I’ve been living back in Denver for about three months, and ever since I got back, I’ve heard tons of folks talking about the RiNo Art District and how awesome an area it is to hang out in. Let me tell you what (and listen closely, people who only moved here when weed became legal), River North was most definitely not a thing when I moved away from Colorado 6 years ago. RiNo was part of Five Points (another unreasonably cool neighborhood now), which was always considered “the ghetto” (or as close to “the ghetto” as a place like Denver could muster, anyway). What is now RiNo was just about as far from cool as you could get.
So when I kept hearing about how cool that area is, I was skeptical. But let me tell you, those people are right! It’s amazing the development (okay, gentrification) that has happened in that little chunk of the city over the last few years. There are so many awesome things, including (as Max and I counted) about ten breweries, a winery, a cider/beer brewing mashup, and a full-on cidery. In an attempt to up my cool factor, I spent an afternoon wandering these various boozy destinations, and landed at Stem Ciders for a big chunk of that warm autumn day. This was a good choice.
Stem Ciders looks like your typical brewery these days. There is a lovely outdoor sitting area, a food truck parked outside (on the particular day I went, the food-truck du jour was Wong Way Veg, and the grilled cheese sandwich they served us was INSANE), open garage doors to let in the fresh air and sunshine, and a guy with a man-bun and beard behind the bar (who was, in true hipster fashion, super nice when recommending drinks, but kind of annoyed when Max admitted he was more of a beer drinker than a cider drinker). Stem does a lot of barrel aging with their ciders, so one wall of the taproom was lined with oak barrels stacked like the inside of a bourbon distillery, which gave the place an extra rustic air, and matched the wood tables and stools all around the reclaimed-garage-turned-taproom.
Stem Ciders has been a big player in the Colorado cider scene, and it was pretty clear why once we got to the taproom. The back wall featured a big chalkboard denoting nearly daily events – music, food pairings, trivia, and others – at the place, and the bathroom had more than a couple posters for upcoming larger events sponsored or hosted by Stem. Not only that, but on such a beautiful autumn day, the place was nearly full, and the atmosphere was fun and lively. I was not disappointed to be spending some of my rare free time in this place. Oh yeah, and the cider was pretty damn good, too.
Winter Warmer Spiced Black Currant
- Style: Winter Seasonal
- ABV: 6.8%
This cider came to me like a giant ruby in a glass. The color was simply stunning – a deep red that just really made me want to sit and stare at it in the sunlight all afternoon. But the aromas were too enticing to do that. There was a ton of dark red fruits on the nose, particularly cherry and cranberry, mixed with a fairly healthy dose of oak and winter herbs – rosemary and sage. This is one of Stem Ciders’ seasonal ciders – and the season they were going for was obvious. If you could put Christmas in a smell (and, like, not one of those gross holiday scented candles), this is what you would get. Diving in to taste this cider kept up the intensity that came from the smells. It was bready, fruity, and oh-so-oaky. As the cider warmed, the oak became the star of the show, totally filling my skull with flavor and aroma. It reminded me of stuffing that you’d eat on Thanksgiving, and I am quite sure this cider would be an amazing pairing for that meal, with all of the rich holiday flavors coming through. I am obsessed with this cider and just wanted to order two more of these, rather than work down their menu to other offerings. Go to Stem. Order this. Seriously.
- Style: Semi-Dry
- ABV: 5.5%
The Project M is a solid menu standby, as Stem’s straight up semi-dry cider. No extras added, no fancy processes. And they do this cider quite well. To me, the cider looked and smelled like white wine (Max insisted it had some funk in the nose as well, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it). Drinking the cider was also quite like drinking a white wine that is somewhere close to the middle of the dry/sweet extremes – just a clean, crisp Prosecco flavor, maybe even something like pinot grigio (but don’t hold me to that particular grape assessment – this is a beer and cider blog, not a wine blog!). As promised, this cider was not too sweet, and went down very easily. Super solid semi-dry cider, which I think every cidery needs. It was simple, and they did it very, very well.
- Style: Dry hopped
- ABV: 6.7%
Since Max fully embodies the life of a beer reviewer, we spent a good chunk of our cider-drinking time actually talking about beer. So it was no surprise that eventually Stem Ciders’ dry-hopped selection made its way on to our table. When they say this cider is hopped, they are not fucking around. This cider smelled to me like a pale ale, even, dare I say it, an IPA. Yeah, it was THAT hoppy. However, when I took a sip, it was clear that this was not a beer, but very much still a cider. It was slightly sweet, with a clean finish, and crisp mouthfeel – again, the base cider they used was solid and delicious. But this cider was SO hoppy. When you add so many hops to a beer, you’ve got those rich, bready malts to balance out the zing and citrus from the hops. With cider, though, you’ve got apples to balance it out, and apples are decidedly less bready and absorbent than malt is. I’ve had a number of really good dry-hopped ciders, but the key is not to overwhelm the brew with those hops. Unfortunately, this cider was a miss for me.
Branch and Bramble
- Style: Dry, with raspberry
- ABV: 6.6%
Branch and Bramble is also a standby on the Stem Ciders menu. They take a dry cider and then add raspberries to create a slightly sweet, lovely light red cider. The smell was so, so fresh, like I just picked a bushel of raspberries and then stuck my face right down in the basket. First sips were the same way. The dry cider does a very good job of absorbing what would have been a super intense sweet bomb from the raspberries. Instead you get a really well-balanced cider, no too sweet, and so easy to drink. There are some tannins in the raspberries (that’s what makes them red! The more you know!), and so the finish lingers on your tongue longer than you’d expect a dry cider to. I’ve had some pretty lamentable raspberry ciders, but this was most certainly not one of them. For you beer drinkers out there, if you dig a nice lambic, you’d dig this brew. For you non-beer drinkers out there, if you dig a refreshing fruity situation, you’d dig this brew.
Stem Ciders is one of the biggest cider names in Denver and Colorado for a reason. They’ve done a lot of work to get their names out there, to get people to their taproom, and they’ve got a long list of solid brews to keep people coming back for more. The taproom is super fun, lively, and pleasant to spend time in, and if you need more of a reason than just getting drinks to get you out to RiNo for some cider, Stem Ciders has you covered there, too. My skepticism about what RiNo could offer considering its condition just a few years ago has been totally shattered, and I can’t wait for more cider taprooms of Stem’s caliber to come onto the scene. Stem is kicking ass at the Colorado cider scene, and you should get over there soon to get in on it. You won’t regret it.