Over the years many people have made the connection that sake — the national beverage of Japan and to most Arkansans the rice beverage served exclusively at Japanese restaurants — would be a natural fit for Arkansas production. Sake is mostly made from rice, after all, and Arkansas is the No. 1 rice producer in the U.S. According to Arkansas native Ben Bell, vice president of Origami Sake, the new sake brewery off U.S. Highway 70 in Hot Springs, sake daydreamers almost all come up with the same clever name for the potential brand.
“I’ve heard it so many times from different people that are like, ‘I got the perfect name for the brand.’
“And I’m like, ‘Is it Arkansake?’ ”
But for Bell it’s more than a business opportunity and a chance for fairly obvious pun branding. It’s a passion that goes back more than a decade. He became intrigued by an impressive bottle of sake at Colonial Wines & Spirits in 2007. Bell had been working at Colonial for a few years at that point, and learned early on that customers expected him to know about the wines they were shopping for. So he took to the job and started learning about wines. When it came to sake, though, he didn’t know much else about the beverage except that it was made from rice.
A friend with a relative in Japan and a little knowledge of the subject suggested that they try home brewing sake, a process which produced drinkable batches that gave them slight buzzes, Bell said.
But his interest didn’t stop there. Bell went to New York to attend a Japan Society sake tasting. He saw table after table of sakes with presidents of the breweries and master brewers standing behind the tables.
“I was all trained up on how to taste wine and you usually take a lot of tasting notes in that world, and I remember going from sake to sake and just writing down furious notes, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, these are so different from each other and so good and so interesting.’ ”
Bell said that was his eureka moment.
“This is absolutely a thing and people don’t know about it yet, and it’s just been a matter of staying on that path this whole time,” he said.
Going to the source
Having completed a three-day professional sake course taught by sake luminary John Gauntner, Bell flew to Japan in 2012 to interview at a sake brewery called Mitobe Shuzo. The interview didn’t go well.
“I think I really oversold how much Japanese I could speak at that time,” he said.
Bell had been practicing on his own using an app, but hadn’t had an actual conversation with someone in Japanese.
“I think people do this thing where they know like 10 words of a language and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I speak a little,’ and from a real functional standpoint it’s like, ‘No, you don’t speak this at all.’ ”
He said he knew he was in trouble when he was lost at a train station in Tokyo after arriving and didn’t understand a word the attendant was saying to him. When he showed up for the interview, slightly late, exhausted with jet lag, the president of the brewery asked him if he could do the interview in Japanese.
“I said no. He said, ‘Oh, OK. You can’t work here.’ ”
The interview ended there.
“I would put that up against anyone’s terrible interview moments,” Bell said.
But Bell didn’t leave completely empty-handed. The president gave Bell a tour of the brewery and Bell was able to articulate some of his knowledge. He was invited to come back to train for two weeks.
The next year Bell returned to Japan and received his Advanced Sake Professional certification in Tokyo and completed two weeks of training at Mitobe Shuzo.
After returning to the states he went to an alumni meeting for Hot Springs’ Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts. Over beers someone asked him if he knew that Hot Springs was part of a sister city program with Hanamaki, Japan. Bell almost immediately wondered if there was a sake connection, and found that Hanamaki is home of the Nanbu Toji brewing guild, which Bell said is the largest sake brewing guild in Japan.
“I don’t know if words can express what a crazy coincidence that is,” Bell said. Bell got in touch with Mary Zunick, cultural affairs manager of Visit Hot Springs and the sister city program director. As it turns out Zunick was already looking for someone from the Hot Springs side of the sister city program to go to Japan to train to make sake. Bell enthusiastically nominated himself and was soon on his way back to Japan, where he took three months of Japanese language training in Hanamaki before reporting to work at Nanbu Bijin brewery, where he stayed for two years.
The Napa Valley of sake
Bell returned from Japan in 2016 with a crew lined up and the goal of opening a sake brewery in Arkansas. The plan involved Isbell Farms, a multigenerational Central Arkansas rice farm focused on sustainable production that’s been cultivating sake rice for 20 years. When Bell speaks of farmer Chris Isbell and Isbell Farms, he uses words like “pioneers,” “forward-thinking” and “innovative.” Bell had the Arkansas rice part of the pitch, as well as a crew, but he hadn’t been able to connect with a business partner.
When talks of a sake partnership with an investor fell through, Bell took a job with wine and spirits distributor and importer Skurnik Wines in New York in 2019. “I honestly did not think I was going to be coming back to Arkansas to do this,” he said.
