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The Mainichi newspaper has a grim report on what many already know through stories and anecdotal evidence – the number of kurabito brewery workers is falling, as is the number of tōji master brewers, leaving companies both big and small squeezed for the know-how they need to brew.

But it’s not clear that all is lost, as some turn to new employment patterns, technology, or back to the past.

The article points out that employment patterns are shifting from seasonal (brewing in the winter, farming or fishing in the summer) to year-round (regular employee), and more breweries operate throughout the seasons. Many tōji, including those responsible for famous labels, are advancing in age. (Not necessarily into retirement, mind you, a lot of Japanese people don’t seem capable of it.) Small to medium sized breweries are worst affected.

At the end of February, the Kiku-Masamume brewery in the legendary Nada brewing area takes the critical step in creating a moto starter from sake-specific rice, where brewery workers step inside large wooden barrels to mix plain steamed rice with rice inoculated with the miraculous kōji fungus. This is the first season where regular employees have been the ones to do it themselves – former tōji, Kiyoteru Ojima, supervised them until last year, but he’s now 78 years old.

Kiku-Masamune is one of the many breweries that rely on cooling systems to allow them to brew year-round, having installed systems back in 1965. They relied on their kurabito and Ojima to produce the high added-value kimoto style in the winter, but the physical exhaustion of staying over at the brewery to watch over the fermentation has made it hard to find older brewery workers willing to stay in these roles. Lack of physical strength is what made Ojima bow out from the front lines.

Ojima runs a farm in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture. He and others like him who sustained this legendary sake-producing area by working as tōji in the winter months, when there was little farming to be done, are called “Tanba tōji“. His work at Kiku-Masamune since 1958 has been largely manual labour, and he learned how to brew sake from his senpai. But this year the sake that will line the shelves in the shops in autumn will have been made by non-seasonal employees.

There is a tōji group in each region, such as the famed Nanba tōji of Iwate Prefecture. National membership peaked in FY 1965, with 3,682 tōji, and 24,392 kurabito. After that, the practice of seasonal working declined, big breweries started automating production and brewing all year round, and the number of full-time employees who specialised in brewing studies at university increased. By FY 2016, membership of national tōji organisations had fallen to 694 tōji and 1,553 kurabito. Asahi Shūzō, known for their Dassai label, have no tōji and their employees have been brewing based on data since 1999.

Smaller breweries don’t have facilities for year-round brewing, and more and more of them are struggling to find both tōji and kurabito. Some brewery owners have been forced to act as tōji, while others have switched to a full-time employee model. Osaka-based IT company Ratoc Systems developed a system to assist small companies like these in 2017, with solutions where sensors measure tank temperature and other variables so brewers can check live data from the fermentation on their phone. This spares them the strain of staying overnight at the kura, and has been implemented by small to medium sized breweries in the Kyoto area.

On the other hand, some breweries are still dedicated to doing it the old way. The tōji and kurabito of the Tanaka brewery in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, believe so strongly in tradition that they went back as far back as the Edo Period and the ishigake shiki tenbin shibori pressing method (see video linked below). Tradition is what drives them, and it clearly hasn’t hurt as they are regular winners at the national new sake appraisals. The brewery owner, Yasuhiro Tanaka, says they’ll keep on using traditional methods as long as they have a tōji who will come to them.