Walk the aisles of your favorite liquor store and you'll see that nearly every beverage starts with grapes or grains, mostly barley, wheat, rice or corn. Throw in honey and apples, and you've covered wine, beer, spirits, cider and mead. But in a wide swath of the tropical world, there's a fermented beverage made from something rarely seen in American liquor stores: palm sap.
John Souther, a world traveler, says he and his friends, Michael Kostin and Adam Jansen, decided to create a sparkling fermented drink for the Colorado market after realizing the potential of palm sap. Souther first tried palm toddy, as it's called in many parts of Africa and Asia, while riding motorcycles through remote areas of Tanzania. "We broke down in a little town called Tanga, and while we were waiting for repairs, they brought a gourd over and some glasses," Souther remembers. "They poured a milky white liquid, and I had my doubts, but we clinked glasses and tried it — and realized it was nice."
For the next two years, the friends tried to figure out how to bring palm sap — which begins fermenting naturally almost as soon as it's drawn from the tree — to the U.S., and how to turn it into a shelf-stable product that could be produced and sold commercially.
The result of their efforts is Akos White, a 6.5 percent ABV palm beverage that's technically considered a hard seltzer. The company produced its first batch of canned Akos White last fall; it's now available at more than sixty liquor stores and bars around metro Denver.
Patrick Sheridan, who's also been in on the project since the beginning, says that the sap used in Akos White currently comes from palmyra palms (also called sugar palms) from multiple farms in Cambodia. Most of the trees grow on rice farms, so the company works with the rice farmers to bring the sap to market through an agricultural co-op. "Through the sourcing of the sap, we can offer farmers a second source of income," he explains.
According to Sheridan, the rice farmers are often pestered by palm oil producers to sell their land for monocrop farming, a temptation in years when rice farming isn't productive. Or if the farmers need money in the short term, they chop down their sugar palms and sell the wood. By giving the farmers a consistent place to sell the sap, which is generally collected from November through April, the Akos partners guarantee more biodiversity on the farms along with the extra income.
Souther says that sugar palms grow best when they're far apart, which is why buying through the co-op is the best way to maintain a steady supply. He and his friends have met all the farmers with whom they work, and they've also taken canned Akos White back to Cambodia to share the beverage with the very people who climbed and tapped the palm trees.
Once the company found a good source for palm sap, the next step was figuring out how to bring it to Colorado. Souther says the sap is cooked down into a concentrated syrup before it's imported; the syrup stores well and is easily fermentable using beer yeast. "We weren't going to add any sulfites or other sugars, so this was the best way to pasteurize it and maintain the unique flavor," he notes.
Although Akos White is considered a seltzer, it's made with only three ingredients: palm sap, water and yeast. "It isn't pumped with flavors or chemicals," Souther points out.
He and Sheridan agree that the appeal of their new product is that it's all-natural, low-calorie (at 130 calories per 12-ounce can) and gluten-free. The friends are all avid outdoor enthusiasts, so they wanted to create a unique product that fit the Colorado lifestyle but also tasted great.
Akos White pours pale gold from the can (it's not milky, as was the original palm toddy that Souther drank in Tanzania) and sparkles like cider without forming a head. The flavor is light, clean and just sweet enough (even though all the sugars are fermented out) to balance the tart notes from the sap. The flavor is hard to explain if you've never had a palm-based beverage, Sheridan notes: "It tastes like palm sap," he jokes.
There's a mild fruitiness to that taste, and mead fans might notice some similarities to meads on the dry end of the spectrum. The body is similar to a light lager, and it has a much fuller mouthfeel than typical hard seltzers.
Now that Akos White is on the market, Sheridan says the next step is to get it into the hands of drinkers, because he thinks the beverage will sell itself once people taste it. Plans for marketing events include a cicerone-versus-sommelier tasting for beer and wine enthusiasts to highlight the best qualities of the drink. Until then, you can order a can of Akos White at Grandma's House craft brewery, at 1710 South Broadway; Avanti Food & Beverage, at 3200 Pecos Street; or Cafe 13, at 1301 Arapahoe Street in Golden (where the company is headquartered), among other locations. A complete list of liquor stores and bars can be found on the Akos White website.
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