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How Heiwa Transformed Their Sake Brewery with a Startup Approach

| Mimi Hosokawa

Among many innovative sake breweries out there, Heiwa Brewing Company sheds light on a bit of a different angle to change the way they make sake. This month, Tippsy interviewed their 4th generation brewery president, Norimasa Yamamoto.

Mimi (Tippsy Staff): As the fourth generation brewery president of Heiwa Brewing Company, I heard that you began actively recruiting recent college graduates, something that is not very common for sake breweries. I also hear that your staff is relatively young, with an average age of 31. What do you hope to accomplish when making sake with a team of lively, young workers at its core?

Norimasa: Well, I came back to the brewery 17 years ago, when I was 26 or 27, and I noticed that the staff leaned heavily towards older workers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with older people working, and I’m not saying that staff should be judged by their age. I just thought it was strange that there were so few young employees.

Before I came back to work at the brewery, I was actually working in human resources at a startup. In that industry, I was surrounded by a lot of ambitious young people, so I felt there was a huge difference between that and the sake industry. Over the past 50 years, the sake workforce has seen a 75% decrease. From a human resources standpoint, I thought one of the reasons for the downturn comes from the uneven age of the workforce.

Mimi: Why is that?

Norimasa: Because the sake industry is so steeped in tradition, the Japanese virtue of cherishing your elders is really ingrained in the work. But at the same time, there is definitely a recognition that the industry could use a breath of fresh air. So there is definitely a need for young, motivated people looking to be challenged to enter the industry. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve started taking the lead in hiring new graduates.

While working in HR, I also noticed that there was strong interest from young employees to experience Japanese craftsmanship firsthand in provincial areas outside major cities like Tokyo. So I saw an intersection between the needs of the sake industry and the demand from new grads for these experiences, which also influenced our decision.

President and brewery workers in Heiwa brewing company
Norimasa the brewery president of Heiwa Brewing Company (in the center) surrounded by youthful kurabito (brewery workers).

Mimi: Are there any challenges you’ve faced along the way?

Norimasa: Putting theory to practice, I’ve seen that my observations were mostly right, as we had a lot of new graduates who joined the company. But we also saw a large number of those grads also leave the company, even before they had a chance to show their full potential. So I guess you could say the challenge in working with a young team was realizing that it wasn’t enough to just recruit young people. We learned we needed to help them assimilate into the company and develop their talents, as well as having to build the infrastructure to facilitate that.

Mimi: I see, so there were many people that quit as well. But I’m sure there are a lot of staff that stayed and are doing their best! Now this is just my personal opinion, but I don’t think there are a lot of people who enter college with the goal of working at a sake brewery. But I get the impression that you’re working to help employees develop their skills further to become toji (brewmaster). Would you say that’s something you’re focused on?

Norimasa: These days, the number of employees that leave has dropped considerably. Through trial and error over the last 10 or so years, I think we’ve finally built an organization that new grads feel they can establish themselves in.

Regarding the toji, at our brewery toji is a position, like being a department chief. But there are also toji guilds that brewery workers and toji join. In our case, we are associated with the Nanbu Toji Guild in Iwate Prefecture. In the Nanbu Toji Guild, there’s a toji certification test that’s notoriously difficult and usually takes years to pass. At our brewery, three of our employees carry that certification. Of course, our brewmaster Shibata carries the certification, but two others that joined the company as new grads, Kei Miyazaki and Kanako Takagi, also carry the certification and actually had sake released with their names on them as the brew leaders this year.

Mimi: That’s wonderful! So this is a follow-up question, but usually toji and other workers involved in brewing don’t have the opportunity to be the “face” of a sake, so could you tell us a little bit more about why you released sake that has the names of your certified toji?

Norimasa: Well, we actually have a practice called kurabito jikomi, where all kurabito (brewery workers) that aren’t toji certified, even new recruits, are given three to five tanks to look after, with the intent that they’ll develop their individuality and ingenuity to become a full-fledged brewer. We hope that through the experience, our staff see the fun and joy in making a tangible product. However, the sake that they make during kurabito jikomi isn’t sold. The activity is used as a way to help them understand their role as brewer working under the guidance of the toji.

The toji series, on the other hand, is a way for certified toji to express their individuality through their craftsmanship. Rather than have them make a sake similar to ones we produce, we want them to create something that expresses their personality as a brewer. So they generally have full creative license every step in the process, like deciding what rice or yeast to use.

Mimi: That sounds really exciting!

Norimasa: Thanks. Unfortunately, the toji series is generally a small production, so I don’t think we’ll be able to export them any time soon. But I do think that giving staff opportunities they find fulfilling leads to the growth of Heiwa Brewing Company as a whole. Sake making is heavily reliant on people, so in that respect, opportunities for staff to hone their individual technique thus lead to an overall increase in the production techniques of the brewery.

