Changes in the Toji System

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

Men at Work at Rihaku Brewery

Certainly, change pretty much defines our world today, and the sake brewing world is not excepted from that truth. In particular, the changes within the sake world over the last 30 years in who actually does the brewing are pretty astounding.

There is one master brewer per brewery, and that person is called the toji. Almost always this was – and is – man, but currently perhaps 40 or 50 out of the 1100 or 1200 active kura have a toji that is a woman.

But long ago – and not so long ago – the toji in any given brewery was dispatched from his guild in the countryside. There were about 30 to 35 toji guilds across Japan long ago, although many of them are now defunct as their membership declined along with the number of breweries.

But back in the day, the toji was a seasonal employee. He may have worked at the same brewery every year for decades and decades, but each year was a new, one-year contract. Originally, the toji would receive a chunk of money from the brewery owner, and he would hire and pay everyone else, buy the rice, and just get the job done. That was not really a hard and fast rule, but even as recently as 30 years ago, most breweries in the industry were run by seasonally employed toji.

Slowly things changed. The need for year-round employment led to changes that included toji and brewing staff more commonly becoming year-round employees of the brewing company, replete with the benefits, like a paycheck in twelve rather than only six months of the year. When not brewing, other tasks could be handled, or hours could be seasonally juggled.

Another change included members of the brewery-owning family to take over the brewing themselves. Sometimes this was out of interest and passion, other times out of necessity. It is hard to run a small family business when all of the technical skill for creating your product is in the hands of someone that is but a seasonal hire, and not even a member of the family.

Yeast StarterSo what this led to is basically three genre of toji: those there are only seasonally employed toji from one of the guilds, toji that are year-round company employees, and toji that are family members. Note, too, that there is some overlap. Toji coming in from the countryside can be from the traditional guilds, but still be full-time employees (not just seasonal employees). And conversely, family members and local hires can be associated with one of the guilds in the boonies, for educational and informational exchange and support.

With that as the background, let us look at some very interesting numbers.

Thirty-two years ago, in 1986, 74 percent of the toji in the (then, much larger) industry were seasonal hires, not full-time employees. In 1996, a scant 10 years hence, that number had dropped to 62 percent. In 2006 it had dropped to 35.5 percent, and in 2016 it was down to only 16 percent of all breweries in the industry that had seasonally employed toji from the traditional guilds. Wow.

Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing; it is just … different. The industry is half the size of what it was back then, and the percentage of toji that are seasonal employees is a quarter of what it used to be. And whether or not a toji is seasonally hired or not has no direct influence on his or her skills, nor the quality of the sake. I’m just sayin’.

Looking at the other side of the toji coin, in 1986 only 12 percent of the toji in the industry had secure, year-round employment with the company. Sparing you the gory details of the decades in between, toji that are year-round full time employees went from that to 38 percent in 2016. And toji that are a member of the owning family went from a mere 14 percent in ’86 to a whopping 47 percent in 2016.

What this means, at a glance, is that almost half of the 1100 to 1200 sake breweries active today have family members in charge of the brewing operations.

Again, bear in mind there are several dynamics at work simultaneously, and that looking at the above number alone will not lead to any firm conclusion. One thing that has led to this is a very positive thing: the availability of reference material, education opportunities, and the infrastructure that allows almost instant communication. No longer does a brewery-owning family need to rely on an old codger from the boonies with a thick country accent. Just send the kids to brewing school, and keep in touch with friends running other breweries. That flow of information, and lots of patience and experience, is very commonly how sake is brewed in this modern era.

Nevertheless, it is interesting, and surely, there are at least a few out there that will feel a nostalgic pang at the decline and loss of the tradition-laden historical guilds, myself included.

Learn much, much more about toji guilds here.

For those that are interested, the brewery workers under the toji are called kurabito, the brewery-owning family and family members are called kuramoto, and the brewery itself is a kura or sakagura.

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The Sake Professional Course scheduled for April 23 to 25 in Brooklyn New York is full. Thanks to all those that signed up! The next one will be in Miami in September. If interested, please send an email to that purport to sakeguy @ Learn more about the Sake Professional Course here.

