Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Educating the public about sake, CEO and brewer William Stuart creates Colorado versions of the storied Japanese beverage.
Although many people think of sake as a wine, Stuart considers the making of it more akin to brewing. He says, "A lot of people call it rice wine, but wine is a fermented fruit. So, we fall more in the beer category than anything." However, in order to begin brewing sake last year, Stuart's company -- the only sake brewery in Colorado -- had to spearhead a change in state law, which now categorizes sake as a "vinous liquor" containing not more than 21 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
At the Colorado Sake Co. in the River North Art District (RiNo), Stuart and his crew steam specially-prepared sake rice grown in California, put it in a barrel, add one of the company's Japanese-acquired yeasts (prepared for the brewery at Golden's Propagate Lab) and a fungus called koji.
The koji, which is grown for two days on its own steamed rice before being added to the barrel, breaks down the rice in the barrel into sugars, which the yeast converts into alcohol. The rice is not removed during the process. Stuart says, "It's the only alcohol [where] everything's in there, at once, for an extended period of time, so that it's continuing to ferment week after week."Along with the yeast, the koji (described by Stuart as "aromatic, nutty") adds flavor to sake; koji is also used within the production of miso and soy sauce, adding umami flavor.
For many people, there's still a lot to learn about sake. When the Colorado Sake Co. conducts tastings at various events, it brings along a banner that asks in talking-point fashion, "Did you know that sake is: gluten free, sulfate-free, tannin-free, low in sugar, low in acid, vegan?"
The brewery has a sake called American Standard, which is closest in flavor to a traditional Junmai from Japan, which Stuart translates as "true rice wine." Some of Stuart's sake also gets flavored. The company bottles its American Standard, its Blueberry Hibiscus, and its Horchata Nigori Sake -- which is cloudy (or "chalky") due to unfermented rice being added back into it. At the company's tasting room, there are additional flavored sakes, as well, including Cucumber Lime, Chai, and Jalapeno Margarita. In time for the 2019 Great American Beer Festival, the brewery even offered four hopped varieties in a flight. Its bottled versions are pasteurized, but the ones at the tasting room aren't -- which lend more of an effervescence.
In Japan, sake is often fermented to 19 percent ABV, then watered down. But Stuart says, "We ferment to 15.5 percent, so that there's still more fermentables [within it], it still has a lot of body, and it's not as dry. We just find it fits the American palate a little bit better." Indeed, the brand's American Standard displays a refreshing, silky mouthfeel. Stuart adds, "We purposely make a sake that has a little bit higher acidity, so it pairs up with pizza, fish, steak."
Holding up a glass of his American Standard, Stuart says, "I get some tangerine notes, maybe some melon." It also has aromas of plum, cherry. And, as with sake in Japan, Stuart's can be served cold or heated, accomplished by utilizing a crock-pot at the tasting room. "We prefer it cold, because then you can taste more [of the nuances], but it's totally personal preference," he says.
Stuart, 28, grew fond of sake while working in Japanese restaurants. When he first came across an American brand of sake, he said, "Wow, people are making this here!" However, he wasn't fond of what he tried. Since he was already a homebrewer, he decided to start making his own sake.
The company began by leasing 1,000 square feet of space at the back of a wine and cheese shop. When that business moved out, the Colorado Sake Co. took over the additional 3,000 square feet in the front as well. The tasting room -- which opened in June 2019 -- has multiple tap handles, and a cherry blossom motif.
Since beginning operations, the now 30-barrel brewery has increased its production from 10 barrels per month to 30. Its cylindrical bottles can be found in 70 liquor stores in Colorado, and around 20 restaurants, half of which serve Japanese cuisine. Stuart says of the demand, "It's just been crazy -- which is great." ("Horchata sake!" said one customer in line at Denver's Marczyk Fine Wines, holding it in his hand. "I've just got to try it!")
But there's still a lot of convincing to do. Some people only think of sake as a hot beverage, super-dry, and quite potent (sometimes from the addition of distilled spirits into bottlings). And then there are traditional Japanese restaurants that call up, find out that Stuart's company makes an "American sake," and hang up. "We'll win them over eventually," says Stuart. Indeed, he says that he's had positive feedback from Colorado Sake Co.'s sister brewery, Chiyonokame (founded in 1760), near Matsuyama, Japan, where Stuart spent some time training before co-attending tasting dinners with them across Japan, serving each brand's sake paired with food.
Stuart says he enjoyed turning people onto sake recently at a wine festival, recently -- some of them tasting the beverage for the first time. "The thing that makes me excited and happy is just watching people try it -- and watching people that really want to learn and understand what it is," he says.
Challenges: Growing sustainably, while maintaining control. Stuart asks, "How do you grow without giving away the entire company? Everything we make we pour back in. We want to pay ourselves a decent salary."
He adds, "Growing unsustainably is challenging, where either you need to take on an investor or slow down. And slowing down can hurt, because what if you miss that opportunity or that window?"
Opportunities: "Different markets," says Stuart. "If we can produce enough, we can go to a Chicago that doesn't have a sake brewery. They respect a lot of Colorado products, and they have a lot of Asian cuisine there that we could fit in [with]. . . . The opportunity really is that there's no one really in our space."
Needs: Stuart says he needs customers: "We need to drive more traffic during the week. During the week can be challenging without having food [for sale], because people want to have food and drinks to get it all in one because it's a school night or a work day."