If all goes according to plan, Arkansas will get its first sake brewery by the end of the year: Origami Sake in Hot Springs.
Little Rock native and sake specialist Ben Bell is the face of the enterprise, and Matt Bell, a co-owner of Entegrity of Little Rock, a solar contractor and energy-efficiency company, is an investor. The two men are not related.
Bell’s MFB Investments LLC paid $375,000 in December for the 3 acres and 17,800-SF building at 2360 E. Grand Ave. where the sake will be brewed.
Whispers visited with Ben Bell while he was on the road in Tennessee. He was driving from Manhattan, where he worked as assistant Japanese portfolio manager at Michael Skurnik Wines, a wine and spirits distributor, to Arkansas to begin his sake business.
Ben Bell, a graduate of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences & the Arts in Hot Springs, will be a co-owner and vice president of operations and will oversee the brewery, which will take advantage of Hot Springs’ famous water and Arkansas’ famous rice to brew its sake, the distinctively Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.
“You want good water to make … sake,” Ben Bell said.
Isbell Farms of England will provide the rice.
Ben Bell said he planned to start brewing test batches this month, a phase that he expected to last about six months, and would like to open the brewery by the end of the year, before the holidays.
“Ben is the impetus for this project,” Matt Bell said. “He had mentioned this idea years ago when he went to Japan and became trained in sake brewing there. He spent two years in Japan at a really great brewery there.
“And so his idea, when he told me years ago, it just never left my mind. I thought it was great. It’s the perfect fit for Arkansas with our rice industry and the water quality that we have, which are the two key ingredients to making this, and then having someone that’s probably one of the most respected sake professionals in the U.S. is Ben Bell.”
“We’re going to make premium sake and sell it on a national level,” Matt Bell said, adding that Origami Sake is not envisioned as a small craft brewery but a larger production concern with plans to brew more than 1 million liters of sake annually.
Wine Enthusiast reported last summer that there were more than 20 sake breweries in the United States, most of them small, craft operations.
Sister City Connection
Ben Bell said that while famous water — “thanks to Mountain Valley [Spring] Water” — and rice played a role in the decision to locate the brewery in Hot Springs, it was really that city’s “sister city” relationship with Hanamaki, Japan, that provided the catalyst for his interest in opening a brewery in Hot Springs.
Hanamaki is the home of the Nanbu Toji brewing guild, “which is the largest and most famous sake brewing guild in all of Japan,” Ben Bell said.
Because he had attended ASMSA in Hot Springs, “I had a Hot Springs connection,” Ben Bell said. He had worked previously at Colonial Wines & Spirits in Little Rock and developed an interest in brewing sake.
“It was the sister city relationship that got me hooked up with my two years working at a sake brewery in Japan, and with the goal of coming back to Arkansas and starting a sake brewery,” he said. “It’s a project that I kind of had in the works for years. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out, and that’s why I ended up taking a job in New York, but credit to my partner, Matt. He really made everything happen on the business side and made it easy for me to come back and be able to see this through.”
Ben Bell, who is a founding member of the Sake Brewers Association of North America, said he expects Origami Sake to have between five and 10 employees when it launches, growing to about 20 at maximum capacity.
Ben Bell noted that because of Matt Bell’s background in green building and solar power, “we’re looking to be a carbon-neutral sake brewery. It was actually one of the big selling points to get me come back and do this.”