Denver / Lafayette, Colorado
When brainstorming the name of their company, Foster and co-founder Phil Kao fastened upon Stem.
Foster says of the moniker, "It's really kind of a beginning of the whole process for the fruit. For us, it was our first voyage into this. As we were thinking about the name, Stem just came to us. . . . We liked that it was not geographically-based, that it was more about fruit itself. If you look at our ciders and everything we do, it's all about the fruit: it's all about how it's grown, how it's picked, how it's fermented, and how it's put into the package. It's really about showcasing the fruit."
Stem began in 2013, which is when the company first began occupying its 3,600-square-foot building in Denver's RiNo Art District. The company is set for rapid growth with the opening of a new production facility in Lafayette. It's a $7 million project, according to the Boulder Daily Camera. Foster calls it a "state-of-the-art production facility, probably unrivaled for anything in cider right now."
Slated to open in January 2018, the 30,000 square Lafayette facility (which will feature a 5,000-square-foot taproom/restaurant with a sweeping view of the Front Range) will have the capacity to, theoretically, produce 100,000 barrels per year. If things go according to plans, Foster says, "It'll put us in the top 10," production-wise, for cider makers in the country.
Compare that to its first year, Foster says, when Stem produced under 1,000 barrels; in 2017, it expected to hit around 6,000 barrels. It presently has 750 accounts in Colorado, 110 of which are bars or restaurants. Stem's ciders can also be found in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and -- new for 2018 -- California.
Right now, it sells four-packs of its ciders, year-round: Real Dry, Off-Dry, Hopped (dry-hopped with Citra and Cascade hops), Raspberry, and Pear. And it offers bottles of Le Chêne, a cider aged within red wine barrels, and L'Acier, similar but aged in stainless tanks. There's also a Cider Cellar Club, offering specialty bottlings, and rotating seasonals.
"We're very adamant about our dry ciders," says Ian Capps, who worked at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and Epic Brewing Company before Foster tapped him to become Stem's head cidermaker. "It's what we like to drink, it's what we like to make. But we understand there is a market for sweeter ciders."
Stem's Real Dry is, well, real dry, with a real bright apple nose. Capps describes it as possessing "a really tart, dry apple profile, I think it smells a lot like apple skins or like peeling an apple. It's really got a light, effervescent, champagne flavor profile, which I love. There's zero residual sugars."
For those who like a bit more sweetness there's the Off-Dry. For that cider, Capps stops fermentation before the yeast gobbles up all the natural sugars, rather than adding sugar or juice back into a finished product, like some cider makers do.
Several of Stem's ciders have flavors other than apple within them. There's a Coffee Apple Cider, made cold brew-style with cider sitting on coffee grounds from Method Roasters for 18 hours. Although Capps rightly describe it as "pretty coffee forward," the apple comes through in the middle of taste before exiting on lingering, roasty notes.
There's also a cider made with dry hibiscus flowers. Another -- a salted cucumber cider -- is made with fresh cucumber juice from pickle company The Real Dill.
Capps describes the Hopped Apple Cider as something beer drinkers ought to appreciate: "It's a good gateway cider for those hop heads." The Hopped cider possesses a floral hop nose and flavor, without the parching characteristics of some IPAs. A cider made with a saison yeast -- a collaboration with Loveland's Verboten Brewing & Barrel Project -- is currently in the works, as well.
For its ciders, Stem doesn't press any of its own juice. That arrives by truck from other locales. There's juice pressed from dessert apples, a marriage of different varieties, from Washington State. The juice is mixed together to Stem's specs, in terms of sugar and acid levels.
There's also juice from Colorado's Western Slope, a mixture of granny smith and tiny crabapples, which goes into Stem's Crabby Neighbor: "It's got a much more tart flavor profile than a lot of our ciders," says Capps. Yes, it's definitely tart, but not overwhelmingly so.
And some juice comes from Michigan for The Pippins, made with Brettanomyces -- although it doesn't result in a full-blown funk, like some lambic beers. One of the cider apples used is Cox's Orange Pippin. "It's like the quintessential apple, in my opinion," raves Foster. Stem describes its The Pippins as an "ultra-dry, robust cider with lively, lingering tannins."
In addition to some ingredients coming from Michigan, both Foster and Kao hail from the Wolverine State. As a youngster, Foster, now 36, worked at a cidery outside of Detroit. In college at CSU, he studied snow hydrology, specializing in the science behind avalanches. Later he worked as a business developer for EMCOR, a Fortune 500 company. Co-founder Kao studied mechanical engineering.
While they were both visiting a cidery during a trip back to Michigan, Foster recalls them thinking, "We should do this in Colorado."
Presently, Kao is the company's COO, overseeing quality assurance; but when they opened he was the one making the cider.
Capps now creates the ciders in the back of the Denver location, using six fermenters and three brite tanks. He adds nutrients as called for, filters the yeast out, carbonates the ciders. Capps has learned the big difference between brewing beer and making cider: "It's easy to cover small minor flaws in beer," he says. "The dry cider flavor profile is so light, it is unforgiving. I make the tiniest mistake, it is in your face."
As the company's CEO, Foster says, "I'm focused more on where Stem's going in the next three to five years, [rather] than where it's going in the next three to five days."
But as Stem evolves from a micro- to a macro-cidery with its Lafayette expansion, Foster says there are some things that won't change: Stem won't be using apple concentrates or flavor essences.
"We believe we're making cider the right way, the way cider has been made for hundreds of years," says Foster. "And we want to continue to educate the consumer about why we're doing it this way -- and, hopefully, convince them that this was the right way, as well."
Challenges: Foster cites the need for quality employees to join his expanding team: "We're a company that's in rapid growth, so with that comes the challenges of capital inputs and human resources. It's tough to find good people right now. Colorado, frankly, isn't making that a whole lot easier on us. We've got really low unemployment in Colorado – which is a great thing for Colorado and the citizens here, but unfortunately it makes it real challenging to find good people."
Opportunities: The growing cider market. "I think the biggest opportunity for Stem right now is just the infancy and immaturity of cider in the United States," says Foster. "The amount of cider sold in the U.S. is about 2 percent of the total beer sales in the U.S. . . . So, you can see, the country has a ways it can come up from there. We're in at the ground floor, and I think that's a huge opportunity."
Needs: "Our ability to maintain access to the market," says Foster. "The distribution market in the United States is a complicated array of legal regulations, and there's a three-tiered system in alcohol: so you have manufacturer/supplier, you have the wholesaler, and you've got the retailer. So those tiers are very protected, you can't cross them. Well, what's happening is there's a massive consolidation, both at the supplier and at the wholesaler level going on right now. So, a lot of the distributors are merging, forming one large entity. A lot of the suppliers are being gobbled up by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, and what that's doing is creating a lack of access to the market, because as those distributors merge, inevitably, they're going to have to cut brands. And there's no question that's coming. And it immediately limits access to the market for those of us that are either established or growing."