NINOHE, Iwate - Ben Bell spends an hour every day stirring a kai, a three-meter-long tool shaped like an oar, in huge barrels. The task is necessary to evenly ferment moromi, or raw unrefined sake.
"The work makes my arms and back sore," Bell, 33, said with a smile. "It's the hardest part of the job."
Seven years ago, when he was working at a liquor store in his US home state of Arkansas, he tasted jizake - local sake - produced in Nagano Prefecture. He was impressed by its deep, complex flavor, which differed from that of wine.
The experience ignited a desire to learn the secrets behind the taste, and in October last year, Bell started an internship at Nanbu Bijin, a sake brewer in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, that has been aggressively developing overseas markets.
His dream is to establish a sake brewery in the United States, dedicating his life to the trade like the main character of the NHK television drama "Massan," who devoted himself to making whisky in Japan. His parents back home support his ambitions.
The US sake market has become polarised between high-end products and cheaper, mass-produced items. But Nanbu Bijin President Kosuke Kuji, 42, expressed high hopes.
"If he makes sake that tastes good and sells it at a reasonable price, that market will expand," Kuji said.
Bell also takes Japanese language classes. "If I don't understand Japanese, I won't be able to grasp the essence of the craft," he said.
"I've gotten to know the depths of sake brewing over the past six months, and I'm ready to learn more," he added ambitiously.