Going with the grain
Arkansas sake brewery founders hope to spark revolution in rice-drinking
Nearly every sake story in U.S.-based publications opens with a historical vignette.
Not one about the Japanese imperial court secretaries who 2,500 years ago interspersed their written reports on soil conditions and strange weather events with references to a beverage made from rice and mold. Instead, these stories start with the writer remembering when he was foolish enough to believe sake was always served summer sidewalk-hot in a handleless cup. Americans!
For Ben Bell, vice president of Origami Sake Company in Hot Springs, Arkansas, though, any discussion of sake begins with a moment located between those two hash marks on the global timeline, one which hints at how he and his fellow sake believers hope to finally bring their beloved beverage into everyday drinking culture.
Ben keeps a pair of empty wine bottles at Origami.1 One of Ben’s spent bottles bears a Heitz Cellars label. The other once held Haut-Médoc from Margaux.
These are props that Ben uses when he tells brewery visitors about what became known as the Judgment of Paris, the legendary 1976 showdown between Napa Valley and Bordeaux wine makers. Following a blind tasting, French judges ruled the winners came from California. Americans!
Since then, the event has been relitigated, recreated, and dramatized in two different movies, because nothing changed the trajectory of American grown-and-made wine quite like the Judgment, which in the U.S. transformed fermented grape juice for the la-di-da set into a $79 billion business. These days, the average American drinks roughly three gallons of wine a year.
When Ben brings out his bottles, he’s suggesting that sake’s own tipping point in this country could be drawing near, despite the fact that the category is now represented on a mere 2% of U.S. restaurant menus.
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