Matt Bell and Ben Bell, partners in Origami Sake, the state’s first sake brewery now under construction in Hot Springs, have a grand design: making Arkansas the “Napa Valley of sake.”
If that comes to pass, they will only be doing what they say Americans have consistently done, with all kinds of alcoholic beverages. “There’s a long — and I think it should be an even more celebrated — history of America taking on an alcoholic beverage from somewhere else and really elevating it to as high as it could be,” said Ben Bell, co-owner of Origami Sake and the company’s vice president of operations. (Although the two Arkansans share a last name, they are not related.)
The pair aim to take advantage of the state’s abundance of rice and the Hot Springs area’s world-renowned water to produce their sake, the Japanese alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice.
“When you hear about business opportunities or ideas, 99% of those are ones that are not good ideas,” Matt Bell said. But the idea for Origami Sake was different. It “stuck with me as being the best for Arkansas and something that we could be first and the leader in and really change the category of sake for the country.”
Matt Bell said he is selling his ownership interest in Entegrity of Little Rock, a solar contractor and energy-efficiency company, and is devoting his full attention to Origami Sake.
There is the Napa Valley and wine comparison, Ben Bell said, but there is also the example of the rural Southern states of Kentucky and Tennessee and the development of bourbon and other whiskeys now known throughout the world. “If you think that you can’t make a famous thing and a very highly respected thing in a rural state, this is clearly not the case,” he said.
Matt Bell’s MFB Investments LLC paid $375,000 in December for 3 acres and a 22,000-SF building at 2360 E. Grand Ave. that is now being transformed into the state’s first sake brewery and one of only about 20 in the United States. Matt Bell said that his investment in the project will total north of $3 million.
The business partners hope to have Origami Sake in full production — and open to the public — by the first of next year.
A tour last week revealed a spotlessly clean space with a decidedly Japanese aesthetic, spare and elegant. Most of the equipment has yet to arrive — the bulk of it is expected in November — but a refrigeration room housed gleaming stainless steel tanks, and a cypress-lined koji room awaited the rice that will be cultivated with the koji mold spores that break down rice starches into sugars.
“Most people are not accustomed to good sake,” Matt Bell said. “I feel like that’s the No. 1 issue,” Ben Bell added. And that is another of Origami Sake’s goals: introducing the public to good sake, craft sake, premium sake.
A Versatile Beverage
Sake is sometimes mistakenly described as Japanese rice wine, but it’s produced using an entirely different process, a process called multiple parallel fermentation in which rice is converted from starch into sugar and then into alcohol. It typically has an alcohol content of 14% to 16%.
Although it’s the national beverage of Japan, sake consumption is declining there because of the aging population, but interest in the beverage is growing worldwide. The global sake market was valued at $9.3 billion in 2019 and it’s expected to grow to $13.1 billion by 2027.
Sake has three main flavors, said Ben Bell, who has professional certifications in wine, spirits and beer. The first is fruity, a flavor that’s provided by the kind of yeast used in production and the most popular in craft sake. The second is a umami-rich style. Umami is a savory flavor, the flavor associated with meats, aged cheeses and soy sauce. The third is a light, dry, crisp style, one that pairs well with delicate foods like light fish, salads and sushi.
The fruity style will be Origami Sake’s “flagship style,” Ben Bell said, but it will start out producing several styles.
Sake, he said, is “one of the most versatile beverages for pairing with food,” but it can also be enjoyed on its own, like a glass of wine, beer or whiskey.
Sake is produced using polished medium-grain rice, meaning rice that has been milled to remove the husk and all but the starchy interior of the rice grain. The more the rice is polished, the more delicate and refined the flavor. Premium sake is generally produced using rice polished to 50% or less.
Isbell Farms of England, which grows Yamada Nishiki rice — often called the “king of rice” for sake — will provide Origami Sake’s rice, but the brewery is also interested in buying from other area farms that produce the Jupiter or Titan rice varieties.
Only a few mills in the United States polish rice for sake. A mill in Minnesota is currently polishing Origami Sake’s rice, but Matt Bell said, “We’re working to open a mill in England, Arkansas, a polishing mill, which will be in the heart of rice country.”
He wasn’t ready to disclose details on those involved in the mill effort, but Origami Sake’s interest lies in reducing transportation costs. “One of the key components of our brewery here is reducing the environmental footprint of what we do [and using] local as much as we can,” Matt Bell said.
Water is the other main component of sake, and for that, Origami Sake dug its own well on the property, drilling down 680 feet. “Our water quality is absolutely perfect for making sake,” Matt Bell said. “It’s the Ouachita Mountains aquifer, and the two things that kill sake are iron and manganese, and we basically had undetectable amounts of those sake killers,” he said. “And the pH [the degree of acidity or alkalinity] is another important factor, and our pH is ideal. It doesn’t have to be adjusted. It’s just pure Hot Springs water.”
The yeast used to make sake is sourced from Japan.
‘A Pretty Special Hire’
In March, Ben Bell, a graduate of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences & the Arts in Hot Springs and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, left his job as assistant Japanese portfolio manager at Michael Skurnik Wines in New York, a wine and spirits distributor, to take on the Origami Sake project. He has recently bought a house in Hot Springs. Matt Bell also has a home in the spa city.
They have hired Justin Potts as master brewer for Origami Sake. “Justin is a pretty special hire in the sake world,” Ben Bell said. “He’s lived in Japan for 15 years and he consults for sake breweries and worked at a great sake brewery. He is about as high up in the sake industry as it gets.”
Potts, originally from Seattle, co-founded the first sake podcast, Sake on Air, and is an excellent educator, Ben Bell said. Potts is moving his family from Japan to Hot Springs.
Cassady Harris, originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, has come aboard as operations manager. He, too, has trained and worked at sake breweries in Japan and consulted on a sake brewery in New Orleans.
Rounding out the top of the team is Brock Bennett, a Canadian, as quality control manager. Bennett is production manager of Dojima Sake Brewery in Fordham, England.
In addition, Nanbu Bijin, the sake brewery in Japan at which Ben Bell trained, “is giving us considerable technical support” and sending a master brewer in November to consult long term with Origami Sake.
The brewery plans to be producing 1.2 million liters of sake by year five and has talked with several local liquor distributors about distributing its products. “We’re going to walk before we run,” Matt Bell said. “We’ve got to perfect our process and our quality, so we’re going to start with a few styles, two or three. Access our distribution. Kind of start here in Arkansas, and as we perfect the consistency and the quality, we’ll start expanding for nationwide distribution.”
“As an Arkansas beverage, we think we can really change the category here and pretty much everywhere in the U.S.,” Matt Bell said.
Ultimately, he said, Origami Sake is about a “sense of place and a sense of care.”