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Work/Food/Life/Culture site Campanella, run by Nikkei Business, reports on a brewery that changed its approach to sake production based on its success with the plum “wine” ume-shu.

Wakayama brewery Heiwa produces the daiginjo sake Kiddo, winner of a regional trophy in the International Wine Challenge sake category for two years in a row. 

Wakayama allegedly produces the best plums in Japan, and Heiwa uses them to produce its award-winning Tsuru-ume range of plum and other fruit drinks (yuzu, lemon, strawberry, natsumikan). A relatively new brewery founded in 1928, it is now led by its third generation owner, Norimasa Yamamoto. A graduate of Tokyo university who previously worked in venture companies, he took over the brewery in 2005 after his father’s health failed. As he studied economics instead of agriculture, he went to the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) for two months for a crash course in sake brewing. He also founded the “Dawn of the Young” (若手の夜明け) group in 2007 to network and cooperate with other young second or third generation brewery owners. At first there were only about 100 members, but it now boasts around 3,000 and holds sake events across Japan. 

Yamamoto’s first big hit was his ume-shu (plum drink) Tsuru-ume, released just as Japan went into a fad for the drink. Convinced that the brewery could do better and appeal to younger drinkers in their 20s and 30s, he turned away from making cheap ume-shu sold in cartons, repackaged the product and repositioned it as a high-class brand. He saw for himself what could happen if he raised the bar. Seeing Tsuru-ume‘s success as luck and concerned about the competitiveness of a sake that wasn’t from one of the historically strong areas such as Nada, Fushimi or Tohoku, he deliberately positioned Tsuru-ume as a luxury brand aimed at a different market segment to avoid being caught up in a price war.

He then turned to their sake, which was still mass-produced and sold in cartons. A wine drinker who disliked the taste of sake at university, he was deeply dissatisfied with their products (even though his father and the toji at the time happily drank them). While on a business trip with a younger employee who ultimately became the next toji, he came across Isojiman and for the first time found a sake he actually liked – he was floored. Another shock came when he attended the Iwate prefecture Nanbu Toji master brewers’ society lecture series in order to deepen his understanding of sake. (He still drives the 1,700 kilometres today to take part, visiting breweries that interest him along the way.) A young master brewer/owner in Miyagi prefecture invited him to visit his brewery, still unknown and without a market presence, but Yamamoto was amazed by the cleanliness of the premises and inspired by the passion and progress of someone his own age. 

Although his own brewery’s ume-shu and carton sake was selling well, taking a longer-term view he knew sales were decreasing and they couldn’t go on as they were. Having seen other breweries, he was more convinced than ever that his own brewery’s sake wasn’t good. The toji at the time, 70 years old, was not happy when asked why the daiginjo category sake they produced was no better than non-premium types. Mass production meant that they brewed throughout the summer using air conditioning to create lower temperatures, which lowered the air quality in the brewery. Yamamoto was certain that this had an effect on the end product. All of these experiences helped him to crystallise his own idea of what kind of sake he wanted to make.

Convinced that the lack of quality in his own brewery’s sake was down to off-flavours, he set out to eliminate them. Seeing ume-shu as a gateway drink, he set out to achieve the same success with sake. He wanted to make sake for those who were not yet drinking it, people in their 20s and 30s, future markets overseas. Unlike many second or third generation owners who come back to take over a brewery, he did not become a master brewer/owner and instead stuck to the financial side and worked alongside his master brewer and brewery employees. He appreciates that this choice may have made things harder, but it also freed him from the challenge of making sake that wasn’t what he thinks sake should be. It also freed him to do things like go out and gather information during the busy winter brewing period. However, he keeps his tasting skills up and gets involved through identification and elimination of off-flavours. The brewery underwent a changing of the guard as the former toji retired, leaving a younger one to take his place. They are now stepping up to new challenges such as brewing craft beer.