EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in an ongoing series on Arkansas’ first sake brewery, which is being built in Hot Springs.
After 15 years of effort, the dream of opening a sake brewery in Hot Springs will soon be a reality for two Arkansas men.
Matt Bell, owner and CEO of Origami Sake, and Ben Bell, no relative, vice president of the company, recently gave The Sentinel-Record a tour of the brewing facility currently under construction at 2360 E. Grand Ave.
“We will be Arkansas’ first sake brewery,” Ben Bell said. “I believe second in the Delta – Wetlands in New Orleans is first in the Delta – but we will definitely be first in Arkansas.”
Ben Bell said he started working on the idea in 2007 when he “started home brewing with a friend of mine”.
In 2012 he met Mary Zunick, executive director of the Hot Springs Sister City Foundation, but by then he had already gone to Japan and trained at a sake brewery for a few weeks.
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“Because I went to high school at the Arkansas School for Math, Science and Arts, it was at a high school reunion that someone said, ‘Hey, did you know we have this town sister in Japan? and I said, ‘No, you know, but it’s interesting,'” Ben Bell said.
“I was wondering if our sister city (Hanamaki) would have any connection with sake, so I searched and it turned out to be the home of Nanbu Toji Brewing Guild, which is the most biggest and most famous sake brewing guild in all of Japan and then I’m like, “Oh, wow. There has to be some kind of connection there so maybe something can be done with it,'” he said.
He got in touch with Zunick and found “she had been thinking and talking about the exact same thing on their end,” he said.
His interest in sake started when he worked at Colonial Wines & Spirits in Little Rock and they got “a really good bottle of craft sake,” he said.
“I really didn’t know anything about sake, and I was more focused on wine then and so I took it home, I drank it like a white wine, you know, I cooled, I took it out of a white wine glass and was really impressed with the quality,” he said.
“I was surprised and thought ‘I wonder if there’s more to this category?’ and then what really stuck with me was this idea of, well, you know, maybe it’s this interesting unknown category, but also Arkansas is the rice state and maybe that ‘there’s a connection there,” Ben Bell said.
“And that’s also when I met the Isbell family, who grow sake rice in Arkansas,” he said.
In 2014, the Sister City Foundation sent Ben Bell to Hanamaki as an intern, and over the next two years he learned the art of brewing sake.
In Japan, sake brewing is seasonal and usually done during the winter months, which are the best for brewing high-quality sake, Ben Bell said, “like a good slow cold fermentation and then you can expand the season around that.”
He said he worked two seasons at a “fantastic sake brewery, Nanbu Bijin” and in the summer, as it is usually low season, they offered him to stay and learn how to grow the local sake rice.
“So I said, ‘Yeah, that would be a great experience,'” he said.
Ben Bell said he decided to walk away from the brewing project in 2018, but Matt Bell decided to pursue it.
“Matt and I had talked about this project before. He knew about something I was working on and I think even though I left, Matt really believed it was a great deal for Arkansas because that value at add to our rice the industry, you know, making sake, so he just kept, kind of took it upon himself and really pushed, worked on a plan and came up with a really good plan and brought it back to me, then I just joined with him,” Ben Bell said.
“So I met Ben probably six or seven years ago, and he told me about his dream of doing this and at the time, when he told me, I said ‘Let me know when you have it ready I want to invest in it, that’s a great idea,” that’s a natural fit for the state of Arkansas with our rice production, with Hot Springs water and when he mentioned it should be the Napa Valley of Sake, it clicked, and I agree,” Matt Bell said.
“After I kind of understood his vision for it, I knew there was a place for it, and in Japan there are about 1,500 sake breweries. In the United States there are only 15, so it’s a very underserved market, so I was going to do the project anyway,” Matt Bell said.
“However, deep down I always wanted Ben back, so we stayed in communication,” he said.