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SAKE MEETS THE SOUTH: Origami Sake to land in Hot Springs by end of year

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

Word of the Day: Sake (pronounced sa-ke)

: A Japanese alcoholic beverage of fermented rice.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Sake. In dictionary. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from

Origami Sake on E. Grand Ave.

Through a relationship with Hanamaki, Japan, in Hot Springs's Sister City Program, Japanese culture has been blending with the southern society of Hot Springs for nearly three decades. Now, the cultural merge continues as Hot Springs prepares for its very own — and not to mention Arkansas's very first — sake brewery expected to open by the end of the year.

Meet Origami Sake: a project that has been a decade in the making.

Sister City Program Executive Director Mary Zunick said a business delegation was taken with the Sister City program in 2012, and one of the takeaways was to find an Arkansan to go to Japan and learn about sake production.

In October of 2013, Zunick was contacted by Sheridan, Arkansas, native and ASMSA* alum Ben Bell, who was the ideal candidate with both travel experience to Japan, and an immense interest in sake production. Bell left for Japan with the Sister City Program in 2014, and returned in 2016.

Bell is now the vice president of Origami Sake, alongside president Matt Bell**. Together, the two plan to create a Japanese product using Arkansas ingredients — creating a delicious sake of the south.

Origami Sake will get its yamada nishiki rice from England, Arkansas's Isbell Farms — one of two farms in the U.S. that grow this sake rice.

Yamada Nishiki Rice

"It's really been a slow build and a bet for them that sake was going to become a thing, and certainly what I was hoping for," Ben Bell said of the farm that has grown yamada nishiki rice for the past 20 years, alongside its long grain rice.

"... It's a credit to them that they had this vision of seeing this happen in Arkansas, and I'm really happy that we're going to be the first direct customer for them in Arkansas."

Bell said yamada nishiki rice is the best sake rice, "period."

"This is like the Cabernet Sauvignon of sake rice, except I would say this is more important than Cabernet Sauvignon is to grapes," Bell said. "This is like the number one by far."

Once production is up and running, Origami will sell all over the country. Bell named the New York Metro Area as a large U.S. sake market, but said he hopes Arkansans will take this on as a local beverage.

"Even if it is kind of a new category, it's made 100% from Arkansas rice, great Hot Springs water*** — there's a lot of Arkansas in it," Bell said.

Restauranteurs interested in carrying Origami Sake upon its release can contact the brewery at Bell said he is hopeful to add a taproom for their product to downtown Hot Springs within the next year.

Bell describes sake as both sweet and savory. He said its savoriness is what makes the beverage versatile while pairing with food of even the boldest flavors, like southern favorites.

"I'm excited to get it in fried catfish and crawfish places," Bell said.

As for branching out with different sake flavors, Bell said, "sake's pretty delicious on its own, so we kind of want to show off what sake can do on its own. ... I like the philosophy of starting with the basics."

Origami Sake is located at 2360 E. Grand Ave. Inside, there are quite a few elements paying homage to the Japanese culture.

Upon entering, guests will find a reception desk, and will be able to purchase a bottle of Origami Sake. There will not be a bar in the brewery, but public tours will be given and private events may be booked.

Tasting Education

In the neighboring room guests will find a "tasting education" area that includes a kitchen with a backsplash made of fragrant sugi**** imported from Japan, tables also made of sugi, Japanese literature and pieces of Bell's sake cup and bottle collection from Japan.

Upstairs is an apartment where guests from Japan will be welcome to stay, but is also for the brewers staying overnight.

Bonus: Origami is green!

Previously a spice blending company and flour mill, the location of Origami Sake is ideal for a brewery, and its height will allow for an environmentally-friendly gravity system in milling the rice.

"Everything is minimizing energy usage," Bell said. "We're letting gravity do as much work as possible. In addition to that, we're going to have solar panels in the front of the building, and the idea is to do 100% solar power for the brewery." The necessity of a carbon neutral brewery comes from President Matt Bell, who has a background with the solar power company Integrity.

More about the Sister City Program

The following information is from the City of Hot Springs:

The sister city relationship between Hot Springs and Hanamaki, Japan officially began on January 15, 1993, after a group of Hanamaki residents combed the United States and found Hot Springs to be a perfect fit. Since then, many friendships, greater understanding, and a mutual respect have grown out of the steady cultural, educational, and artistic exchanges between cities.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, each fall, Hanamaki would send a student delegation to Hot Springs. Plans are to resume in 2023. Sister school relationships have been established between Sasama Daini Elementary School and Fountain Lake Elementary School, as well as Hanamaki Higashi High School and Lakeside High School. Additionally, in the Spring of 2007, Hot Springs and Jessieville Middle Schools became sister schools to Hanamaki and Ohasama Junior High Schools, respectively, during signing ceremonies at both schools in Hot Springs.

Hanamaki's Influence:

Gardens Hanamaki officials have shown a keen interest in Garvan Woodland Gardens from its inception. The Japanese influence is easily seen in the Garden of the Pine Wind, which the Japanese named and provided design input. They also helped name and dedicate the Sunrise Bridge, and presented a pagoda sculpture to further grace the gardens. Hanamaki Permanent Exhibit In 2001, Hanamaki officials helped dedicate the Hanamaki Permanent Exhibit at the Hot Springs Civic & Convention Center. The museum-quality exhibit features a core sampling of contemporary Japanese folk art, as well as an authentic Deer Dancer costume, a famous symbol of Hanamaki culture. The costume was presented as a gift from Hanamaki to Hot Springs during grand opening ceremonies for the Hot Springs Convention Center in December 1998. During the Sister City’s 20th Anniversary celebration held in October 2013, a 45-member delegation visited Hot Springs from Hanamaki. Members of the Hot Springs National Park Sister City Foundation raised funds to erect a silhouette statue of Kenji Miyazawa, a replica of a statue at the museum in Hanamaki dedicated to this famous poet’s life work. That statue can be found in front of the Hot Springs Convention Center. In honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Sister City relationship, The City of Hanamaki gifted the people of Hot Springs a special crystal light sculpture, part of a collection of crystals created to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa’s birth. The crystal can be found in the main concourse of the Hot Springs Convention Center. Sister City Mural A mural which will ultimately feature artwork representing the four seasons of the year in Hanamaki was began in 2018 by Pepe Gaka. Gaka is an Italian artist who lived in Japan for several years and has also spent a significant amount of time in Hot Springs with numerous murals that can be seen around the city. The first segment of the mural featured a winter seen of one of Hanamaki’s most famous onsen, Osawa onsen. The spring mural is one of Hanamaki’s many shrines surrounded by the beautiful sakura, cherry blossoms, in full bloom. Summer and fall additions are planned in the coming year. The mural is located at 833 Central Avenue.

*Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the arts, located in Hot Springs.

**There is no familial relation between Ben Bell and Matt Bell.

*** Not Hot Springs's thermal water, but simply local ground water.

**** Sugi is a Japanese cyprus.

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