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REX NELSON: The sake ambassador

Ben Bell remembers when he first fell in love with sake, the rice wine that most people associate with Japan. He was working at Colonial Wine & Spirits in Little Rock, one of the largest stores of its type in this part of the country. Colonial's owners take pride in having employees who know what they're talking about.

"I decided that I wanted to know more about everything in the store," Bell says as we have lunch at Little Rock's Lost Forty Brewing. "I took some sake home one night, and I became interested in it. I already knew that Arkansas was the leading rice-growing state in the country, so it made sense to me that we could produce sake here. I later attended a sake event in New York City. A lot of the top craft brands were represented there. That got me even more interested in the subject."

Bell, who grew up near Sheridan, spent his junior and senior years of high school at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in downtown Hot Springs. Though he was a brilliant student, he admits that he had a difficult time staying focused.

While working at Colonial, Bell also played in bands and helped book music acts. His growing interest in sake allowed him to focus on one subject. Bell continued to attend sake events in New York and received a certification. He also found a mentor in John Gauntner, the managing editor and a co-founder of Sake Today magazine. Bell's goal is to open a sake brewery at Hot Springs, a town whose downtown is booming again with new restaurants, boutique hotels and craft breweries. He doesn't have a name for his Arkansas sake brand and still needs investors in his company, but he spent 2014-16 in Japan learning the ins and outs of the business while gaining additional professional certifications.

"The four largest sake breweries in this country are all in California, and they all use the same kind of medium-grain rice," Bell says. "I think there's a market in this country for higher-end brands that are better than what's being produced in California. You have to use special short-grain rice for premium brands, and we mostly grow long-grain in this country."

As luck would have it, there's a farmer in Humnoke named Chris Isbell who has long grown the same varieties of rice used for brewing sake in Japan. "He's the only one I know outside of Japan who's doing this," Bell says.

Bell, who still works some weekends behind the bars of the Big Orange restaurants in Little Rock, says having the types of rice needed for premium sake just down the road makes Arkansas a natural site for a brewery.

"We obviously know how to grow rice in this state, and we have good land for it," Bell says.

The Isbell family has grown rice for almost six decades in Lonoke County after originally growing cotton on their land. In 1988, Isbell, who's always trying to learn more about rice production, was attending a conference in California when he struck up a conversation with a Japanese man. The man, rice economist Shoichi Ito, began explaining the differences between rice grown in Japan and rice grown in this country. He claimed that the best rice for sake could only be grown in Japan. Isbell was determined to prove otherwise. When word spread that the famed Koshi variety of rice was being grown in Arkansas, Isbell was besieged with interview requests from Japanese newspapers and television networks. The NHK network did a 90-minute documentary on the Isbell farm. After California farmers began growing Koshi rice, Isbell switched to more specialized varieties used for premium sake.

He told the Arkansas Times several years ago: "I grew up Baptist so it's a little outside of my comfort zone. You know, my grandma wouldn't be too proud of me. But I'm just growing rice."

Bell thinks Arkansas can be to sake what the Napa Valley of California is to wine.

"When I went to Japan, I discovered that the people I talked to there thought California was the top rice-producing state," Bell says. "They were surprised when I told them that Arkansas grows far more rice than Japan. If we produce sake in Arkansas, however, it needs to be really good. We should be known for quality while California is known for quantity. After I went to Japan, I asked myself: 'If I don't come back to Arkansas and do this, will anyone else do it?' I came to the realization that if it's going to happen, I have to be the one to make it happen."

Bell injured his back while working in a sake brewery in Japan and also struggled to learn to speak Japanese. "It was hard," he admits. "It took about a year for me to get good at speaking Japanese. It also took almost a year to get my body strong enough to do the work I was expected to do. Looking back, it turned out about as well as I could have hoped."

Bell wants to do more than just brew sake in Hot Springs. He hopes to be a sake ambassador, conducting courses at culinary schools in Little Rock and Bentonville while helping others open sake breweries in Arkansas. He has a commitment from the sake brewery where he worked in Japan to help with the Hot Springs operation. The rice will be grown in Arkansas. Bell expects about half the employees to come from Arkansas with the other half coming from Japan. Bell's enthusiasm for sake is contagious.

"If you put a quality bottle of sake in front of somebody, they will spread the word," he says. "It's more approachable than wine, and it's easier to pair with food. The more people making good sake in Arkansas, the better."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 12/06/2017

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