The Return of the Female Sake Brewer

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Master brewers, or toji, at a 2014 summit (Japanese Women’s Sake Industry Group)

In Japan, brewing sake has long been a male-dominated industry. But recently, the ancient art—which was actually traditionally the purview of women in ancient times—has experienced a rise in female master brewers.

For example, one pioneering woman, Emi Machida who serves as the Toji, or master sake brewer at the Machida Brewery in Gunma, is the first woman in her family to become the Toji, even though the brewery has been owned by her family for more than 130 years.

Overall, however, sake is declining in popularity.

Japan boasts only about half the number of breweries there were in the 1970s. Many older master brewers refuse to change their staid traditional ways in order to reach the younger generation. When Machida’s grandfather was the Toji at the family brewery, she told Naomi Gingold, “women were seen as dirty, unclean, so he would say women can’t enter the sacred brewery.”

In 2012, Clay Risen wrote for us about the rise of sake in the U.S., puzzling over the lack of connoisseurs, which don’t proliferate like they do for non-rice wines, beers, whiskeys, and other spirits:

Sake is often liked, but it is rarely loved. These days you can find a shelf-full of high-quality sakes in specialty stores—check out Sakaya in New York City—but it’s rarely consumed outside of sushi bars, where a few run-of-the-mill mega brands, like Gekkeikan, dominate. For unclear reasons, people often drink it warm, as a shot (maybe it’s those tiny serving cups), with a slightly tensed jaw …

“Ninety-five percent of people say they like sake, but 95 percent of that 95 percent, if you asked them what was their favorite sake, you’d get a blank stare,” said Andrew Chrisomalis, the chief operating officer of Ty Ku, a New York-based spirits company that has just released a line of premium sakes.

The problem is that most of the sake consumed in the United States is domestically produced table sake, or futsu, which is usually served warmed to mask impurities. That may offer another reason people tend to drink it as a shot: The typical sake just doesn’t taste that good.