Sake, a Japanese alcoholic drink, is overall a rarity in the United States. Few Americans have had the chance to try it, and fewer still have had sake of good quality. You might not expect Arkansas to be the place where that finally changes, but that’s just what Origami Sake in Hot Springs is meant to do.
Matt Bell, president and founder of Origami Sake, is an Arkansas entrepreneur who was formerly co-founder and partner at Entegrity, a solar power company. In 2016, he met Ben Bell (no relation), who had recently returned from Japan, where he studied the art of making sake at Nanbu Bijin brewery (sake is sometimes called rice wine, but the production process more closely resembles that of beer).
Ben pitched the idea of a sake brewery to Matt, saying, “Arkansas should be the Napa Valley of sake.” That idea stuck with Matt for years, and when he sold Entegrity in 2022, he reached out to Ben to make it happen.
“Basically, what we’re capitalizing on is the fact that Arkansas is the largest rice grower in the US with over 40% of the rice,” Matt said. “In particular we grow sake rice, which is called sakamai, through Isbell Farms in the Humnoke/England area. Also, Hot Springs has some of the best water quality in the world. When you’re making sake, water and rice are the two most important ingredients.”
Bringing those ingredients together is a team of experienced brewers including Ben Bell, Cassady Harris, who previously started the first sake brewery in Louisiana, Eric Morris, previously of Lost 40 and Justin Potts, who spent many years in Japan as a sake expert and consultant. In addition, the Nanbu Bijin brewery where Ben learned the craft has been contracted to provide Origami Sake with a consulting Master Brewer named Satoshi Tamakawa, who will be on location for 6 months out of the year.
Origami Sake seeks to create an experience that will suit western markets and cuisine, rather than just mimicking what comes out of Japan.
“What we’re trying to do is create a national-international brand for sake,” Matt said. “Our main focus is more along the wine drinker category as opposed to the sake market. The sake market is fairly small in the U.S. at only about .02% of the beverage market, whereas wine is about 11%.
“We’re making a wine-drinker sake, as I would call it, it’s very balanced and fruit-forward. And our styles and our marketing designs are designed to meet American consumers; we’ve designed our labels to be accessible and easy for customers to understand and not be confused with Japanese terminology. Then the style of the sake itself will be very accepted by a person drinking a white or red wine.”
With a 24,000 square foot facility set to officially open on May 20, Origami Sake will be able to produce roughly a million liters per year, making it one of, if not the largest, domestically-owned sake breweries in the United States. Through a partnership with Little Rock-based Moon Distributors, Matt said that their products will be available in liquor stores, grocery stores and restaurant wine lists across the state. Furthermore, he hopes to capitalize on Arkansas’s central location to expand into the wider American market.
Only one style of sake will be available upon opening, but more recipes are currently in testing. Two more styles will be available soon with the plan of eventually having a lineup of six core products. There will also be seasonal products and special releases in limited quantities. These will tie in with a membership program, where Origami Sake will send exclusive batches alongside mainline products to members, who will also be able to pick up products at the company’s brewery and tap room locations along with tastings with sake professionals.
Thanks to Matt’s previous experience in the solar industry, all of Origami Sake’s electricity needs will be provided by solar power. Isbell Farms also uses solar-powered irrigation, and both the farm and the brewery use locally-sourced water, so Origami Sake’s products will be some of the most sustainable beverages on the market.
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