Arkansas family grows, markets specialty rices for burgeoning craft sake industry.
• By Vicky Boyd,
For years, Chris Isbell of Humnoke, Arkansas, has been growing different Japanese short-grain rice varieties experimentally, with the goal of producing them commercially for use in high-end sake. His plans are finally coming to fruition, backed by family members who have joined to help produce, brand and market the varieties under the Isbell Farms logo.
“We’re 100% rice on this farm, and that has worked well,” said son Mark Isbell. “We don’t have any diversity within our crops, and this gives us a little more exposure to different markets that hedge our risk in a different way. And I like that aspect of it.”
While the bulk of the Isbells’ acreage remains in hybrids, the family hopes to nurture its sake rice business in the coming years.
Isbell Farms also has partnered with Blake Richardson, owner of Minnesota Rice and Milling, for polishing and distributing their rice. Not only has Richardson learned the fine art of milling rice for sake, but he is a brewer himself.
Four simple ingredients
Following a path much like craft beer breweries did more than a decade ago when they began producing small batches of specialty beers, craft sake breweries are just emerging on the scene.
Described by some as a national obsession in Japan, many sakes are made from rice, water, yeast and koji, spores of the Aspergillus oryzae fungus used to inoculate the steamed rice. The fungus breaks down the rice starch into sugar, which the yeast can then ferment.
But unlike beer brewing, which relies on different grains, malting techniques and hops to impart flavors, sake leans heavily on the delicate flavors of different rice varieties, koji and yeast. Even the extent to which rice is milled — 50% versus 70%, for example — can affect the beverage’s nuanced flavor balance.
Arkansas shares latitude with Japan
Chris, who has visited Japan seven times, started with Yamada Nishiki, the preferred rice variety used in that country’s high-end sakes. Although growing sake rice in Arkansas may raise some eyebrows, he pointed to the state’s location in relation to Hyogo, Japan, renowned for its premium sake rice. Both share almost the same latitude and have similar soils.
Chris imported seed from Japan in the mid-1990s, going through the proper U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine steps.
Then came the arduous task of seed increase that involved planting rows and harvesting them by hand. Joining Chris were Mark, nephew Shane Isbell and son-in-law Jeremy Jones.
“It was one of the ones in the plots that was really scary looking,” Jeremy said of Yamada Nishiki, which can be a fickle variety to grow. “It lodged and the straw is very wiry and tough.”
Compared to the popular short-grain variety, Koshihikari, the Yamada Nishiki is about twice as tall.
They stored the seed in the freezer each season, eventually accumulating enough to plant an entire field.
The rise of premium sake
The Isbells have also begun growing the varieties Omachi, Watari Bune and Gohyakumangoku, all for the high-end sake market. But Chris said he realized that not all brewers produce for upper-tier buyers, so they now also grow SoMai, a quality medium grain, for mid-tier brewers.
SoMai differs from California Calrose-type medium-grain varieties in that it is a single variety.
“They can brew sake consistently from one batch to the next while also filling the need for the mid-tier application,” Chris said.
Calrose, on the other hand, describes a class of medium grains that includes a number of different varieties.
The Isbells made their first big sale a few years ago when they were approached by a high-end Pacific Coast sake brewer. That brewer has since won international awards for its sake made using Isbell specialty rices.
The fine art of milling
A serendipitous query through a mutual acquaintance in of all places, Norway, brought the Isbells together with Richardson of Minnesota Rice and Milling in Fridley, Minnesota. In addition, he owns moto-i, at one time the nation’s only sake brew pub.
Milling sake rice requires specialized machinery and a knowledgeable operator, Chris said. “You have to go really slow or you’ll break the rice,” he said.
If you run the mill too fast, the kernels overheat and are more prone to cracking. The goal is to polish off the exterior layers while maintaining the whole kernel.
A 70% polished batch, for example, can take up to eight hours to mill, while a 50% batch can take up to 48 hours non-stop.
The amount of kernel removed, or polished, during milling affects the quality of the sake.
Rice where 50% of the kernel is remaining generally is used for a higher-end sake than rice with 60% remaining.
A family affair
Within the Isbell family sake rice endeavor, family members have taken on different tasks. Mark designed the four-color booklet that explains the family’s rice-growing philosophy. It also highlights the sake rice varieties they grow and each one’s characteristics.
In addition, Mark helps find new markets and potential buyers. He came up with the idea of developing a sake rice sample box to showcase the family’s offerings.
Although his sister, Whitney Jones, liked the idea, she suggested they use a series of small jars to really showcase the rice rather than vacuum-sealed plastic bags as Mark had proposed.
Putting together the boxes became an evening family event as requests came pouring in. Whitney laughed that she had to split the mailings so she wouldn’t overwhelm the small post office in Humnoke. The family also is on their second printing of the informational booklet that accompanies the samples.
Slow but steady
Nevertheless, building a customer base hasn’t happened overnight.
“It’s a slow process in this industry because (the brewers) have long schedules,” Mark said. “But we have definitely seen an uptick in interest and orders.”
“COVID didn’t help either,” Jeremy added. “We want it to grow, but it’s going to have to grow as the market does. It’s something that you don’t want to over-produce or under-produce.”
Jeremy, along with Mark and Shane, take care of the sake rice fields throughout the growing season.
Jeremey’s son, Harrison, proposed the farm have a professionally designed logo to brand all of its social media content and promotional materials. He also films much of the video content that makes its way to Isbell Farm’s social media sites. Jeremy’s daughter, Alayna, edits the sometimes hours of video content into much shorter films that appeal to viewers.