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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Russell

Standing on the shoulders of giants: Defining the position of Master Brewer.

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Towards the end of last year I noticed a few interesting discussions simmering away on social media regarding the "true" definition of a toji, often translated into English as meaning Master Brewer. The impetus for this latest discourse appears to have originated from the growing number of rebooted, or sometimes new start-up, sake breweries that have been appearing in recent years. With them has come a new generation of young, often self appointed, toji who despite their lack of experience have bravely taken the reins of their respective companies. This is indicative of what has been necessary for survival for many smaller breweries and has further eroded the once orthodox, although perhaps now unsustainable, traditional system of guild toji who were often seasoned veterans hired only to work during the winter brewing season. Considering these significant changes to the landscape of the sake industry, that of course is also no longer confined to just Japanese sakagura, it is hardly surprising that the spotlight has eventually fallen on the discussion of what it really means to hold this most venerable of positions in sake brewing.

Like any other balanced discussion, it is always best to start with the facts, or perhaps better to say reality, of how the title of toji is currently defined: The truth is that a toji is simply anyone who is given, or assumes, the responsibility for a particular season's brewing schedule. Although official certifications exist within the various guilds, they are not requisites to assuming the title, and the position was historically awarded simply to the most senior member of the brewing team. If you wound up in charge, then you were the toji. However, given the skill and experience that many of these men and women have accumulated through years and years of hard work, I can also empathise with those that feel it is undermining the title somewhat by being so seemingly easy to obtain. Furthermore, it could be argued that it stretches the definition too wide to have accredited veterans, often true masters of their craft, sharing the same title as those just finding their feet in a profession that is often said to take up to ten years just to learn the basics.

Perhaps then what is needed to diffuse this debate is simply a new definition, one that more clearly delineates those who are still at the beginning of their learning curve from those who are at their peak. This would not be to try and discredit those less experienced brewers, rather to try and recognise the great achievements of those who have spent several decades, often at great personal sacrifice, in order to perfect such a complex craft. However, the great equaliser is always found in the end product, and if what is being produced is that fabulous ambrosia that us fans of sake are so fond of then surely the specific title of the brewer doesn't matter all that much...

Regardless, although perhaps just another futile debate surrounding sake to add to the ever increasing pile, this recent discussion did at least get me to thinking about how I personally define the title of toji, or more importantly, what virtues I myself expect of someone who holds it. In order to fully explain what I concluded, I have to do so anecdotally using one of my own experiences working for a toji whom I very much consider to be worthy of the title. This took place last year during my only experience to-date working as a live-in brewer, known in Japanese as tomari-komi. What I like to think I gained from this experience is at least even just the slightest appreciation of what it takes to shoulder the burden of what accompanies this most exalted of titles in the sake industry.

Tomari-komi: Okayama Prefecture, 2018/2019

It is early February during a particularly cold winter in Okayama and I am just finishing up the last communal work of the evening with my toji. It is not without good reason that this particular point of the season is often considered by many sake brewers to be the most challenging. Fatigue from countless long days of working, combined with the bleak cold dark nights, not to mention isolation from your friends and family, inevitably starts to take a toll on your moral. The finish line is still just a little bit too far away to think about, yet you feel like you have been going at it for an eternity. For me personally, this left me completely exhausted at the end of each day, and the precious few moments of free time I had were spent huddled up inside my kotatsu (Japanese heated table) trying to catch up on lost sleep.

On this particular night I was especially tired, and as we wearily finished up in the koji room all I could think about was taking a warm bath and getting straight into bed. But before I could finish for the day, we still had the nightly routine of checking that all of the main components were in order to ensure a smooth start to the following day's work. The check itself was simple and only took a few minutes each evening: First up was to quickly check the moto (yeast starter). If everything was okay, then move on to the moromi (main fermenting mash). With all temperatures normal then it is just a matter of checking that the water that we would be using for mashing the next day is okay, and it's another successful day in the bag.

