"I'm no expert," Chris Isbell said as he handed me a glass of sake, the signature alcoholic beverage of Japan, made from water and fermented rice. "I don't know good sake from bad sake. I just grow rice."
This is a favorite line of Isbell's — "I just grow rice" — but it's a bit of an understatement. The 58-year-old Lonoke County farmer put Arkansas on the map in the Japanese culinary world 25 years ago when he began growing and selling Koshihikari, a renowned varietal of premium-quality rice that many once believed could only be grown in Japan. Now he's growing Yamada Nishiki, the most prized varietal of sake rice in the world and one that no one else — at least publicly — is growing on any marketable scale in the United States.
My own previous experience with sake is probably typical for Americans, if they've tried it at all: I've ordered sake at a Japanese restaurant. That leads to a "terrible first impression" of sake for new drinkers, said Big Orange bar manager Ben Bell, who trained in Tokyo in 2013 to be a certified advanced sake professional; he's one of around 100 foreigners in the world who've earned that dictinction in Japan. Typically, Bell said, you'll get served bad sake made from low-quality rice.
The sake I tried from Isbell was a sample that a Japanese sake company made from Yamada Nishiki rice that Isbell grew on his farm in Humnoke. Here was an entirely different drink: crisp, complex and refreshing, with a powerful floral aroma and vibrant taste of tropical fruit.
"I don't particularly like it," Isbell said. "But they say it's right."
The sake is not yet on the retail market, but is being tested in elite restaurants in major markets, with good results so far.
If high-quality Yamada Nishiki and other elite sake rice varietals start being grown in the United States (it would be prohibitively expensive for sake brewers to ship the rice from Japan), it would be a game-changer for sake production in this country, Bell said. "I almost can't overstate what a big deal that would be in the sake community."
For Bell, who hopes to one day open a sake brewery in Central Arkansas, it is particularly happy news that one of the nation's biggest developments in sake rice farming is happening just down the road. Bell first heard rumors about what Isbell was up to at a sake conference in New York. It might sound weird — sake in Arkansas! — but Bell wasn't entirely surprised.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that Arkansas has some of the best rice land in the world," he said. "We can just grow things that are difficult to grow in other places, and we also have very considerable rice farming skill. ... Good on Chris for taking on the challenge. Somebody's got to be the first to do it."
Chris Isbell's grandfather grew cotton in Lonoke County, as did his great-grandfather before that. His father, Leroy Isbell, originally wanted to be a veterinarian. Then World War II came along: Leroy joined the Navy, and after he got home, the GI bill offered him $90 a month to go to agricultural school. He went to class and used that $90 a month to finance and grow his first crop of rice. And that's what the Isbells have been doing ever since.
By 1949, Leroy Isbell bought what is now Isbell Farms. If you're heading up Highway 13 in Humnoke — population 284, a little hamlet of farmland due east of England — just before Rowes Chapel Baptist Church, you'll see a sign: "First State Bank salutes Leroy Isbell. Rice grown 54 consecutive years in this field."
"It's going to be 55 this year," Chris Isbell said. "We don't ever change the sign 'til we've planted."
Chris, 58, runs the family farm these days, with help from his son, son-in-law and a cousin. Leroy, 89, who just this year stopped working the fields, was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame last month for his role in helping to pioneer an innovative irrigation technique that has become common in rice fields throughout the world.
So a knack for rice is in the family, but when I asked Chris Isbell whether he always knew he wanted to be a rice farmer, he smiled and shook his head.
"No, I don't know," he said. "I suppose everybody's like this. I still don't know what I want to do."
He loves growing rice, he said, but he always has a hankering for something new. One of his favorite television shows is "Gold Rush," a reality program about men who go off to Alaska to mine for gold. Isbell watches on Friday nights and thinks, I could do that.
"I'm always trying to find something nobody else finds," Isbell said. "I like to have at least three things going at the same time. If it drops below that I'm kind of uncomfortable. Gotta have a bunch of things I'm playing with. Switching back and forth, working on some experiment."
