This Women-Owned Sake Company Is Paving the Way for Female Brewers

Mami Wakabayashi gets back to her roots as toji of Moon Bloom Sake.

Mami Wakabayashi
Mami Wakabayashi | Photo courtesy of Moon Bloom
Mami Wakabayashi | Photo courtesy of Moon Bloom

There are several possible origin stories about the Japanese word for master sake brewer: toji. While some believe that the term comes from names of the ancient Chinese gods of alcohol, Yi Ti and Du Kang, others argue that the term originates from the Japanese word for Shinto priests tasked with making their shrine’s sacred sake.

But, the most dominant theory, known as the Toji theory, argues that the term comes from the ancient Japanese word for housewife, tonushi. The Toji theory lines up with what historians have long known about sake in ancient Japan—centuries before it became a male-dominated craft and industry, sake-brewing was originally the domain of women.

Moon Bloom Sake, a new woman-brewed and women-owned sake brand founded by entrepreneurs Ruriko Yamada and Shana Atwood, aims to honor that history with its craft sake brewed by fifth generation toji Mami Wakabayashi, the first woman toji to preside over the 120-year-old Wakabayashi Brewery in Nagano, Japan.

“There are very few women tojis,” Wakabayashi says. “It used to be that, for a period of time, women weren’t allowed in sake breweries. But now, there are more and more women tojis.”

Wakabayashi is right. While records of prehistoric Japan show women brewing sake as early as 500-1000 B.C., the practice was banned for women in Japan’s Edo period in the 1600s when breweries started mass producing sake.

According to the Sake Times, breweries during the Edo period had a host of archaic reasons for the wholesale ban—chief among them was the false argument that menstruating women produced poisons that would disrupt the fermentation process. These types of restrictions were gradually rolled back in the 1900s with the industrialization of sake brewing, but the effects linger. Today, out of 1,500 licensed sake breweries in Japan, only 50 are run by women.

Wakabayashi’s path to becoming the first woman toji of her family’s brewery was unconventional. When she graduated high school, she left her home in Nagano to attend university in Tokyo, where she started a career in travel, then fashion. For Wakabayashi, her family’s sake business was the last thing on her mind. But it wasn’t until she studied abroad in New Zealand and the United States that she began to think about its importance.

“People would ask me what my family did and when I told people that my family were sake brewers, they became really interested,” she recalls. “But I didn’t know anything about the business. I was embarrassed, but at the same time, it was the first time that I realized that my family’s business, sake brewing, was an important symbol of Japanese heritage and culture.”

Moon Bloom
Photo courtesy of Moon Bloom

In 2013, Wakabayashi’s parents broke the news to her and her sister that they were thinking of closing down the family brewery, so she sprung to action. That year, she moved back home and began an apprenticeship under award-winning toji Masaru Nishizawa at the Shinshumeijo Brewery. She studied sake for three years.

For her, it was an easy decision. “My parents were definitely surprised and happy,” she laughs. “I didn’t give it much thought. I just thought, ‘What a waste,’ so I came home.”

By chance, five years later, Wakabayashi’s story caught the eye of Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, Ruriko Yamada, who read about her journey to become the Wakabayashi Brewery’s first woman toji in a magazine found at her parents’ house in Nagasaki. Yamada had also returned to Japan after nearly two decades in the U.S. fashion industry to take over her family’s business.

In Wakabayashi, she saw a reflection of herself—a determined Japanese woman compelled to return home to save her family’s legacy. “I had always wanted to do something related to my culture and background,” Yamada says. “I did not know her, but I immediately got into contact with her.”

After that, Yamada says, it all happened organically. Shana Atwood, Yamada’s longtime colleague in the fashion industry and a sake enthusiast, boarded the venture after tasting Wakabayashi’s sake, and in 2020, the two launched Moon Bloom Sake, named after the brewery’s signature sake brew, Tsuki-yoshino.

The brand has since released two bottles of Wakabayashi’s sake: the Yamahai—a rich, milky sake with a yogurt-like taste—and the Junmai Ginjo Genchu—a crisp, light sake with citrus notes. This year, they’re launching a new bottle, the Junmai Daiginjo, which Yamada says is the “highest level” of sake they’ve ever imported.

Moon Bloom Sake
Moon Bloom Sake

According to Wakabayashi, there are four elements that can make or break the flavor of sake: the rice, the polish of the rice, the yeast culture, and the temperature of the fermentation process. Wakabayashi takes pride in the fact that all of Moon Bloom’s sake is brewed with a local flair, made in small batches with rice and mountain water found in the Nagano prefecture, fermented for a month at a low temperature, then pressed using a labor-intensive traditional sake press. The result is a sake that reflects Nagano as a whole.

“Nagano sake is known for being sweeter and more aromatic than other prefectures’ sake,” Wakabayashi explains. “Originally, our sake was only enjoyed by locals near our brewery, but now, thanks to [Moon Bloom], others can enjoy it.”

For Yamada and Atwood, it was crucial for Moon Bloom’s labels to be in English and accessible for customers stateside. “There are so many Japanese sake [sold in the U.S.] but the labels are all in Japanese characters,” Yamada says. “I wanted to do something different.” They want their customers to fully appreciate the nuances of Wakabayashi’s sake, from the flavor notes to her personal journey to becoming the first woman toji of her family’s brewery.

Moon Bloom has a big year ahead. Atwood says that she’s hoping to submit its upcoming Daiginjo bottle to sake competitions, as well as expand their brand’s reach beyond California and Nevada. She hopes that the brand gives Wakabayashi a market outside of Japan, and the revenue to continue her family’s brewing business for years to come.

“We’re just a group of people that love sake,” Atwood says. “And all of us are here because of Mami and we want to introduce her sake to as many people as possible.”

But, even with their big aspirations, at its core, Moon Bloom will always remain a women-owned, woman-brewed craft sake brand—a celebration of women brewers like Wakabayashi.

“Hopefully, this will grow. Then again, [Moon Bloom] isn’t going to be a mass produced product,” Yamada says. “Even if we succeed, we will always remain a small craft sake brand.”

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Anthony Berteaux is a Japanese and American writer based in Los Angeles.