By this point I am basically dead on my feet. Any acquired heat from the koji room is long gone, and the bitter cold air is already chilling me to my bones. Digressing slightly for a moment, one thing that I have learned from this experience is that physical tiredness is not nearly as potent as mental tiredness. Indeed, as I discovered several years ago whilst walking the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, physical tiredness can actually be quite enjoyable. Your meals all taste better for one thing, and getting a good night's sleep is almost a foregone conclusion. Warm sake tastes like drinking an elixir, and bathing in an onsen (Japanese hot-spring) can be almost euphoric. But combined with mental tiredness, all of those good points are nullified, and you just want to collapse in bed and not move an inch.

As we shuffled towards the far end of the kura that night, both mentally and physically drained, I can distinctly remember thinking to myself that it surely can't get much tougher than this. However, as I was about to find out, the position I was in was actually pretty comfortable in comparison to that of my toji, and my naivety and lack of understanding about what it means to take on the full responsibility of running a brewery was about to give me a mighty hard slap to the face.

Just as we were confirming that the water was indeed collecting as it should in the tank, and with me already half turned to head for the door, my toji seemed to sense that something wasn't quite as it should be. He must have heard a slightly different sound than normal, or perhaps a small light caught his eye, but as he went over to check one of the water cooling machines he noticed a problem. It turned out that although the water that we use for brewing was indeed fine, that which we use for cooling the tanks was not. These days, most tanks for ginjo brewing require more than just the natural environs of the kura to stay cool, and very often a large wrap like device is placed around the tank with cooled water constantly pumped through it to control the temperature. However, if the machine that keeps that water cool suddenly packs in, you have big problems.

Temperature control is so vital to ginjo production, and our cooler had just decided to stop right at the end of the day. I had cleaned the machine once or twice before, but other than that I had absolutely no idea how to fix it. My toji knew that just as much as I did, and as I turned to try and pretend I was able to offer some sort of help, the look on his face said it all: He was taking the responsibility for this, not me. I remember how helpless I felt at the time, and thinking to myself that " He has nobody else above him to pass of this problem too". In that moment, I caught the briefest glimpse of what it takes to hold the position of toji. You have to be able to just grit your teeth, buckle down and get on with it, when every inch of you just wants to call it a day. There is nobody else but you! He immediately told me to just go and get some rest, and in an instant I was gone, leaving him to deal with the problem alone.

When I began work the next morning, not only had the problem with the water cooler been identified, but a makeshift replacement had already been rigged up to cool the precious moromi . With the issue safely eliminated, the day's work went ahead as usual without even the slightest inconvenience to the normal day's workflow. However, having had the inside line on how dire the situation had been the previous evening, and witnessed how seamlessly it had been dealt with, I distinctly remember the feeling of security I felt that if such a problem was to suddenly arise again, then there was always someone on-hand to rely upon. To this day, the willpower and leadership that I witnessed has had a profound effect on my understanding of the sacrifices that it takes to hold the top position in a sake brewery, and has ultimately formed my own personal definition of what it really means to be a toji.

Defining the toji

I mentioned before that making great sake is ultimately the most important factor in determining the success of a toji and his team of brewers. A good result at the end of the season, with sake that is favourably received by the general public, is what makes all the hardship during the winter months worth it. However, having now been fortunate enough to serve two absolutely fantastic toji, I have come to recognise a deeper definition of the title, one that transcends merely being skilled or otherwise. To me personally, these men and women are truly worthy of the title when they put themselves in the position to take ultimate responsibility for whatever is thrown at them. They have to be the glue that holds the whole sake brewing machine together, and the rock on which the rest of the team relies upon. They might not necessarily have all the answers to every single question, but having the strength of character to face up to the inevitable issues that occur throughout the course of a long season is what justifies their positions.

Indeed, one of the universal characteristics of the toji I have met is that they are never satisfied with their own understanding of sake brewing. This is reflected in how humble they are in their actions, and manifests itself in their determination to keep studying the countless mysteries of sake. They are constantly striving to understand all of the intricacies to brewing in order to support their team and make the best sake that they can. It might sound a little contrived, but for a toji the old saying that "success is a journey, not a destination" seems perfectly fitting. It is not just their ability at any given time that defines them, but their commitment to their craft that earns them the acclaim they rightfully deserve.

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