**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

One of my favorite parts of researching our forthcoming book on craft sake has been talking to farmers who grow sake rice. They harbor a deep, parental love for the earth and the crops they coax out of it and beam with pride when a sake they helped create wins a prize or is singled out for praise. They endure the uncertainty, anxiety and heartache that comes with being subject to the mercy of nature and climate, and they often lament that there is no one willing to follow in their footsteps.

As the future of sake becomes increasingly dependent on international sales of the drink, we will likely see more and more sake rice cultivation outside of Japan. One American farmer who is well positioned to take advantage of this growth is Chris Isbell, a third-generation farmer from Lonoke County in Central Arkansas.

Growing up in California, I knew a little about Japanese rice cultivation in the Sacramento Valley. But it was fascinating to learn that Arkansas is the largest rice-growing region in the U.S. and that in 1988, Isbell pioneered the cultivation of premium Japanese sake rice in America. Of all the rice varieties Isbell grows on his 3,000 acres of farmland (in addition to the four sake rice varieties he tends to several different varieties of medium- and long-grain rice) his family’s favorite is Japanese Koshihikari table rice.

Although Japanese rice accounts for only about five percent of Isbell Farms’ total production, its Yamada Nishiki has been turned into award-winning ginjo sakes for Berkeley, Calif.-based Takara Sake USA. Isbell regularly supplies Yamada Nishiki to Saké One in Portland, Ore. and Nami in Culiacán, Mexico as well.

Yamada Nishiki is native to Hyogo Prefecture and famous for growing best in its southwestern Banshu, or Harima region. One reason for Isbell’s success at growing the “king of sake rice,” as Yamada Nishiki is often called, is that although central Arkansas and Hyogo Prefecture are nearly 7,000 miles apart, they share almost the exact same latitude. The second is that they are home to a similar soil type: nutrient-rich clay. Though Arkansas lacks a third key factor in Banshu’s secret formula, wide-ranging daytime temperature shifts, it does share its high humidity. The farmer’s lifetime of experience as a rice farmer helps offset climate and other differences. One adjustment he’s made, for example, is to delay the planting of his Yamada Nishiki so that it mimics the late-harvest pattern of its Japanese counterpart and finishes ripening in cooler autumn temperatures.

While large breweries such as Takara and Saké One have in-house rice polishing machines, for all of his other milling needs Isbell works with Blake Richardson’s Minneapolis Rice and Milling.

For Richardson, rice polishing was a sideline that had grown out of his sake brewery and izakaya, which in 2008 became the first such business to open outside of Japan. In 2014, he saw an article in the Arkansas Times about Isbell that coined the term “Arkan-sake.” He had heard of Isbell even earlier, though, from his friend Kjetil Jikiun, the airplane pilot-turn sake brewer at Norway’s pioneering Nøgne Ø (sadly it is no longer making sake). With characteristic single mindedness Richardson contacted Isbell and asked, “Can I come down there the day after tomorrow?” Isbell remembers being impressed that the brewer offered sake on tap and the two formed a business relationship that continues to this day.

Several years before meeting Richardson, Isbell received seeds for  Gohyakumangoku, Omachi and Wataribune rice from GRIN-Global (Germplasm Resource Information Network), a joint project of the USDA and The Crop Trust that was conceived as a global gene bank information system.

Isbell, who exudes a quiet confidence, l tells me that the latter two crops, Omachi and Wataribune, are in the very early stages of production. He tends to not want to plant until he knows he’s got a customer for the rice because it’s complicated to juggle different varieties in small craft brewery quantities. But it’s worth it to him to experiment with these varieties because he knows the demand will arrive one day.  “Everyone seems to still want the Yamada,” he explains, “but it’s going to be like craft beer breweries, eventually everyone is going to want something a little different. I’m not in a hurry,” he adds. “You kind of have to wait on the market to catch up. I learned patience doing crosses [cross breeding rice varieties], which take seven to eight years to get to where you want them—and from having children.”

 The first American brewers to get their hands on Isbell’s Omachi—my favorite heirloom variety—were Richardson and Brandon Doughan at Brooklyn Kura. The crop first traveled to Minneapolis Rice and Milling for polishing, where Richardson kept some for himself and sent the rest to Brooklyn. Doughan, Brooklyn Kura’s co-founder and head brewer, specified a 65% polishing ratio and was pleased with the result of his first attempt at brewing with the rice. “I found it to be very soft and needing a very short soak time,” Doughan says, “one of the shortest of any rice types and milling rates I’ve used in the past.” Richardson, too, who brewed a 65% polished Omachi with Yeast #6, says he was “delighted with the flavors the rice produced.”

Although Isbell is still waiting for a market for the rice to develop, Richardson too, is confident it will materialize. “There is a premium attached to good rice,” he notes: “yields per acre are far less than table rice so it costs more to produce.” But as American brewers come to understand its benefits, “most obviously its superior flavor,”  he says, he believes more will opt to brew with high-quality sake rice.

Doughan’s description of the softness of Omachi was in keeping with what we learned when we visited the heart of Japan’s Omachi-growing country, Okayama Prefecture’s Akaiwa district. There, farmers and brewers told us that the extremely tall rice plants and the very soft rice grains they produce are especially difficult to grow and tricky to polish and brew with, too. But early reports from Isbell, Richardson and Doughan indicate that the intricacies of growing and working with this heirloom rice are well within their grasp. “I’ve only grown about fifteen or twenty acres,” says Isbell. Although by Japanese paddy field standards, that’s a sizeable amount, it’s a drop in the bucket for Isbell. “It lodged (meaning the heads blew over), but our equipment (including a specially fitted combine designed to handle lodged rice) has made working with the rice easier. For his part, Doughan says, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how it tastes and ferments,” noting that Brooklyn Kura’s Omachi sold out quickly and that he plans to brew more of it.

Isbell has recently released a new option for sake brewers called SoMai. It’s a southern medium-grain table rice, he explains, a bit less sticky than the California staple table rice variety Calrose that many brewers use to make sake. It has been well received by brewers. He’s marketing it as a lower-cost variety that brewers can use for their less premium sake, allowing them to budget more for their premium labels. When I ask Isbell what the parentage of his SoMai is, he prefers not to divulge that. The reason, he says, goes back to his earliest days growing Japanese table rice in the 1980s.

For that story, as well as the tale of how Isbell became a celebrity rice farmer in Japan and was visited by busloads of Japanese tourists, you’ll have to wait for Part II for this post. I’ll also tell you about some of the farm’s impressive sustainability practices, and the Arkansas plant geneticist who tracked down 800 varieties of Japanese rice in the USDA’s germplasm bank and traced them all back to one “unknown Japanese rice variety.” So stay tuned!