His pitch did work, though. It just needed time.
In 2016 Bell had a backyard conversation with Matt Bell, who at the time was a partner at Entegrity, a sustainability and renewable energy service company.
Matt Bell, who’s not related to Ben, remembers Ben explaining all the benefits and competitive advantages Arkansas has for making sake: great quality spring water, a sake rice crop and the sister city program.
“For me, when I had that conversation he summed it up with a pretty logical summary, which is that Arkansas should be the Napa Valley of American craft sake,” Matt Bell said.
Matt Bell said he never forgot about that conversation. When an investor offered to purchase his interests in Entegrity, he made the leap to the sake project.
“I knew it was going to be a new chapter, and I wanted to do something fun and creative and really focused on something good for the state. This was always at the top of my list.”
He found a 22,000-square-foot, FDA-approved, prepped-for-food-grade production facility in Hot Springs at 2360 E. Grand Ave.
In the end, it was Matt Bell pitching Ben Bell’s idea back to him. Matt serves as president of the company and with his experience in renewable energy, one of the major focuses of Origami Sake is ingrained in the brand, he said.
“Sustainability is going to be a key part of what we’re doing as far as making the story of locally sourced rice and Hot Springs water,” he said. “It lends itself to be sustainable by the nature of production and the sources we have here.”
Origami will be generating all of its power with renewable energy solar panels onsite. Additionally, Isbell Farms is using solar energy to produce Origami rice, Matt Bell said, “which will make it one of the most sustainable beverages probably made in the U.S.”
Matt Bell said the Hot Springs water happened to be ideal for sake because it has virtually no iron or manganese, two elements that produce unwanted flavors in sake.
“For us to be able to use natural water from the aquifer here in Hot Springs is one of the components that really is driving the sense of place,” Matt Bell said. “It’s just premium water and premium rice, which is 99.9% of what goes in sake.”
The other parts? “Yeast, of course, and you need koji spores,” Ben Bell said. “This is a mold that you grow on the rice for the malting process. You turn your starches into fermentable sugars.” Those sugars ferment into alcohol.
Key members of the business will begin arriving in Hot Springs in November, and they’re coming from all over the world. Two future employees are currently living in Japan. That includes Consulting Master Brewer Satoshi Tamakawa from Nanbu Bijin and certified Sakasha (equivalent to a master of sake) Justin Potts, a Seattle native who has spent years living in Japan brewing sake and working with breweries to promote sake tourism. Quality Assurance Manager Brock Bennett has worked at sake breweries in Norway and, most recently, England. Operations Manager Cassady Harris has already moved here from New Orleans.
“We’re going to immediately make world-class sake in Hot Springs,” Matt Bell said.
The biggest pieces of equipment are expected in October. The crew will arrive by November. The first batches of sake could be available for sale by January of 2023.
Changing the perception
Sake is strong and distilled, and should be shot like liquor because it comes in those little cups. Right? Actually, these are common misconceptions that Ben Bell is out to dispel. He thinks that most people who have those misconceptions haven’t had good craft sake. Once they do, he said, it will change their perception of what sake is.
And while sake is generally tied to Japanese restaurants in the U.S., Ben Bell said he hopes we’ll soon see sake as a standard offering in more bars and restaurants. “We want to show 100% that you can pair sake with anything,” Ben Bell said. “If I want a good glass of wine, I don’t have to go to a French or Italian restaurant. If I want a good beer, I can go to any kind of restaurant. That’s what sake’s future is. It’s easier to pair with food than wine and it’s more versatile. The biggest change is sake taking its place as a legit category that you can find anywhere,” Ben Bell said.
People who have questioned Ben Bell’s pitch about Arkansas becoming the Napa Valley of American sake say, “Yeah, but Napa Valley’s in California, and it’s right next to San Francisco,” he said.
He acknowledges that Arkansas is a smaller market, but counters by naming a couple of whiskey producers in Kentucky and Tennessee that you might’ve heard of — Jack Daniels for example, one of the biggest liquor brands in the world.
“It’s in a god dang dry county,” Ben Bell said. “I want Arkansas and the Delta to be the Napa Valley of sake because we are a natural home for it. Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey, your Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, those are massive global brands in rural Southern states. To me, it’s absolutely possible.”
“Our advantage is Arkansas is an affordable place to live, it’s central to the U.S. and we have a source of the product,” Matt Bell said.
“America has the history to show it’s possible,” Ben Bell said. He referenced the U.S.’s previously poor reputation for wine and beer and how much things have changed. “Pick a major category, America has done it,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do it with sake.”