Before we get into the details of what sake, particularly American sake, is, it’s important to define what it is not. It is not rice wine although it’s often misidentified as such. It is not wine at all, nor is it beer. And it’s these last points that led William Stuart, Heather Dennis, and Russ and Jen Eubanks, founders of the Colorado Sake Company, to become far more familiar with the inner workings of our state’s legislature that they ever wanted to be, but more on that later.
What they were familiar with was sake, a fermented rice beverage often cited as the oldest known spirit in the world. For approximately the last 2,300 years—less than half of its likely time in existence—sake has been closely associated with Japan, a country that elevated the making of sake (a brewery is called a “kura”) to both an art form and a lucrative industry. Colorado Sake Co.’s head brewer Stuart, and Dennis, who oversees sales, received much of their education on the subject from time working for Nobu Matsuhisa, whose sake program requires an intimate knowledge of the complex terminology.
When Stuart realized he could make his own sake, tweaking and perfecting the flavor as he went, the Colorado Sake Company was born. They crafted “like 1,000 test batches” as well as securing space in an unused portion of Wine & Whey, a wine- and cheese-making outfit in the River North Arts District. They sourced the necessary equipment to brew in large batches, installed a bar from which to serve sake on tap, and furnished a small tasting room.
This is where the law came into play. Under the existing liquor code, sake fell into something of a gray area. Sake is brewed, so the operation was classified as a brewery, but the finished product—not carbonated and higher in alcohol that most beers—was considered a wine. This disconnect led to rejection of their business license application, and thus began a nearly 15-month journey through the intricacies of legislation, lobbying and expert witnesses. Ultimately, the law was changed, and the tasting room opened for business Sept. 1.
The funky, dog-friendly space is accessed via the alley behind the building where 36th Street, Larimer, and Downing come together in RiNo. Bikes hang from the ceiling, bags of rice are stacked against the wall, and in one corner is a small white tent, in which Stuart makes his own koji—a rice-grown mold that is a key ingredient in sake. Frozen koji is sold commercially, but Stuart prefers to control the humidity, temperature, timing and, hence, the flavor; he’s one of eight (out of only 15 in the country) sake brewers who does so. He says koji takes about three days to make, but it took him a year to get it just right.
Koji is mixed with a blend of American and Japanese strains of yeast (all grown in the U.S.) plus rice and water. Despite Colorado Sake Co.’s traditional approach to the brewing process, however, the finished product is decidedly different from that imported from Japan. Perhaps your experience is limited to hot sake at your local sushi spot or a shot dropped into a cold beer. Possibly you are something of a connoisseur with a solid understanding of the difference between sake designated “ginjo” versus “daiginjo.” In either case, American sake is like nothing you’ve tasted before.
Because it’s made locally, it’s not pasteurized—a heat treatment required for imported sakes to extend their shelf life—and skipping that flavor-altering step results in sake that drinks like a white wine and tastes bright and fruity with a slightly kombucha-esque aliveness. “There’s really no other way to say it,” says Dennis, “it’s alive.”
Stuart’s hands-on approach also means that he has the option of adding ingredients unlikely to be found in a kura in Kyoto. Colorado Sake Co. bottles two varieties: American Standard and a velvety Mexico-Japan mash-up called Horchata Nigori, which melds the complexity of their unfiltered brew with the warm cinnamon and vanilla notes of the Latin drink, which is often made with rice milk. On tap, you will also find a rotating seasonal selection of flavors—for example, this summer, the team was pouring strawberry jalapeño and Palisade peach sakes. These are not infusions in the typical sense; the fruit is added during the fermentation process, so flavors mature along with that of the sake itself. Stuart is also developing a dry-hopped version that is likely to serve as a gateway into the beverage for beer drinkers.
So is this the beginning of a landslide of American sake brewers akin to the craft beer boom or the more recent surge in small distilleries? Dennis says she hopes so, noting that ever-more-exotic Asian foods and flavors are trending in the U.S. even as the popularity of sake in Japan is giving way to a taste for whiskey and other spirits. In the meantime, she says, they are proud to represent Colorado, and are riding the wave of being first to market, taking care not to grow too fast or overcommit to wide distribution.
Look for their sake on menus at Mizu, Urban Farmer and Mister Tuna, or just pop into the hard-fought taproom to taste your way through a flight of flavors and take some home. In addition to the bottled American Standard and Horchata Nigori, any of the on-tap sakes can be purchased in a 375-ml growler and will last (refrigerated) for several months.
“We all have the same goal,” Dennis says of the American sake companies. “We want to build a following and change the way people view—and drink—sake.” The tasting room is a means toward that educational goal; Dennis encourages people to come in, taste, and ask questions. Essentially, you are sitting in the brewery—what better way to demystify the process?
Colorado Sake Co.
Taproom: 3559 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80205 (Enter through the alley!)
Open Thursday through Saturday at 4 p.m.
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