'People of Sake' - Ben Bell
Ben Bell is from Akansas and has been training to make sake at Nanbu Bijin in Iwate, Japan for the past two years. We chat to him about what he has been doing and his plans to open a sake brewery in the USA.
Ben tell us a bit about your background and what you are currently doing in the world of sake.
Most of my professional life has been selling various types of alcohol at restaurants and retail. I was lucky to start working for a specialty wine shop when I was about 23 years old. Being surrounded by so many types of wines was intimidating but also very exciting. Learning wine itself was fun, but I really enjoyed studying more about the winemaking countries themselves. The local food, the geography, the history, all of it helped me understand the bottles in front of me. So I had all the motivation to keep learning.
Wine was my specialty for years, but that eventually expanded out to spirits, beer, and of course sake. The whole world of drinks is fascinating to me and seems to have a very deep connection to human culture. Now I focus solely on sake brewing, but I still enjoy all kinds of drinks. And I have been training here at Nanbu Bijin Shuzo in Ninohe, Iwate prefecture for the past two years.
When did you decide you wanted to do “SAKE?”
About eight or nine years ago, two things happened. The first was when the liquor store I worked at received a real craft sake to start selling. I remember taking a bottle home and pouring it in to a wine glass to see how it compared to wine. I was very surprised at the composition and quality. It was my first inkling that there was more to sake than most people realized.
And not long after that a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to try home brewing sake. He knew I was getting more into sake. And he had been to Japan several times, so he was interested as well. It's also important to know that my home state, Arkansas, is the largest rice producer in the US. So the subject of making sake comes up more than you might think. Anyways we had a lot of fun making a batch. That specifically got me interested in production.
Take us through your typical workday at Nanbu Bijin?
Depending on what jobs I am doing I will either arrive at 7:30 or 8:00am. At 7:30 we do a job called "dekoji", where finished koji is taken out of the drying room and moved to the fermentation tanks or starter batch tanks. And then we do a little more work in the koji room. After that, steaming is finished at 9:00am sharp everyday. My job is usually is to shovel out the steamed rice into a big cooling machine called a "houreiki". We usually steam about a metric ton of rice at a time, so shovelling that out is one of the harder jobs. That rice then goes to the fermentation tanks and the koji room and more work is done there.
After that is cleaning, cleaning, cleaning! And later in the day I help move a new batch of washed rice into the steamer for the next day. That's a typical day for me, but of course there are different jobs to do depending on where we are in the season.
What's the hardest part about making sake that you have experienced at Nanbu Bijin?
The hardest part for me is a combination of how physically demanding the work is combined with needing to communicate in only in Japanese. There's a lot of physical work to do in a craft brewery, and I was not in good shape when I started here. So I found myself constantly fighting exhaustion. And when you're exhausted, it's so much harder to understand and speak a foreign language. And so I was very tired and unable to communicate for a long time. That was one of the hardest things I've ever experienced in my life. And I got through it by always telling myself that things were going to get better if I just stuck with it. Which turned out to be true, but I still wish I had prepared more before coming.
What's been your most memorable sake experience so far?
Well after eight or so years, I have so many great memories. The first time I homebrewed sake, traveling to Tokyo to take an advanced sake test, coming to Nanbu Bijin, and even working on a farm making sake rice in the off season. All of those memories are special, but probably the most important moment for me was the first time I actually came to a Japanese brewery to train. That was in Yamagata prefecture four years ago. I was only training for two weeks, but they made it a point to show me as much as possible, which I really appreciate. But the most memorable part came when I worked so much that I injured my lower back. I had never experienced an injury like that. I remember having a conversation with the owner of the brewery about it, and he said it could become permanent if I didn't take care. But it never crossed my mind to stop. I took a couple extra days off, but I still finished the two weeks.
When I got back to the US, I kept resting and waiting for my back to get better. It never did. The injury was permanent. And then I had one of those very human moments where I had to question my dream and understand that my body is not going to last forever. Could I still brew with a bad back? Did I even want to brew after that experience? The answer of course was "yes". Something in the back of my mind was saying, "you have to keep trying or you'll regret it." Sake has so much potential outside of Japan. And it just always seemed like the perfect fit for Arkansas, because we produce so much rice (and now real sake rice). I tried to think of excuses to quit and do something else, but I couldn't. Sake was the best opportunity I was likely ever going to have in my life, and I had to continue on.
So ever since that time, I don't really question this path anymore. I know if I'm motivated enough to keep going after that, then I can see this through. So that was maybe not a fun memory, but I think it was the most important.
And by the way, I have since learned that back injuries are fairly common in sake brewing. Talking with other people who work with bad backs helped me so much, and now I just wear a back brace when it's time for heavy lifting.
What style of sake are you into at the moment?
This a very hard question, because I'm looking for a little bit of everything at the moment! Sakes that pair well with fatty meats and ginjo sake that can be warmed up are very interesting to me. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how to balance the bitterness of Miyama Nishiki rice with sweetness. That's something I want to do in the future, but we do not have Miyama Nishiki in Arkansas, yet. Right now, I just want to keep trying more of everything and expand my knowledge.
What are your next steps as far as your SAKE dream is concerned?
Very soon I will be finishing my internship here at Nanbu Bijin and returning home to the US. My plan is to do about a year of prep and hopefully open a new sake brewery in Hot Springs, Arkansas next year. Hot Springs is sister cities with Hanamaki, Iwate. And both sides of that relationship helped set up this internship at Nanbu Bijin. Arkansas is already growing sake rice including Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku, and our water is great. So I just have to bring the brewing. Right now I'm transitioning more to the business side of things. Overall I'd say everything is on track. Of course one can never really know the future, but barring some crazy unforeseen circumstances I think I'll be brewing good sake in my home state in the next two years!
Thanks Ben – Keep up the awesome work and good luck with the brewing! Kanpai!