With my knee surgery coming up in a week and consequently my hiking ending for the next month, I realized I need to find other things to do and to write about. As a result, I signed up for a sake brewery tour and tasting at the Colorado Sake Co. in RiNo.
Though I’m not much of a drinker, learning how things are made fascinates me. I knew very little about sake upon my arrival. Only that it has been made for centuries by fermenting rice and there are hot and cold options. I was looking forward to learning more, despite my little to be desired, first sake experience 30 years ago.
I was under age and with a giant group of horseshow people, mostly adults, at a Japanese food restaurant in Kentucky celebrating someone’s birthday. I couldn’t say whose, but I’m certain my friend Carroll remembers. She knows what I wore on New Year’s Eve 29 years ago. I wish I had that kind of memory! Anyway, the adults ordered a round of hot sake for the table. I highly doubt it was of premium status (which has only been around for 50 years), and my novice taste buds agreed. ICK!
Colorado Sake Co. Tasting and Tour
Aside from a few other sips over the last 30 years, I haven’t given sake a real try, and it was time. Though growing in popularity, it is not widely known in the USA, despite being one of the top selling spirits in the world. The Colorado Sake Co. is here to change that. I learned so much from Willaim, the owner of the company, who was thankful that I pestered him with questions during our tour.
The Colorado Sake Co. holds a tour and tasting every Saturday evening at 5:15pm and 6pm. Tickets may be purchased on Eventbrite for $10. For a sushi pairing as well, the price is $35, but I’d just do the tasting and pick the sushi you want later with a 20% discount.
The tasting and tour take place in the warehouse space behind the restaurant. There’s a lot going on back there, with a lot of moving parts, but that will soon change. With their continued success, they are expanding their production to a larger space.
We tasted three sakes while learning about the different types and the process of making them. CAUTION: Sake is 15% alcohol or more, so be careful when throwing back three shots! We tried their traditional sake called American Standard as well as two flavored sakes, Lychee Nigori and Green Machine.
The three flavors ranged from smooth, to sweet, to spicy. While they were all very good, and I have a new appreciation for sake, I preferred the Green Machine. It resembled a jalapeno martini or jalapeno margarita. I believe I also favored it, as it cannot be bottled and shelved as the cilantro turns brown over time. As a result, it may only be purchased on tap at Colorado Sake Co. which also conveniently sells growlers.
Types of Premium Sake
As I understand it, there are only three types of premium sake, Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo. Additionally, the Ginjo and Daiginjo make up only 3% of the total market. What designates a premium quality sake? The percentage of polished or milled away rice. The husk and some of its foul-tasting proteins and fat are extracted leaving the starchy center which is later converted to sugar during the fermentation process.
Below are more details about the premium sakes:
- Junmai: Junmai means pure rice. Any sake with this designation does not have alcohol added to it. It is made with only water, rice, yeast, and koji. 30% of the rice must be milled away.
- Ginjo: To make Ginjo, at least 40% of the rice must be milled away. Alcohol may be added or may not. If alcohol is not added, the product is labeled Junmai Ginjo.
- Daiginjo: To make Daiginjo, at 50% of the rice must be milled away. Alcohol may or may not be added. If alcohol is not added, the product is labeled Junmai Daiginjo.
The Sake Making Process
Here in Denver, the Colorado Sake Company specializes in junmai ginjo sake. I feel lucky to have access to this premium sake which takes six weeks to make.
Buying, Milling and Steaming the Rice
The Colorado Sake Co. buys rice from California or Arkansas, two of the largest producers of rice in the country. They then have the rice milled. After the milling process, they steam the rice to kill the bacteria. The 80 degree rice is then placed on 50 degree cooling racks which helps jumpstart the fermentation process.
Making the Koji
After the rice is steamed, mold is added to it. Yes, they steam it to kill the bacteria which can affect the taste of the yeast only to add mold to it. The mold grows around the rice to make koji which is an enzyme source used to break down the starches. It takes 24-48 hours to make the koji.
Once the koji is ready, it is added to another batch of cooled steamed rice along with yeast and water. The koji breaks down the starches to a small enough size that the yeast can consume and ferment the starches while ultimately creating ethanol and CO2.
Interestingly, most the yeast in the USA is made so that beer brewers may blend it in to create more ABV in their batch. Much of beer yeast cannot survive 8% alcohol which is problematic for sake which may reach 24%. That said, Colorado Sake Company stops their alcohol content at around 15%. Regardless, the company needs yeast from Japan which specializes in sake.
They had to ship yeast to a friend in Japan who brought back four different strains on the plane. It could not be shipped back as it would die or go dormant if not kept at the correct temperature. They store the yeast in propagators at -70 degrees Celsius. Whenever they need to regrow, they remove it from the freezer and grow what is needed for the batch.
The Fermentation Process
While the percentage of koji, rice, and water in the recipe all remain the same, the different strains of yeast create a different flavor. The result is four basic sakes: dry, acidic, floral and a balance. These sakes may then be infused with flavors, but now I’m ahead of myself.
The rice, koji, water and yeast ferments if a big open barrel for four weeks at a cold temperature. During this time, it is stirred twice a day. Uniquely, sake is the only alcohol which uses a multi parallel fermentation process. Simply speaking, the koji breaks down the simple sugars at the same time the yeast is creating ethanol and CO2.
Once the fermentation process is complete, the batch (now called moromi), is pressed in a machine at 3,500 psi. The rice remains in the machine while the liquid is transferred to another container where it is stored for another week before it is ready to bottle.
Despite being in over 200 liquor stores and growing steadily, the refrigerated room where the sake is fermented is surprisingly small. I suspect that will change once they get more space, as at present they currently play musical chairs.
For more detailed information about the sake brewing process go to Colorado Sake Co’s Sake Education Page and watch the informative videos.
Sake, Sushi, and More
Along with their sake brewing, tasting, and tour, the Colorado Sake Co. offers a limited sushi menu. After the tasting, we had the option to go back into the small restaurant to enjoy 20% off our meal and sake or to stay in the back and enjoy a comedy show.
For me, the $10 ticket was worth the price of admission! And for those who want to enjoy the comedy show, select the 6pm tasting. I highly recommend giving Colorado Sake Co.’s premium sake a try. ETB
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Check out the photographic note cards and key chains at my shop. Each card has a travel story associated with it. 20% of proceeds are donated to charity.