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Four slender cans stand on a black tabletop in the clearway of a RiNo warehouse. Each one has a blank, chromium reflection and a flavor scrawled on it in Sharpie: lime, blood orange, mixed berry, and yuzu ginger. Yuzu, an orange-lime hybrid fruit from Japan, is not your typical flavor for a hard seltzer. But there’s nothing traditional about Colorado Sake Co., which is launching one of the first sake-based seltzers in the U.S. this August while simultaneously crowd-investing $1 million in order to take the company national over the next five years.
“This [crowd-investment] is the step before going public,” says Colorado Sake CEO William Stuart. When he tells other local brewers about the company’s exponential growth—a 310-percent sales increase over three years—they respond with shock. “It’s not normal,” he explains. “We’re very humbled by it. … We see the growth, we see the potential, and we’re just in Colorado. Is there a play in sake and seltzer and everything in one? We think there is.”
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Others see that potential, too. Since launching its online StartEngine campaign in late June, the company has garnered nearly 350 investors, raising $265,000—over a quarter of the way towards their goal. (Shares are $1 each with a minimum buy-in of $250.) Stuart says about 90 percent of those investors live in Colorado.
Going the venture-capitalist route, Stuart says, might’ve taken control out of his hands, citing such limitations mega brands like Coors are beholden to. But by retaining ownership of the company, the team can explore fun ideas like creating an eleven pack of seltzer, with one of the cans being even higher in alcohol content. (Similarly, Oskar Blues had Slim Jims duct-taped to cans of Dale’s Pale Ale.) “So, by doing a local raise,” he says, “hopefully people will see that and trust what we do. This way locals will get a portion of everything we do.”
The sake seltzer is already generating a lot of local, er, buzz. Whole Foods—all 19 locations in Colorado—has signed on to stock the drink by mid-August. (Pre-orders for local pickup at the taproom will begin early next week through the brewery’s online store.) This is in addition to the locations carrying its traditional-style sake, called the American Standard (15–16 percent ABV), as well as their unorthodox, flavorful sake twists, like blueberry hibiscus, lychee nigori, and the cinnamon-forward horchata nigori.
“Sake is one of the fastest growing categories outside of seltzer,” Stuart explains. “It’s had 12 percent growth year-after-year for the last 10 years. And it’s because we’re eating more sushi, more Asian cuisine.”
Gaining success as a sake brewery is no easy feat. To wit, there are over 8,000 beer breweries in the U.S. Today, there are only about 15 established sake-makers. Before launching the company in 2016, Stuart faced a major legislative hurdle. Back then, Colorado liquor code considered sake as something brewed like beer but sold as wine. Across the state, wineries were prohibited from selling beer, creating a gray area that involved Stuart working with a senator. Nine months after that initial hiccup, a drafted legislation was approved by both house and senate and then signed by former Gov. John Hickenlooper (who isn’t a stranger to craft beer).
Legislative complications aside, sake hadn’t been considered much for good reason: Brewing the stuff is a painstaking process requiring attentiveness and finesse. With beer, Stuart explains, you have more singular fermentation, i.e., a mash that creates sugar water which the yeast eats and so on. For Colorado Sake Co., its mash is in a large metal tank for four weeks creating sugar while the yeast eats it.
Batches are done in four-stage additions. Head brewer, AmaDee Sims, does this in order to break down sugar as the batch ferments, slowly adding more “food” to the yeast. Rice is washed, soaked, and steamed before it’s added to the batch along with a magical fungus called koji, which gives sake that complex and subtle mushroom-y taste that differentiates it from all other alcohols. Koji is expensive; hence the two years of research Sims undertook to produce her own. (For perspective, a kilogram of koji retails for $20; a stage-one batch requires 40 kilograms and stage four takes 60.) And during that whole time, if one process occurs faster than the other, the sake is dry or sour.
“We’ve had to dump a lot out,” Stuart says. “But now we’re confident in what we do. And now we can have fun with it.”
Which brings us back to the radical twist of sake seltzers lined on the black tabletop.
We first sip the lime-flavored concoction, which has an inherent mojito zest—more spicy than overtly citrusy, though, with hints of Trix cereal. Next up is blood orange, which has a tartness evened out with an orange flavor (otherwise it could be too reminiscent of grapefruit). And although the mixed berry seltzer tastes like … well, a mixed berry seltzer, it retains the same sake base that the others do, differentiating it entirely from mainstream vodka- or rum-based seltzers.
However, the real winner here is the yuzu ginger. It was one of the first beta-tested seltzers at Colorado Sake’s taproom, and if marketing research didn’t dictate having a variety pack, Stuart would have shipped cases solely of yuzu ginger seltzer. But the company is vying for a widespread American palate.
All of it is part of Stuart’s plan to convert the country to sake.
“There’s a misconception that good sake has to come from Japan. We’re probably going to be still figuring [our sake] out in 10 years, but we just got another award recently for our American Standard,” Stuart says. “That’s the goal. If we can get accolades for our traditional sake, then it gives us the backbone to stand up to other people.”