Norimasa Yamamoto
Norimasa Yamamoto


Norimasa Yamamoto

President, Heiwa Brewery

A revolutionary move in the world of sake
A place to share craftsmanship

Heiwa Shuzo is a sake brewery that was founded in 1928. Norimasa Yamamoto is the fourth president of the brewery since taking up the role in 2019. Since then, he has initiated various changes at the brewery and his management skills have led “Kido” (a sake produced by the brewery) to be crowned as the 2020 best sake in the world. He is well-known among sake lovers as a young revolutionary in the world of sake. He is always striving to make the connection between young brewers stronger, and is heavily involved in events such as "Dawn of the Young" and "AOYAMA SAKE FLEA". The Heiwa Doburoku Kabutocho Brewery is a place where visitors can experience the craftsmanship that Yamamoto has envisioned. A place that he hopes will make sake interesting to the next generations.

●Tell us about your childhood?
I was born in a sake brewery in Wakayama Prefecture and grew up watching my parents work. Because of this, I knew from an early age that I wanted to someday run a business like my parents.

●You knew from that age that you would one day become a leader of the brewery?
Yes. My mother is the third daughter to take over the business, and I am the eldest of three siblings. So, from the time I was little, my parents told me, “You are going to take over this place”.
I had respect for what my parents were doing at the brewery. Watching them, I developed an awareness that business is something that can also be fun. It can be something that makes people happy and that can also bring joy. I was also attracted to the idea of being able to turn that work culture into something economically and sustainably viable. I took in everything that my parents would tell me, almost like a case study of what was to come. So I learned a lot that way.

●Did you ever rebel against the fact that your future was set in stone?
No, I never rebelled about that in particular. But during my adolescence, I was the firmly rebellious one. I wouldn’t talk to my parents just like a typical male junior high school student! I went to an integrated junior and senior high school and played basketball, but I was also on the cheerleading squad. We even went to Koshien (the National High School Baseball Championship). It was a typical school that prepared you for university, so I felt somewhat frustrated. At that time, running a company was interesting to me, but I also became interested in starting my own business. It was right around the time when the term “venture business” was becoming popular. I thought that studying economics would allow me to take on new challenges, so I entered the Faculty of Economics at Kyoto University.

●Did you ever take the plunge into entrepreneurship?
No, I spent my college years playing mahjong! There was a strong mahjong culture among Kyoto University students, so I spent my junior year playing mahjong whilst earning a few credits. Then I realized that it wasn’t good enough, so I started attending classes. But I also wanted to get out into the world as soon as possible, so I took my job hunting seriously. I mainly job hunted for venture capitals, saying that I was thinking of starting my own business or taking over a sake brewery in the future. Then I got a job offer from a temporary staffing agency, which allowed me to work as an intern, so I would commute from Kyoto to the office in Osaka.

●Why did you choose a human resources company?
The company is now publicly traded, but at the time it was only about three or four years old. I graduated from university in 2003, right around the time of the IT bubble. People like Takafumi Horie and Hiroshi Mikitani were coming into the world, and I admired them because I thought they were so cool. Nowadays, we have an environment where you can start an IT company without any knowledge, but back then, you had to have strong IT literacy. I thought it would be difficult for me to work for an IT company, so I decided to work for a human resources venture company, many of which had appeared as a result of the relaxation of licenses for the temporary staffing industry. I was looking to run my own company one day, so I also thought that working with people was something important to learn.

People tend to say that all alcoholic beverages are different and wonderful, but in fact, I think some things can't be quantified. It’s important to share these unquantifiable aspects with everyone.

●What made you decide to take over the brewery?
I was working for that human resources company for about three years. It was when my father became ill that I began to feel that it would be quite difficult to start my own business, so I decided to take over my family’s brewery and returned to Wakayama.

●Have you always been a sake lover yourself?
I wasn’t allowed to drink when I was young. When I was in college I was finally allowed to try it but I felt like it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I’m not like that now, but I was a weak drinker at the time, so I was not the type to drink that much.

