as a quick summary and review, from times long ago sake was not brewed by the often-aristocratic brewery owners, but by traveling craftsmen that would move into the kura (brewery) each fall, and live there until they were done brewing sake the next spring. The chief of the group, i.e. the master brewer, was known as the toji. He hired and fired, paid and prayed; the quality of the sake was in the end his responsibility. A good toji, with refined and intuitive senses and the requisite experience, can make or break a kura, a situation that exists now as then.

Almost all such craftsmen were farmers or fishermen, and as such came from a handful (well, a pretty *big* handful) of particular regions, to which they returned in the off season to resume their farming duties. The guys in one particular brewery were often neighbors back home. As such, guilds developed around the localities, organizations that instructed and groomed successors, and guarded secrets as well.

Naturally, over the years and decades, fanfare and pomp developed around some of the more celebrated guilds, and their particularly accomplished members. Some of the groups are much more well-known than others, and there are a number of massively famous individuals as well, both past and present.

But things are changing and fast. There are a myriad of reasons, including the continued decline in the number of kura in the country, as well as societal changes on every level that make so many more jobs so much more appealing - and feasible - than living six months of every year away from your family, working seven days a week, shoulder to shoulder with the same bunch of grunts. As such, many of the guilds are either gone or about to disappear.

The literature with the aforementioned club listed 32 toji guilds, of which two are already totally kaput. (Other sources list other, long-gone guilds.) And shockingly, 15 of the remaining 30 were listed as "just a few members remaining; on the verge of extinction." Still, bear in mind that at one time within the last century or so there were as many as 10,000 sakagura; now only 1400 or so are brewing.

Also, different guilds maintained different levels of structure, education and organization. I met one toji from one guild that said his group taught interested youngsters in the 'hood every Saturday in one farmer's house. Contrast that with the mighty Nanbu toji guild, currently the largest, who ensured their survival with very organized schooling and internally controlled accreditation programs. Thanks to that long-running effort, the sake of 360 kura across Japan are made by the hands of Nanbu toji. That is a full one-fourth of the companies in the country.

(This information was culled from a recent visit to the Nanbu Toji Museum, located in the traditional home-town of Nanbu Toji, the sparsely populated broad valley of Ishidoriya. Should you be passing through the remote (!) countryside on the local line between Sendai and Morioka up north, stop by and check it out. Very interesting and worthwhile.)

Of course, there is more to the story here. A separate myriad of factors has led an increasing number of brewery owners to take matters into their own hands and begin to brew the product themselves. Economic realities of selling less and being able to employ fewer, a shortage of experienced toji, the sons and daughters of kuramoto (brewery owners) showing a historically unprecedented passion for brewing, and former toji wielding too much power for comfort are just a few of these reasons. (That final reason, with all its politics, anecdotes, pros and cons for all involved, and two-sided stories, is the stuff of a whole other story, so we shall gingerly avoid going down that road - for now.)

In fact, at last count, a full 430 of the actively-brewing kura in Japan used toji that were *not* attached to a guild, i.e. either members of the family, or local hires that simply had the right stuff. Surely this was unthinkable even not too long ago, but many say it is the future of the industry, and indeed, the only way it can survive.

Such things became possible as technology and research made heretofore hidden knowledge accessible to everyone. The secrets of the toji of old may have been things that led to better sake, even if they had no idea why. Well now, everyone knows why, and on top of that, TO SOME DEGREE, the methods are reproducible.

What the old toji said and what modern textbooks say for the most part arrive at the same place, even if their tone is different. "Alternate days of warming the yeast starter with days of cooling it to ward off the evil humours and mollify the gods" might be replaced by "daily rising and falling temperature gradations allows the yeast starter to maintain the right balance of cell division and alcohol production." Stuff like that.

While statistics have their limitations, if 430 out of 1400 are independent, and another 360 are aligned with the Nanbu guild, that leaves but 610 or so to be divvied up amongst the other toji of the remaining guilds. That seems highly unlikely to me as I sit here, but that is what the figures tell us. And we all know they say about figures..

Regardless, why the guilds may be fading, the skill of today's toji is not. To be sure, some are more skilled than others, and whether the traditional guilds or modern family members are doing better is beyond the scope of this analysis. But things are changing, and will surely continue to do so. The tail of the toji is wagging.

Sake Events and Announcements

Fifth Annual Sake Professional Course
January 21 to 25, 2008, in Tokyo.
With a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area.

The Sake Professional Course is a five-day intensive immersion into sake and the sake world, replete with plenty of classroom instruction followed by relevant tasting, and four sakagura (brewery) visits. Naturally, the evenings will be filled with more merry tasting along with great local cuisine. While the course is focused on those that plan to use the information professionally, anyone is of course welcome to attend. My objective is that, after completing the course and taking the time to absorb the material, no one out there will be able to tell you anything about sake that you do not already know. In this, I have great confidence. It will be thorough. The tasting sessions that follow each classroom session ensure that participants will understand the material on a deeper and more permanent level than would be the case from
book-study alone. For more details, and some testimonials, see this Sake-World web page.


Sake and Pottery Seminar, Saturday, November 17
On the evening of Saturday, November 17, from 6:00 pm, pottery expert Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at Takara, in Yurakucho. The topic for the sake part of the evening will be toji, their role, their history, the culture that suffuses them, and of course, the sake they brew.  The cost for the evening - a half dozen sake, ample scrumptious food, two lectures 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 International Forum, the convention center just outside JR Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will be included in the confirmation-of-attendance email that is sent out a few days before the event.

Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More info on the below topics can be found at this Sake-World Web Page

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • Genereal information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link:


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