Ben Bell and the Arkansas Sake Society organize tastings | Rock Candy

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ben Bell and the Arkansas Sake Society organize tastings

Posted By on Thu, May 2, 2013 at 1:37 PM

Ben Bell Sake Society image
  • James Williamson
I have sipped sake at restaurants, but I’ve rarely seen it poured from a bottle. Sake and I have just begun to get to know one another. We hadn’t really interacted until recently, when I spent some time with the founder of the Sake Society of Arkansas, Ben Bell.

Bell just returned from Japan in late March, where he acquired his Advanced Sake Professional certification from the Sake Education Council. Only 109 people in the world have received this unique certification. During his first week in Japan, Bell traveled via bullet train to breweries throughout the country to taste varieties of sake. Each stop hosted a class led by the Sake Evangelist, John Gauntner. “So we had time to see the highest level of sake brewing in Japan,” Bell said to me over a glass of sake on my porch. “It was a treat, some of the breweries didn’t export to the US.”

The final exam asked Bell to answer questions like where a particular sake was brewed or what brewing steps were used for this another sake? Bell then traveled north to Tendō, a small town pocketed between Japan’s snowcapped mountains. He stayed there for two weeks and applied his advanced certification. “I tasted sake straight from the press and learned what’s bottled and what’s pasteurized,” he said. Fortunately for Bell, he experienced hands-on sake brewing, a real rarity, as he endured Tendō’s frigid winter. “The work was done mostly by hand and that’s where I broke my back. Really, my back is still sore,” he said, pointing at it. “Hours would pass and you would realize that the brewery was as cold inside as it was outside. We were essentially brewing in the snow.”

Since the 1980s, Japanese milling industries have advanced significantly in efforts to trim grains with more precision. “It’s not really about how much you can take off the grain, but about how much pure starch you can get from the grain,” Bell said. Milling methodologies have produced higher quality sake at the hazard of reeling in lower profits. Over the past two years, sake has evened out and slightly maneuvered itself back on the market, still straggling behind beer, wine, and liquor. It seems that American culture has slowly regained interests. Kind of like the arrival of European wine — Americans have gone from skepticism to fascination. Meanwhile, brewers in the US have been fishing for higher quality rice. Everyone’s waiting for that one pure grain.

Recently, Bell organized a tasting at Zin Urban Wine and Beer Bar. Good conversation unfolded as we surveyed six different sakes on display, including a bottle that Bell brought back from Japan. Over the next three months Zin Urban Wine and Beer Bar will host more sake tastings. If you would like a bottle before the next one, try Colonial Wines & Spirits, where Bell greatly expanded the sake selection during his tenure there.

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