With more than 330 craft breweries operating in Colorado, home brewers have a lot of examples to follow if they want to get their beer in front of the drinking public. As local sake brewers can attest, the path has been far cloudier for those trying to bring the traditional Japanese spirit to the masses.
Thanks to a law passed by the Colorado General Assembly this spring, the road map gets much clearer Wednesday. Sake, a rice-based beverage brewed like beer but noncarbonated and higher in alcohol like wine, has been added to the state liquor code as a “vinous liquor.”
“As of Aug. 8, sake will be regulated like a wine in the state of Colorado,” state department of revenue spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said. “That means that residents will be able to buy sake in winery sales rooms.”
If things go according to plan, Colorado Sake Co. will open the state’s first sake tasting room in Denver’s RiNo district in September. The business, a self-financed operation based in a 1,000-square-foot brew space behind Wine & Whey at 3559 Larimer St., was a major driver behind the law change. Now, it hopes to be at the forefront of a sake wave.
“We’ve always loved sake and we wondered why don’t more people drink sake,” Heather Dennis, one of the company’s co-owners said last week as she and her partners worked to stockpile inventory in advance of the new sales rules. “We realized it was an issue with access or lack of access. That’s why we want the tasting room. To introduce and educate people.”
Colorado Sake Co.’s origins date back to 2016. That’s when co-founder William Stuart went to an event where he tasted sake made by Denver-based brewer Gaijin 24886.
“I said, ‘I can do that,’ ” Stuart recalled. He went home, found a recipe online and kicked his roommates out of the fridge so he could ferment his creation at the requisite 50 degrees.
Sake has four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji, an Asian culinary ingredient made of steamed rice that has sprouted mold spores. Unlike beer, where yeast is added to malted grain after it cooks to produce alcohol, all the ingredients in sake brew simultaneously in a process called multiple parallel fermentation.
Stuart said it took him a year to master making koji. From there, he experimented until developing a sake recipe he was pleased with. In May 2017, he and his partners went to the state to get a limited winery license. They were rejected.
“We were told, ‘You’re manufacturing beer and you’re selling wine,’” Stuart said.
Because of narrow definitions in the state liquor code, a rule change was needed to include and regulate sake. While it is well-known to consumers — often served hot, or in the form of a shot dropped into a beer, much to the chagrin of its advocates and aficionados — it is only produced by about 20 brewers in the Unites States today, according advocacy group the Sake Education Council.
After being denied a license, the Colorado Sake Co. team embarked on a journey through the state lawmaking process that included talking to legislators, dealing with lobbyists and fielding questions from wineries and big-time beer makers, Stuart said. Finally, with the help of primary sponsors state Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, the change was signed into law on April 11.
“Ever since the days of Hakushika Sake in Golden, sake has kind of occupied this sort of gray area in the liquor code,” said Doug Caskey, executive director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, an offshoot of the state department of agriculture dedicated to marketing local wine, cider, mead and, now, sake. “It was really great we got this law changed.”
Hakushika Sake USA Corp., a private Japanese company, shut down in 2001, state records show.
Gaijin 24886 lost its space because of the new law, founder and brewer Marc Hughes said. The facility was licensed for beer production, not wine. But Gaijin is focused on the positives. It is working on finding a new location with aims to open a tasting room by next summer. In the meantime, a few varieties of Gaijin can be purchased at Divino Wine & Spirits at 1240 S. Broadway.
“There is a lot of interest in experimentation with different things in town,” Hughes said of sake’s prospects in a crowded Denver liquor market. “It’s just about finding the right way to capture it.”
Colorado Sake Co. isn’t being distributed in liquor stores at the moment, but its flagship varieties, American Standard and the cinnamon and vanilla flavored Horchata Nigori, are on tap at Mizu Izakaya in Highland. The restaurant, at 1560 Boulder St., carries at least 50 sakes per season. Colorado Sake Co. is the only American brand it stocks.
“I think that it’s just incredible that we are going to have the opportunity to get sake into more and more consumers’ hands,” Mizu beverage director Jerrica Ash said. “My goal is to make sake a spirit that in every restaurant not just in Asian restaurants.”