Pressing Matters

Bad puns notwithstanding, readers may recall that when making sake, after the typically three-to-five week long fermentation period during which rice is dissolving in the tank, and the resulting sugar is converted to alcohol, the sake at that point will be a white liquid, basically pure sake and rice solids remaining from the process. The remaining rice solids, lees as it were, need to be filtered out before the sake is bottled.

This is, clearly, a filtration. But since there are other filtration steps later that remove color and rough flavors, many refer to this step as “pressing.” So the just fermented mash is pressed through a mesh to yield clear, fresh sake.

There are basically three methods of pressing: by modern machine, by traditional box press, and by dripping out of cloth bags. You can learn much more about these three methods here, here and here.

But in short, the machine does a great job, and easily more than 99 percent of all sake made is pressed using a machine. The box press takes more time and effort, and the drip press takes even more.

In short, as one goes from machine to box to drip, the intensity and expressiveness of flavors and aromas of the resulting sake increase. So does cost, appropriately so. But yields, however, decrease, which is also hardly surprising.

So going from machine to box to drip, the whole thing gets more extravagant. Based on this, one would naturally think that box pressed sake will in general be better than machine pressed sake, and drip pressed sake would in general be better than box pressed sake. So one would think that going from machine to box to drip is always better. But it ain’t.

Why not? Because things are never that simple in the sake world. Never.

In spite of the above caveat, yes, most of the time drip-pressed sake – called shizuku – is the best stuff available. Wastefully extravagant and quite impactful (sometimes even downright intense) in flavors and aromas. This is usually what is sent to contests.

And the box-pressed stuff, pressed by laying meter-long tubular bags of filled with fermented mash into a wooden box and pressing the lid into that box, is next best. But this method too takes a lot of effort. Machine pressed sake is by far the most efficient to make – just plug and play. And while this is simplest, it tends to be the most staid.

The two “better” methods take longer than the machine. And that means that oxygen has more time to interact with the sake.

However, in recent years, the use of modern yeasts that create highly volatile aromatics have skewed this logic, at least in the opinion of some brewers. One such brewer is the energetic and animated (read: study-in-contstant-motion) Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin in Iwate Prefecture.

Kuji-san uses a wide range of yeasts, but many of his sake make the most out of families of yeast that yield sake that are full of prominent apple, pineapple and licorice notes. These “modern yeasts” lead to sake that is full of esters which are quite volatile, in other words, they evaporate and disappear quickly in the presence of oxygen.

As Kuji-san puts it, “If you are going to use a modern yeast, sake like that is as good as it is going to get right out of the press. From that moment on, it begins to degrade in a long, slow downhill slide. So for sake like that, a machine is best, as it gets the job done quickly and with a minimum of oxidation. One can get it into a bottle quickly, and lock all that great aroma inside.”

He continues on to explain that more traditional yeasts, like No. 7 and No. 9, have less capricious and more placid aromatic compositions. They are less sensitive to oxidation, but at the same time extravagant methods like box or drip pressing sharpen and brighten the flavors and aromas created by the those more traditional yeasts.

“The more classic yeasts,” he expounds, “lead to sake that has fewer ostentatious aromas to lose initially, and unlike sake made using modern yeasts, they get better after just a little time has passed. So for those, the box and drip offer something tangible.”

Certainly this is just one brewer’s opinion. A very accomplished and experienced brewer to be sure! But of course there are those in the industry, just as accomplished and experienced, that may completely disagree. Who knows?

There is a bit of a spin-doctor inside every good sake brewer. And any given spin-sensei may simply not want to bother with a hassle-laden method, and so spins a reason why it is not as good as the easy method. Happens all the time. In truth, it isprobably not the case in this particulr case here, but even in a 1000 year-old craft like sake brewing, there are marketers and spin doctors.

More importantly, though, among the three main methods of separating the sake lees from the completed ambrosia, dripping is usually the best, box-pressing next, and the machine press does a fine, fine job as well. But there are various opinions. Pressing matters, indeed.

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The Sake Professional Course scheduled for April 23 to 25 in Brooklyn New York is full. Thanks to all those that signed up! The next one will be in Miami in September. If interested, please send an email to that purport to sakeguy @ Learn more about the Sake Professional Course here.

No Sake Stone Remains Left Unturned!