Ichiro: “So where are we meeting the boys tonight in Roppers?”
Kenta: “Not sure, but I think the plan is to meet up at Heartland for a few warm up beers and take it from there.”
Every gaijin who has been to Roppongi Hills has been to Heartland. Meeting someone at Heartland is the Roppongi equivalent of Alta Studio (アルタ前) in Shinjuku, Big Man in Umeda or Grand Central Station in New York – only better: Heartland has beer.
Besides being “the place to be” after work in Roppongi, the Heartland bar is well known for its signature beverage “Heartland Beer”. If you’ve have a swig before, then you’ll remember that the Heartland label is not your typical Japanese beer. Heartland Beer (brewed by Kirin) is made 100% from wheat giving it a very “Western” style favor without the softness that you usually get from the copious amounts of rice included in traditional Japanese labels like Ichibanshibori or Super Dry. Heartland’s recent success is not just about location – it’s seen to be a sign of the times as the Japanese are now more open minded to trying non-traditional flavors.
It might surprise you to know that Heartland isn’t actually a new beer at all. In fact it had made its name long before the Roppongi Hills project even existed. (Bean Knowledge: Japanese architecture buffs will know that Mr. Mori (of Mori building fame) spent over 30 years buying up enough land (地上げ) to build the mammoth project that Roppongi Hills is today. It took so long because – yes, just like that old lady who lives next to the “planned” new runway at Narita – there is always someone who refuses to sell!)
It is a well kept secret that Heartland actually existed in the very same spot as it does today way back before Mori started his buying spree. In fact Heartland, was just as much a “symbol of the times” back then in the middle of the shagadelic bubble era as it is today. At the time it was a huge gamble for Kirin to release such a rough tasting Western style beer but it paid off quickly and Heartland turned into a roaring success. In fact the bar was such a hit that it turned into something of a cult (ハートランド教) and the 店長 (tencho, manager) was quickly promoted into the senior echelons of Kirin’s management team.
That tencho, was a young man called Mr. Maeda (前田仁). Budding black belts in beer trivia will recognize that name as the man who subsequently came up with the concept of Ichibanshibori (一番搾り). More recently he has been the brains behind both the Tanrei (淡麗) and Hyoketsu (氷結) series. Maeda clearly has the Midas Touch at Kirin Beeru. Maeda acknowledges that heartland was controversial at the time and even shows some emotion when he admits that finally, after over two decades, Japan has caught up with Heartland (「時代がハートランドに追いついた」). Not many companies can boast that their most charismatic MD was chosen for his prowess as a bar tender!
“Beerhall Heartland” as it was named (in true bubble style) at the time, became a hub for bohemian artists and musicians. Many famous musicians today are said to have built up their name by playing live for the regulars at Beerhall Heartland. Apparently Mr. Mori was such a fan of the old Heartland that he insisted on having Heartland once again a part of the newly born Roppongi Hills community. (It’s no coincidence that the architect of the new Heartland (小坂竜) was also a well known regular at the original).
Next time you are enjoying a cold one next to the escalator leading down to that cramped bar, spare a moment to reflect on what the place might have felt like twenty years ago. It’s nice to know that even in such a modern place like Roppongi Hills, there are still remnants of the character and innocence that Roppongi had back then.