Stem Ciders branches out

The Lafayette-based cidery recently opened a fourth location in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood

Photo by Susan France.

When Stem Ciders founders Eric Foster and Phil Kao first opened their urban cidery in RiNo in 2013, they didn’t know that within a decade the company would have a product on exclusive tap at Disney World. But in the beginning, they didn’t have Matt Ochs or Patrick Combs.

Both Ochs and Combs came aboard in 2021, Ochs as a line cook and Combs on the beverage side. Ochs took over as executive chef in May 2022, with Combs claiming the original title “Director of Liquid.” Each one has independently transformed their sector, together redefining the company as it grows across towns and concepts. With the early December grand opening of its new RiNo taproom (3040 Blake St., Denver), Stem now encompasses four independent locations, each one serving a long list of ciders and its own original food menu.

While the most dramatic changes at Stem took place over the last two years, things really began to shift in 2018 when the cidery relocated all of its production to Acreage (1380 Horizon Ave., Lafayette), a massive facility and Basque-inspired dining room in Lafayette. Distribution grew rapidly, and the increased production capacity allowed Stem to craft enough cider to send to 38 states. 

“It’s been a big year for Stem,” says public relations consultant Tristan Chan with a grin. This spring, after acquiring Howdy Beer — The Post’s famous Western Pilsner — Stem did a complete re-branding of its cans and continued the winning streak by opening Howdy Bar in October and the RiNo taproom the following month. All this after debuting its more-than-impressive Ghost Box Pizza in downtown Lafayette last December.

“Since the beginning, the focus has been on all real ingredients,” says Chan, noting that nothing in the cider comes from concentrate and batches are flavored with fresh fruit purées and botanicals. Under Combs’ direction, the cider list has mushroomed both in size and inventiveness. The core ciders — real dry, off-dry, chile guava, salted cucumber, raspberry, pear and hibiscus — all remain largely unchanged, with Combs regularly adding unexpected and experimental batches to the roster. 

Food and ciders with a view. Photo by Susan France.

“I get to paint whatever flavors I want onto that blank canvas,” he says, referring to the dry cider base that underpins each product. Current special releases include a pumpkin spice latte made with Novo Del Fuego espresso, a lavender produced in collaboration with Denver Botanic Gardens, and a peppermint mocha just in time for the holidays. The cocoa caramel — the flavor specially requested by Disney — is also available for tasting at both Acreage and at the RiNo taproom.

When Acreage opened in 2018, the food menu was the result of a collaboration between consulting chef Daniel Asher — the arch-locavore behind River and Woods and Ash’Kara — and in-house chef Eric Lee. Since taking over in late May 2022, Ochs has dialed in the intention, helping to augment and execute a succinct list of top-notch farm-to-table dining — though he believes his greatest contribution so far has been a re-framing of culture. With a hands-on approach to the line, he’s built a staff of eager young cooks. “I really love to teach this profession, especially to the younger generation. The only way to teach it is to actually cook,” he says. “Happy cooks, happy food, happy customers.”

Ochs’ sophisticated approach to leadership has been built over a lifetime spent in the kitchen. In 2023, he will have spent 35 years in the profession, though his love for the craft began earlier. “My grandmother in Hoxie, Kansas, was the dietician for the grade school and high school,” he says, remembering his early years absorbing a fundamental understanding while watching her cook. Ochs washed dishes and worked the fry station at Hoxie’s local seafood joint throughout high school before joining the Navy. “The whole time I was in the Navy I was cooking either on-base or on-ship,” he says. After years spent in either enlisted mess or galley, he was promoted to cooking for admiral staff on his last voyage. “I went to cooking for 30 people rather than 5,000 a day,” he says.

After getting a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Montana State University, Ochs moved to Phoenix to attend the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. His externship at Michael’s at the Citadel — then one of the Phoenix area’s real houses of fine dining — turned into a job where he oversaw the company’s catering department, which at its peak would serve up to 300,000 guests a day at the Phoenix Open. While in Arizona, he also returned to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute to spend a year as an instructor of fine dining. Since then he’s helmed a range of kitchens including ones at The Greenbriar Inn, Culture Meat and Cheese, and The Post. His menu at Acreage leans closest to fine dining, with the taproom seeing a list of genre-bending bar standards. Ghost Box serves Detroit-style and wood-fired pizza inspired by both classic pies and dishes ranging from Chicago beef and carbonara. “It’s as much of a scratch kitchen as a pizza place could be,” Ochs says.

While Ochs has been crafting exemplary menus and building teams, Combs has been meticulously developing individual flavors and wholly original lines. “I held it in my heart for a long time that what I wanted to do was create,” says Combs, noting that he’s on “a relentless pursuit of how I can create the perfect beverage for myself and others.”

Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, Combs has been in the beverage industry for nearly a decade. In 2016, he began working at Avery Beer Co. as a sensory scientist. “The whole idea with making a brand of beer is to make it taste the same way every time,” he says. In his role, he would train staff to sense for consistency along with using data to inform flavor decisions. He’s since spent a couple of years as the production manager at Cerebral Brewing and acted as the quality manager for another of the state’s real heavy hitters, WeldWerks Brewery. Combs draws inspiration from across genres. He says his recent line of Stem Imperials — with flavors like Rum Runner and Singapore Sling — was largely inspired by his visits to Pearl Street’s tiki paradise, Jungle.

With both Ochs and Combs independently propelling Stem, the company has every intention of continuing along its meteoric course. “I want to keep opening restaurants,” Ochs says. “I just want to continue to grow together with these guys.” 

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