This is the thing about Isbell: Though he has lived on the same farm his entire life, make no mistake, he is a seeker. He always has that itch, to tinker and learn and discover. Maybe he got it from his father, who back in the '70s looked at the inefficient irrigation system Arkansas rice farmers were using at the time and decided there had to be a better way. ("Just because your daddy did something a certain way, doesn't mean it's right!" Leroy told "Rice Farming" when the Isbells were named Farmers of the Year by the magazine in 1996. "Maybe you can do better.")
"I'm adventurous, I guess," Chris Isbell said. "You can tell me, this is the way something works. And I want to know why. Always been that way. I like looking just a little deeper into everything, for some reason."
So if Isbell was going to be a rice grower, he was going all in. He was going to experiment.
That meant hunting for more information at conferences across the country.
"Back then, nobody really went to these," Isbell said. "It was just the researchers and the Ph.D.'s, presenting their papers and talking about what was new in rice. I wanted to be there and find out what was going on and if there was something I could pick up. They'd give me a name tag that said, 'grower.' And I was the most popular person there. It was like these researchers had never seen a grower before."
In 1988, Isbell went to the Rice Technical Working Group conference at the University of California, Davis, and saw a Japanese man standing in the corner by himself. "I felt bad for him standing all alone, so I went over to give him a little Southern hospitality," Isbell said. "We got to talking about rice."
The man turned out to be Shoichi Ito, a rice economist from Japan. Ito started telling Isbell about the differences between rice grown in Japan and rice grown in the United States. The Japanese prefer short-grain rice, Ito explained, which has a different look, taste and feel than the Arkansas long-grain Isbell was used to. Isbell was particularly interested to hear about prized varietals in Japan, varietals that the Japanese took as seriously as French wine enthusiasts take grapes. As with wine, Ito told him, different regions in Japan produced different results, with varieties in texture and flavor.
The most famous rice in Japanese cuisine is Koshihikari (often called Koshi rice), the high-end choice for sushi, which some consider the best rice in the world. (As one food blogger has written, "Koshi rice is to sushi rice as single malt scotch is to the scotch world.")
The thing is, Ito said, Koshihikari could only be grown in Japan. As far as anyone knew, it couldn't be grown in the United States.
Telling Chris Isbell that something can't be done is a surefire way to get him to start experimenting.
"We grow so much rice here, I figured we'd try growing [Koshi]," Isbell said. "Even if it never made a dollar, I was going to try it, just to see if it was possible or not. That's what we did, just kind of eased into it. And it grew."
Not that it was easy. "It's wonderful to eat and not so fun to grow," Isbell said. "It's hard to harvest and it's hard to thresh. ... But it's a beautiful, beautiful grain once you get it milled."
Raised on Arkansas long-grain, the Isbells themselves became converts to Koshi. "That's all we eat when we have it," Isbell said. "We eat it with gravy. We'll eat it for breakfast with sugar and butter. Once you have it, it's the best." (Well, except for Leroy Isbell — "My dad is kind a of straight down-the-road guy," Chris said. "He's a long-grain rice guy. However many bushels you can make and sell it for the best price.")
Koshi rice is richly aromatic and has a natural sweetness. Like other Japanese short-grain varietals, it is very low in amylose, which makes it stickier, softer and chewier. Koshi is known for "fluffiness": it holds together well for sushi or chopsticks, but each individual grain is intended to be smooth to the tongue. The closest analogy is probably California medium-grain rice — in particular, the varietal Calrose — which is what American restaurants had been relying on for sushi. But for connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, Koshi is the premium stuff. Twenty-five years ago, that was an untapped market in the United States.
What began as a fun little project for Isbell turned into a business plan, as Isbell Farms connected with Nishimoto, a California-based trading company specializing in Asian food products. The rice hit the market in 1992, marking the first time domestically grown Koshihikari was sold in the United States. Arkansas-grown Koshi rice became a big hit in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and other major Japanese population centers.
Word spread to Japan that Koshi rice was being grown in Arkansas. Since legend had it that the famous varietal could only be grown in Japan, this was big news. Isbell did more than 50 interviews with Japanese television, newspapers and magazines.
