Dehydration reactions proceed readily in water-filled biological cells. Development of biocatalysts that mimic such compartmentalized reactions has been cumbersome due to the lack of low-cost nanomaterials and associated technologies. Here we show that cationic lignin nanospheres function as activating anchors for hydrolases, and enable aqueous ester synthesis by forming spatially confined biocatalysts upon self-assembly and drying-driven aggregation in calcium alginate hydrogel. Spatially confined microbial cutinase and lipase retain 97% and 70% of their respective synthetic activities when the volume ratio of water to hexane increases from 1:1 to 9:1 in the reaction medium. The activity retention of industrially most frequently used acrylic resin-immobilized Candida antarctica lipase B is only 51% under similar test conditions. Overall, our findings enable fabrication of robust renewable biocatalysts for aqueous ester synthesis, and provide insight into the compartmentalization of diverse heterogeneous catalysts.