●What made you change your mind about alcohol?
I’ve always enjoyed eating good food and have been going to eat at nice restaurants since I was in college. As I began to study various kinds of alcohol, I realized that there was a close relationship between alcohol and food, and that’s how I got into it, or rather, I began to enjoy learning about the taste of alcohol.

●How did you study alcohol?
I’m a serious person, if I do say so myself, so I made it my daily task to do 30 to 40 different tastings. Not only sake, but also shochu, whiskey, wine, and so on. I was comparing them every day. My reason for doing so was that I think it is very important to understand sake. People tend to say that all alcoholic beverages are different and wonderful, but in fact, I think some things can’t be quantified. It’s important to share these unquantifiable aspects with everyone. To make sake better, it’s necessary to know its quality to some extent, to hone our aesthetic sense, and become aware of it. I think it’s the same in the world of painting and music; people who are somewhat familiar with the quality of something can understand it, but those who are unfamiliar with it only have a vague idea of what it is. You can say that something is good, but to be able to express what is good about it, or to be able to say that it could be improved, you have to know it intimately. I think it’s the same with alcohol. We need to better understand the ambiguity, and I think sake tasting is an exercise that helps us do that.

I think it’s the same in the world of painting and music; people who are somewhat familiar with the quality of something can understand it, but those who are unfamiliar with it only have a vague idea of what it is.

●It’s important to know because of its abstract value.
In order to modify and improve our drinks, we need to understand our own products and share our perceptions with our colleagues. By tasting sake regularly, we can align our perceptions and communicate better.

●After taking over the brewery, were there any difficulties or challenges you faced?
It’s an issue that continues to this day, but there are difficulties in doing business in a rural area, such as a lack of information and people. Although we had expected this to some extent, it has been a problem that has persisted for a long time. One step toward solving this problem is to gather young brewers from all over the country. In our brewery, we accept only new graduates from universities. I believe that it is important to make sake in a way that encourages younger generations to work in such a traditional industry.

●What kind of connections do you have with young breweries?
I’ve been organizing an event called “Dawn of the Young” for about 10 years, alongside organizing the “AOYAMA SAKE FLEA” with Media Surf in front of the United Nations University in Aoyama. The goal is to bring together young brewers and breweries. I know this is an issue for the sake industry as a whole, but the consumption of sake is declining year on year. It’s difficult to get young people to drink sake, so how can we dispel this image? This has become my life’s work.

●What was the impetus for starting the “AOYAMA SAKE FLEA”?
I was approached by Yusuke Tanaka, who was at Media Surf at the time. It was around the time that the Bread Festival found great success, so he invited me to hold a similar event for sake. The “AOYAMA SAKE FLEA” has become a great platform for connecting people. I think that those encounters I had at that event helped me to establish the “Heiwa Doburoku Kabutocho Brewery”.

●Had you visited Kabutocho before opening the brewery?
When I was a new graduate, I was assigned to work in Tokyo, and my office was actually located in Kayabacho. At the time, I had a strong image of the area as a businessman’s town. There were securities firms there that to me looked scary to enter. But in that sense, perhaps my connection to Kabutocho began to grow at that time.

We thought that creating something that allowed the freedom of "Doburoku" would be one way to stimulate demand for sake and could also serve as a gateway.

●What was the idea behind the Heiwa Doburoku Kabutocho Brewery?
I always wanted to try and create something like a brewpub. There are often such places for craft beer, but there are very few Japanese focussed places like this, especially not ones serving sake. I always thought that one of the reasons for the long-term stagnation of sake was the lack of places where sake craftsmanship could be felt in a real way. So I wanted to create a brewpub to bridge this gap in a real way. When I was looking for somewhere to do it, I was approached by Heiwa Real Estate. When they told me about the Kabutocho revitalization project, I became very interested in joining and quickly proposed the idea of the brew pub.