"For a while, I was getting calls about every day," Isbell said. "They were just flabbergasted that it could be grown here."
The Japanese public television station NHK produced a 90-minute documentary about Isbell Farms. Buses full of Japanese tourists started showing up every month or two to get a peek at the farm (the Isbells would invite them in to their house and Chris's wife, Judy, would make rice for everybody). One Japanese television station arranged to bring some of Isbell's rice to one of the premier rice farmers in Japan and some of that farmer's rice to Isbell in Arkansas — the Isbells liked the Japanese farmer's rice better, but the Japanese farmer's daughter chose Isbell's in a blind taste test.
Isbell traveled to Japan for the first time in 1993 to see how his rice measured up (he eventually went back half a dozen times). The elaborate taste tests included a machine designed to analyze the gasses released from the cooked rice. The human testers, meanwhile, would first smell the rice, then scoop some rice into their mouths and roll the grains over the tongue to feel for a smooth pearl-like quality of each grain, then chew. They would bite a single grain of rice in half to see if it properly sprung apart.
"They were down that far into the details, I guarantee you, and even further," Isbell said. He took notes on what they were looking for to help him improve his Koshi in future years, but the news from that first trip was good: The Arkansas Koshi didn't take first place, but it held its own. "They were amazed," Isbell said.
In 1994, Japan began allowing rice to be imported in to the country for the first time. A Japanese trading company brokered a deal to sell Isbell's Koshi rice in FamilyMart, a Japanese chain with more than 3,000 convenience stores across the country.
Unlike other American-grown rice coming in at the time, which was comingled with Japanese rice and sold like that, the Isbell Koshi was specifically marketed as 100 percent from Arkansas, taking advantage of the publicity around Isbell Farms. Sold as "Chris's Rice" or "Rice Ambassador," the front of the bag featured a cartoon of the Isbell family, with a photograph of the Isbells on their farm on the back. A label said: "The State of Arkansas is located in southern America extending to the west of the Mississippi River. The family of Chris Isbell lives in this typical American rice granary where golden ears of rice stretch to the horizon." The first run sold out in two weeks. FamilyMart later sponsored a sweepstakes, with 25 Japanese customers winning a trip to visit Isbell Farms.
Meanwhile, once it became clear that Koshi could be grown outside of Japan and there was a market for it here in the U.S., others followed suit. Growers in California had better access to the smaller specialty mills needed for the Koshi rice, not to mention closer proximity both to Asia and to the big Asian communities on the west coast. Isbell's rice sold well for three years in Japan, but eventually the California growers came to dominate the market for American-grown Koshi, both in Japan and domestically.
By 2009, Isbell had stopped selling Koshi altogether (Isbell Farms has continued to sell Arkansas long-grain throughout these adventures). His experiments with Japanese rice had brought the Isbells around the world, exposed their kids to people and cultures that might as well have been a million miles from Lonoke County, and for a while it had turned a profit. But now, though they still had seed ready to plant if it became profitable again, it seemed like the Japanese varietals would be relegated to hobby status at Isbell Farms.
That's around when Isbell got a call from a Japanese sake company out of the blue, asking him about a rumor that Isbell had grown a rice varietal famous for its use in making top-shelf sake.
"The guy speaks English, but not very good," Isbell said. "He asks me if I have Yamada Nishiki. And I said I do. He asked me again, and I said I do. He said, you do?"
He did. The whole time that Isbell was growing Koshi, he kept experimenting.
"Once we started with Koshi, it was just natural to try something else," Isbell said. "So we tried a bunch of something elses."
Isbell has a five-acre plot of land devoted to his experiments. "We grow a little bit of this, a little bit of that, just to look at it," he said. He's grown multiple other Asian varietals, Italian Arborio, and has created more crossbreeds than you can count. Back when Isbell first heard about Koshi, he asked if that was the most expensive, most exalted rice out there. Nope, he was told. Koshi might be the Cadillac of table rice, but the real deal was rice for sake. So Isbell grew sake rice varietals, too. Dozens of bags, each full of a different rice varietal, are stacked up in his barn. Dozens more are crammed into freezers.