Mimi: Moving on to the next question. I was looking at Heiwa’s website and it is really lovely! I also read that you take a LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) approach to sake making. Is there anything you’re particularly focused on with respect to that?

Norimasa: This applies to all sake breweries, but we focus on doing the best we can to source the majority of our raw ingredients locally. And of course this doesn’t only apply to sake, but any product that touches a customer’s lips really can’t be made without the support of farmers, fisherman or other local industries.

At Heiwa, we make sake, beer and liqueur, but the liqueur we produce is especially representative of this concept since we wanted to make liqueurs that use the region’s local fruits.

Harvesting plum
Using only locally grown ingredients is one of the most important steps to achieve sustainable sake making.

Norimasa: The brewery is also in a pretty rural part of Wakayama, which is fairly rural to begin with, so we wanted to make sake that fully makes use of the surrounding environment. So we’re actually growing Yamadanishiki rice and ume and yuzu on some of the land now.

And while currently it only accounts for a small amount of the raw ingredients we use, I feel if we continue to increase the amount of raw ingredients we produce ourselves, we’ll strengthen the connection between nature, sake making and ultimately our customers.

Mimi: Recently in the U.S., there has been a trend towards ethical consumption. So personally, I would love to see more sake that are focused on ethical production and LOHAS.

Norimasa: If you really think about it, sake making and other traditional industries played a role in solving social issues in Japan. This might be hard for people living in the U.S. to see the connection. Take Japan’s ancient rice paddies for example. Sake making relies on rice. Growing rice is really the first step in sake making. So sake breweries have an incentive to protect the rice paddies. And really, rice paddies were central to Japanese social culture in those times. They gave structure to communities. They were found at the center of every region and I think they provided the backbone for the livelihoods of many people.

But these days, Japan is starting to lose these important parts of its culture. People are eating less rice due to a shift to more western diets. Since demand for rice is lower, some rice paddies are left to fallow. So with respect to protecting local traditions and the local environment, I think sake is an extremely ethical drink. So to put it even more simply, I think our brewery is what protects the local rice paddies.

Mimi: I think there are a lot of things about sake that people in the U.S. are unfamiliar with, so I was very moved by the idea that they could learn about the traditions and culture of Japan through sake in that way.

Moving on to the next question. As a brewery, you’ve taken some progressive steps like hiring new grads and entering the international market. What’s next for Heiwa Brewing Company?

Norimasa:You mention entering international markets, but something I’d really like to do is find ways to reach inbound visitors to Japan and share sake with them here. Of course the globalization of sake is inevitable, and I think we should be embracing that fact rather than dreading it.

Using our brewery as an example, if you look back, at first we were only able to reach customers in the neighboring towns. When we got to the Edo period, we were able to reach customers throughout all of Wakayama. In the Showa period, we’re able to reach customers in Tokyo and other big cities. So I think now we’re at the dawn of a new period in which we can bring our sake to people around the world. But rather than seeing it as a proactive effort, I see it as a natural progression.

A brewery worker making sake
Heiwa received the Sake Brewer of the Year from International Wine Challenge for two years in a row.

Norimasa: And I think Heiwa is well positioned and well suited to do this. I want Heiwa to be a key player in developing the demand for sake abroad. But it’s not something we can do alone, so we’ll need to work with other breweries as well. I think diversity in sake is good, so I hope we can expand as part of that diverse group.

Also, I would like to position ourselves as a brewery willing to take on more risks and challenges to pave the way for other breweries. Just as an example, I think it would be really interesting to make sake outside of Japan, to create a sake that’s really rooted to the region it’s made. Of course there’s value in sake made in Japan, but I also think there’s a value to be gained by making sake outside of Japan as well. I think there are a lot of people brewing sake in the U.S. now, and I hope that someday we can join that community of U.S. sake brewers.

Mimi: What does sake mean to you?

Norimasa: As a consumer, I think sake is something to be enjoyed, just like food. So I’m really thankful for the opportunity to work in the sake industry. From a business perspective, to me it’s a treasure trove of possibility. It’s something I want to be my life’s work. In Japan, equating everything to business opportunities has a bit of a bad image, but I think it’s actually important to the sake industry to view it through that lens.

With sake, I think there might be too much focus on protecting it because it’s a traditional craft. But viewing it as a business gives us the freedom to find a point where business, our goals for the brewery, and the needs of society intersect. I find that really interesting. To be fair, there are other industries like IT that have a much higher potential for growth. But I decided quite early on, I think in my early 30s, that I wanted to throw my heart and soul into the sake industry. So it really has become my life’s work.

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