In episode 39 of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman introduce you to the most powerful toji guild in Japanese history, the Kurose Toji. This guild absolutely revolutionized and subsequently professionalized shochu production in the 20th century. And yet today, the guild has nearly disappeared with just a few remaining master brewer-distillers keeping their former powerhouse from going extinct.
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher were guests of the Kurose Toji Guild in preparation for this episode.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
From Moonshine to Corporate Entity
During the Meiji Restoration many formerly informal Japanese businesses were forced to privatize as the newly formed government needed to expand its tax revenue in order to rapidly modernize to protect the country against the possibility of foreign colonization.
As such, during 1884-1885, shochu makers were overnight turned form farm distillers to businesses. This didn’t do much to change their lives since their products were still not effectively taxed. That change in 1898 when the first taxes on alcohol production were instituted. Seemingly overnight stills disappeared into hidden mountain retreats and those that remained had a sudden need for a consistent product that they could actually sell.
Given that distillation at this time was done on an extremely small scale, these were not necessarily viable businesses without the assistance of craftsmen who knew how to make a robust fermentation in Kyushu’s hot, humid environment.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, a market grew up and was filled by the toji guilds.
Kurose Toji Guild
Since all shochu was handmade at this time, the most vital aspect of the process was the development of a robust koji fermentation. This required carefully maintenance of temperature and humidity suited to the environment where the shochu was being made. In short, it required the knowledge, skills, and experience of a master craftsman, or toji.
Most distilleries were owned and operated by farmers or fishermen so they didn’t necessarily have the requisite skill to make a reliable, delicious product on their own. Yet the tax demands instituted in the late 1890s made this an imperative for continued economic viability.
In 1902, three men from Kasasa Village in Southern Kagoshima Prefecture collaborated to create the Korose Toji Guild: Hajime Katahira (b. 1884, d. 1936), Minosuke Kurose (b. 1882, d. 1967), and Tsunekichi Kurose (b. 1885, d. 1925). Note that all three were 20 years old or younger when the founded the guild, but they were onto something.
Katahira, who came from a sake brewing background, introduced the staged fermentation process, which allowed for a strong starter fermentation by cultivating more koji and yeast cells prior to introducing the main starch source. Nearly all shochu is made in this style today, but previously the “donburi” method was predominant in which water, yeast, koji, and the main starch source were all added to a single fermentation. This new technique provided for a more stable, more delicious fermentation, which also resulted in higher yields.
The two members of the Kurose family had been trained in the production of Okinawan awamori so they brought black koji to the guild’s arsenal. This allowed for a much more consistent and stable fermentation in the hot, humid Kyushu climate.
The three quickly began recruiting other men from the community to join their guild. Soon the guild had swelled to several hundred members, all living in Kasasa, and being sent out to distilleries across Kyushu and beyond for seasonal production. They’d return in the spring to work their village’s fields before being sent out to produce shochu again the next year.
By the 1950s there were over 400 guild members and new classes of 50 students a year. And they were well paid. By this time a 15 year old toji guild member could draw an annual income nearly equivalent to the average salary in Japan. Compensation would only increase with experience until they were promoted to “toji” at which point they would be sent out as a team leader to one of the hundreds of distilleries that contracted their services.
Death of the Toji Guild(s)
As quickly as the Kurose Toji Guild and the nearby competing Ata Toji Guild rose to power, their grip on the shochu industry began to wane. This happened for two key reasons.
First, the introduction of the Kawachi Drum, which is an automatic koji making machine developed by the same Professor Kawachi who discovered white koji. Once a machine could make koji consistently, the need for a true master toji was greatly diminished.
Second, as shochu became more popular throughout Japan in the 1970s, expansion lead companies to hire their own full-time head toji, which reduced the demand for the guild’s services.
Today the Ata Toji Guild is extinct and there are only two active members of the Kurose Toji Guild. One runs the Toji no Sato Kasasa Distillery in Kasasa Village and the other is in training at a sake brewery in Saga Prefecture. He is expected to take over Toji no Sato in the future.
Much More to Explore
These show notes just scratch the surface, but should serve as a useful aid as you listen to the episode itself. As always, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the toji guilds.
Oh, and what were we sipping on? Rare that we both sip on the same thing. We were enjoying I-don from Toji no Sato Kasasa Distillery. Available only through lottery in Japan.