One of those bags, which had been sitting in the freezer for years, had around 30 pounds of Yamada Nishiki.
A representative from the company showed up two weeks after the phone call. They wanted to brew high-quality sake using Yamada Nishiki here in the U.S., but the rice wasn't available unless they shipped it from Japan (because the company is still testing the sake they're making with Isbell's rice and not yet selling it retail, they asked not to be named in this story). Now it turned out that it was available — in Humnoke, Arkansas. (Isbell doesn't know whether it can be grown in California, but it stands to reason that folks have tried.) Isbell offered to grow and sell the rice for half of the market price in Japan. They had a deal.
Isbell has been growing Yamada Nishiki for the past several years and shipping it to the sake company, which has been experimenting with different yeasts and enzymes and giving Isbell feedback on how to get the rice just so.
In the brewing process, before the sake rice is fermented and eventually made into alcohol, the rice is milled (or "polished") down to the pure starch at the core of each grain. Higher-quality sake demands the laborious process of polishing away 40 or even 50 percent of the outer layer, getting rid of the fats, proteins and amino acids, so that only pure starch remains (in Japan, small craft breweries sell the milled leftovers to bigger sake breweries to mass produce cheaper sake). Elite sake brewers hope to work with a small white ball of that pure starch known as shinpaku ("white heart"), visible in high-quality rice. Part of what makes Yamada Nishiki so famous is that it consistently produces a strong shinpaku, located in the center of the grain, where it won't get lost in the milling process. That little ball of starch produces powerful flavors.
"Right now, Yamada Nishiki is the king of sake rice," said Big Orange's Bell. "It's the Cabernet Sauvignon, but even more dominant than that. There's a national tasting competition every year in Japan and Yamada Nishiki has its own category just to give the other varietals of rice a chance. It can create a really big, fruitful, almost monster of a sake. There's big aromatics, big florals, big flavors."
Like wine, sake can be produced in a huge array of styles. Yamada Nishiki is at one end of the spectrum, but other rice varietals produce savory or herbal flavors. "You might go to a restaurant [in the U.S.] and see a list and it just says sake, hot or cold," Bell said. "There are more than 1,000 sake breweries in Japan, which is more than the number of wineries in California."
Bell hopes that one day Arkansas will become known for its own style (in addition to locally grown rice, he noted that Arkansas has large patches of "soft" water, which produces a particular style of sake). His dream, he said, would be to use a high-quality sake rice varietal grown by Isbell here in Arkansas "and make some beautiful sake from it, something we can be really proud of. I would love to make something that people would taste and say, 'Wow, I never would have expected this to come from anywhere outside of Japan, much less Arkansas.' My long-term goal is for Arkansas to be known for making quality sake and for growing quality rice, so no one would be any more surprised that Arkansas makes great sake than that Napa Valley makes great wine."
Bell is going to Japan this summer to work on his Japanese and hopes to do a second stint as an intern at a sake brewery. He is aiming to open his own brewery a few years from now, perhaps in Hot Springs, which happens to be the sister city of Hanamaki, home of the most famous sake brewing guild in Japan.
It might be a little hard to imagine a market for sake here in Arkansas, but of course that's what people once said about sushi. (In part due to Bell's influence, quality Japanese sake is now more widely available in Central Arkansas, including at Big Orange and Colonial Wines and Spirits; Sushi Cafe also has a strong selection.)
For now, Isbell is growing Yamada Nishiki exclusively for the Japanese sake company. After several years of work, they believe they've arrived at the quality they're looking for. If it keeps testing well, the company may bring it to market soon. Isbell hopes to eventually ship some of his sake rice to Japan to "see how it fares against the real McCoys."
Isbell and Bell have met at his farm, and are beginning to brainstorm about the future. Isbell is growing two other high-end sake varietals in small batches, in case the market is there. It could be that very soon the best sake made in the United States will be reliant on rice grown in Arkansas.
"I grew up Baptist, so it's a little outside of my comfort zone," Isbell said. "You know, my grandma wouldn't be too proud of me. But I'm just growing rice!"