WATCH | Origami Sake: A look inside Arkansas’ first sake brewery

Matt Bell, right, has his photo taken with Saddiq Mir following the presentation on Origami Sake at the Rotary Club of Hot Springs National Park meeting. – Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record
Matt Bell, right, has his photo taken with Saddiq Mir following the presentation on Origami Sake at the Rotary Club of Hot Springs National Park meeting. – Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record

After more than a decade of planning to bring a sake brewery to Hot Springs, the idea is finally becoming a reality.

Origami Sake is on the road to opening the first sake brewery in Arkansas, Matt Bell, the president and CEO of the company, said during his presentation to Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club on Wednesday.

Sake is a Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermenting rice. Two important aspects of the drink are water and rice. While Hot Springs provides excellent water to the facility through a well near the brewery's location at 2360 E. Grand Ave., the rice is provided by Isbell Farms at England in Lonoke County.

Matt Bell said, "48% of the rice in the U.S. is grown in Arkansas."

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Although the brewery does have a goal to open a tap room downtown, that's not the ultimate goal, he said.

"A lot of people are thinking, 'Why is this sake bar out in the industrial park,' right?" he said.

"Arkansas has a population of about 3 million people, and as a sake brewery in a tap room, we don't have the population that most of the tap rooms have throughout the country, so Nashville, Brooklyn, Austin. Large cities draw a lot of crowds for that, and that's local business and distribution. We set out to be a national distributor from the start, so that's why our scale is where it is.

"So, if a company like P.F. Chang's or Kroger wants to distribute nationally, or Walmart or Sam's, we have the capacity to meet that demand. That's really our goal."

While Hot Springs' sister city relationship with Hanamaki, Japan has brought both cities many cultural and educational exchanges, the relationship has yet to bring much economic impact. The sake brewery will be one of the first major economic impacts to come from that relationship.

The idea to bring a sake brewery to the Spa originated after a business delegation to Hanamaki, Japan. The original concept, which called for using the "beautiful, clear," water from the natural hot springs, as well as Arkansas rice, for a sake brewery sparked a plan, Mary Zunick, the Sister City program director, said.

The plan then involved finding someone interested in traveling to Japan to learn about sake brewing.

Ben Bell, a graduate of Arkansas School of Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, contacted Zunick around 2013 after learning about Hot Springs' sister city in Japan from a friend.

"He had an intense interest in learning more about sake and a vast background in the spirits industry," Zunick previously told The Sentinel-Record. "He had even worked in a sake brewery at one point for a brief period of time to learn more about sake in another area in Japan."

Ben Bell spent around two years in Japan learning about the sake brewing process, before returning to Arkansas to research the business side of the brewery.

"When he returned in 2016, we met at a friend's wedding," Matt Bell said. "And I said, 'What are you doing?' He's like 'I just got back from Japan. I'm gonna brew sake here in Arkansas.' I said, 'You're crazy.'"

Although he thought the idea was crazy, he also found it intriguing, Matt Bell said. After learning about the potential in Arkansas for the drink, regarding the water and rice, "it just clicked," he said.

The two partnered to create Origami Sake, and Matt Bell became the president and CEO and Ben Bell the vice president.

"Recently, when I had the opportunity, I sold my business Entegrity," Matt Bell said. "This was the one story that kept coming back to me, so I called Ben up and moved him from Manhattan."

Matt Bell then began forming Origami Sake's team, including Justin Potts as the brewery relations manager, Cassady Harris as the operations manager, Brent Miller as the marketing director and Maggie Clip as the community manager.

In about a month, Matt Bell said he hopes the building will be done with construction.

With about 800,000 liters of capacity, Matt Bell hopes to someday upgrade the facility to 1.25 million liters of production, he said.

The brewery will not only be the first sake brewery in Arkansas, but also "might be one of the most sustainable beverages in the United States when we're done with the local sourcing of water, rice and solar power," Matt Bell said.

"It's going to be 100% solar-powered," he said. "From my history with Entegrity, and Green Building, this is a very extremely efficient building."

The plan includes putting a 500-kilowatt solar farm outside the front of the building and obtaining water from the private well, of which the quality tested as "perfect for sake," he said.

"Iron and manganese are terrible for making sake. Ours had no detectable amounts. So, our water is very pristine," he said.

"We're striving also to be a zero waste facility," he added.

While sake was developed in Japan more than 1,500 years ago, it accounts for 8% of sales in Japan, but only 0.2% in the U.S., he said.

"The product they brought over when they introduced sushi in the '60s was futsushu," Matt Bell said. "It was a lower grade sake. It was mass produced, and it was served warm in a little glass. So, that's probably most people's experience of having warm sake. (It) tastes like rubbing alcohol or Band-Aids."

But craft sake, which he compared to wine, "is actually delicious," he said, noting the goal includes distributing to restaurants to add to the wine list.

"The main thing that we have to do with this category is change the perception, and the only way to do that is taste it," he said. "When you taste it, you'll understand."

  photo  A large fermentation tank from Origami Sake's facility is shown. – Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  A Thousand Cranes, Whistling Duck and White Lotus are the first three products Origami Sake plans to launch. – Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record
  photo  The koji room at Origami Sake with Japanese cryptomeria wood stays at about 90 degrees in order to ferment the rice. – Photo by Courtney Edwards of The Sentinel-Record

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