While Denver may always be known for its amazing libations of the ale, stout and lager varieties, there are a few brave souls looking to break away from that trend, creating deliciously boozy beverages without malt, barley or hops. Two of those individuals, Phil Kao and Eric Foster, are the owners and brewers of Denver’s newest neighborhood watering hole, Stem Ciders.
Though not the first cidery in Colorado (Colorado Cider Company holds that distinction) Stem Ciders, which hosted its grand opening Friday afternoon, is another great addition to Denver’s blossoming booze scene. Located in RiNo at 28th and Walnut, and surrounded by other hotspots such as Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery, Mile High Spirits, and a handful of breweries and bars, Stem brings a unique option for those seeking fermented enlightenment.
Hard cider, similar to wine, is made from the pressing and fermenting of fruit juice. The consumption of cider, especially that of the alcoholic variety, dates back to ancient times and even has deep roots in our country’s history. The story goes that the beloved American hero John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, wasn’t spreading apple seeds just so everyone could enjoy the, ahem, fruits of his labor, but rather selling his wares for the purpose of creating hard cider. A versatile drink, and one that can have just as much complexity as beer or wine, cider is making a comeback as a reputable imbibement, and one that Stem is crafting for the lucky denizens of Denver.
Though cider may not be the first drink that comes to mind when deciding what to drink during a night out on the town, Kao and Foster don’t mind being different. “It’s fun being a trailblazer…you can define your category,” says Kao as he takes a sip of Malice, one of four ciders Stem has rolled out upon opening their doors. “The flexibility, the creativity, we just love cider.”
Due to the light bodied nature of cider, the barrels can more easily impart flavor during the aging process, more so than a beverage such as beer. All of Stem’s ciders go through some degree of aging. Along with Malice (aged in stainless) Stem is also offering Le Chêne (aged in red zinfandel barrels), Banjo (aged in bourbon barrels) and the Grand Opening Special Release, a still cider aged in stainless, each with their own unique flavor notes, colorings, and finishes. Note: I tasted all four and each one of them was exactly as tasty as they sound.
Although they aim to be in your fridge and on your table, competing with the likes of mass market juggernauts like Angry Orchard or Woodchuck isn’t in their future. You won’t find any sweet cider, either. Tart, dry, smooth, and bright are all adjectives that come to mind when partaking in one of Stem’s ciders, but never over-sugary or saccharin sweet, like so many others you may find at the liquor store. The quality of the cider and the natural flavors speak for themselves.
When it comes to cider, good quality fruit is at the core of everything Stem produces, and most of the apples are sourced from Colorado’s western slope, or Michigan, the state in which Phil and Eric both hail. While Jonathan Apples are the main squeeze (or press) due to the versatile juice they produce, the guys also throw into the mix other favorites such as Golden Delicious, Gala, and Granny Smiths.
Stem’s taproom, like their cider, is also diligently crafted, the walls made from reclaimed barn wood, and the tables fashioned from beetle kill pine straight from Grand County. Barrels from Rocky Mountain Barrel Company line the back wall, aging their next batch, and the whole room exudes a sense of Midwest warmth and comfort.
“We spent about 3 years to actually get where we are now, lot’s of learning,” says Foster. “I think the biggest thing we want to do is bring cider back to a respected beverage with the craft consumer…It’s been an overlooked beverage since prohibition.”