Female TojiWritten by Zachariah Smookler
Out of Japan’s approximately 1500 sake breweries, less than 50 are run by female toji. A toji is the master brewer, and the person in charge of the entire brewing process. This gender imbalance in sake is an unfortunate yet familiar reality many industries across Japan as well as the entire world face. Per sake “taboo,” women were historically not allowed in sake breweries due to being perceived as “unclean in traditional Japanese culture.”
While these relatively recent cries to devoid women of opportunity in the sake industry have had a major impact, there was a time when women were respected for their role in the brewing process. The earliest record of women and sake date back to the sixth century, depicted in a tale that speculates sake did in fact not come from the saliva of a goddess, but a female attendant at a Shinto shrine who spit up rice grains to brew alcohol for religious events. And if this wasn’t enough for the naysayers who believe women have no business being in sake production, the word toji directly translates to "independent woman and or the female master of the house."
Today the few female toji in Japan face a more complex road to success than their male counterparts. However, over the last five years or so, there has been a complete revitalization within the women and sake movement as numerous female toji have put their time in and are now incredibly well respected across the industry. Female toji rely on each other as a support network, as evidenced by the “Women’s Sake Industry Group,” which meets on a monthly basis. Women and sake are back, and over the next decade we can expect to see even more balance as the entire sake industry continues to leave behind old beliefs and modernize to attract a younger and more progressive crowd.
One of our most popular nigori brews—Gozenshu Junmai Bodaimoto Nigori— at Sake Social is produced by a female toji, Maiko Tsuji, who along with her brother, Soichiro, are seventh generation brewmasters in their family brewery: Tsuji Honten. Founded in 1804, the team at Gozenshu Tsuji produce the junmai nigori made using the 1000s year old Bodaimoto process. This is the oldest method of starting the fermentation of yeast [very few breweries do it this way today] where the lactic acid is cultivated in highly acidic water with uncooked rice before the shubo (yeast starter) is made. In contrast, nowadays most all sakes involve a method using only steamed rice, and the cultivation of lactic acid occurs after the shubo is created. In addition to this ancient fermentation method, the brew is made with the oldest heirloom variety of rice, now highly prized for quality. The result is a tart, yogurty, earthy flavor in this lightly cloudy, delicately textured with a floral aroma followed by a mineral nuance. It's a mouthful to describe and taste. We are excited to see the merger of ancient traditions and innovative thinking to produce an impeccable brew from a team that includes a female toji.