●What made you choose the concept of “Doburoku”?
“Doburoku ” can be seen as a sort of prototype sake. So it has this twin-like, sibling-like relationship to sake. It’s very closely related to sake, but “Doburoku” can be made more freely. With sake, you cannot use ingredients other than rice, but with “Doburoku”, you can freely combine ingredients such as azuki beans or black beans. We can modulate flavors, and we thought that creating something that allows such freedom would be one way to stimulate the demand for sake, and could also serve as a gateway into the market. I think it would be interesting for customers to have variations of craft beer as well. I feel that we chose “Doburoku” because of its ability to produce a variety of drinks and flavors not traditionally found in sake.

●What do you think makes “Heiwa Doburoku Kabutocho Brewery” stand out?
We make “doburoku” in a seven-liter capacity tank, which is about the same size as my curry pot at home. Ordinary tanks are too heavy to transport, but in our case, we can pour and serve it to our customers on the spot. I think the experience of having the finished fermentation served right in front of you is really appealing. I think this is the first time in Japan and very rare in the world that “doburoku” is brewed and fermented in this seven-liter size. The extent to which we could achieve this from a technical standpoint was a challenge, but in the end, we were able to achieve this through consultation with our designers.

●What kind of customers come into the shop?
Since “Kido Muryozan Junmai Ginjo” won the top prize in the sake category at the International Sake Challenge 2020, the world’s largest competition, many new fans have come all the way to Kabutocho. Since we have only been open for a short time now, we have many first-time customers, but we would like to improve the quality of our “doburoku” so that we can attract repeat customers.

By improving the quality, we want to create something that will continually impress our customers.

●What kind of “Doburoku” are you aiming for?
We have about 10 types of products now, but the first thing we want to do is to improve the accuracy of each one. I want to make each one more interesting. We also want to express flavors that leave an impression on people from the first sip. We only started brewing at the end of February, so we’ve only made the first and second rounds of “Doburoku”. By improving the quality, we want to create something that will continually impress our customers. I want to take it to the point where it doesn’t just taste good, but actually impresses people.

●Do you feel that the sake industry is changing?
It’s been 18 years since I joined the brewery and three years since I became president, and it’s my belief that the sake industry is changing. I feel that we are entering a new phase, with an increase in the number of “Doburoku” breweries. Also, the overseas market is expanding. Heiwa Shuzo exports to about 30 countries, and I think we are one of the relatively enthusiastic brands that want to approach overseas markets. I think that as Corona comes to its end, overseas customers will come here to drink sake, and having them consume it in that way will help them learn about Japanese culture. I think Kabutocho is also a strong inbound town, so I would like to see horizontal connections as well. Kabutocho was originally a shipping port in the Edo period, and sake was brought in from Nada Port. Sake delivered to Kabutocho was also spread throughout the city of Edo. It is interesting to be able to transmit culture and information from a place such as this.

●Do you have any plans for the future?
The Kabutocho project is something I have wanted to do for a long time, so I think I have done everything I have thought of so far. First, I would like to make Heiwa Doburoku Kabutocho Brewery a place where many customers can visit. Once I achieve that, I want to search for a new challenge.

Norimasa Yamamoto

Norimasa Yamamoto

Born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1978. He is the fourth president of Heiwa Sake Brewery, established in 1928. After graduating from Kyoto University’s Faculty of Economics, he worked for a human resources venture company before joining Heiwa Shuzo, where his ‘Kido Mugyozan Junmai Ginjo’ won the top prize in the sake category at the International Wine Challenge 2020, the world’s largest sake competition. In the same competition, the brewery won the title of “Sake Brewery of the Year,” for two consecutive years in 2019 and 2020.

Text : Momoko Suzuki

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Momoko Suzuki

Norimasa Yamamoto

President, Heiwa Brewery

Interesting people in Kabutocho

I often visit the Spice café ‘HOPPERS’, so I’m interested in Kazushiro Ito. I feel that he is creating something that doesn’t yet exist and I admire his pursuit of essence. There is respect for Sri Lankan traditions, but the shop itself has a very modern and stylish feel. I find it interesting to create a store with a solid concept and direction. It’s also convenient for me because our store is just across the street!