Eric Foster and Phil Kao founded Stem in 2013, opening the doors to their cider house and taproom at 2811 Walnut Street in January 2014. Since then, cider has surged in popularity nationwide — thanks to craft producers like Stem. Last year, Foster and Kao purchased several acres of land in Lafayette and broke ground on Acreage this past January. What Google Maps doesn't show is that the new facility is nearly complete; Stem expects to open in January with a taproom and wood-fired restaurant conceptualized by two of Boulder and Denver's top chefs.
Kelly Whitaker, chef/owner of Basta in Boulder, says he first came on as a consultant for the project about eight months ago. Whitaker's company, Id Est Hospitality Group, currently only includes one brick-and-mortar restaurant, but is heavily involved in the food-service community in the metro area. "We were just so impressed with the project," Whitaker explains. "We tend to collaborate with a lot of groups, both nonprofit and privately owned. [Stem] does cider, and they wanted to put food with that, but they didn't want to have anything to do with the kitchen, which is smart."
Whitaker is also co-chair of the Boulder chapter of Chefs Collaborative (an organization of chefs dedicated to improving local and regional food systems) along with chef Daniel Asher of Boulder's River and Woods. This fall he brought Asher on board the Acreage project to help hammer out the overall vision and the menu.
"My part was the concept, the vision, the setup," Whitaker adds. "But really, Daniel is driving the menu."
For his part, Asher says his focus is on "setting up a relationship between craft cider and carefully crafted food. [Kelly and I] have been friends forever, but we've never been involved in a culinary project together. We're going to play off one another's strengths and have some fun."
Whitaker brings his years of cooking over wood to the project, noting that he and his team recently returned from an exploratory trip to Spain's Basque region, where cider is an important part of the food culture. "Every restaurant in San Sebastian has a wood grill outside," he points out, noting that the orchards Stem is is planting on the twelve-acre property and the hilltop location are reminiscent of his trip. "The views are unobstructed — it's a magical setting," he adds.
The counter-service restaurant and taproom will take up 5,000 square feet and will seat up to 200 guests. Menu specifics are being kept under wraps for now, but both chefs are dedicated to supporting Colorado's farming and ranching community — and that's not just lip service; Whitaker's nonprofit Noble Grain Alliance has already helped farmers produce heritage grains for use at Basta and many other Front Range restaurants, and Asher has met with policy makers in Washington, D.C. to advocate for local agriculture and sustainable farming practices. While Whitaker's role is as opening consultant, Asher will add ongoing support. "I'm consulting from a development standpoint and then being on board to ensure that the expression of what we've envisioned continues to meet the standards we've set."
Other aspects of the farmhouse-style project include a patio and cider garden (like a beer garden, but with cider), a much larger production facility that will allow national brand expansion, and Stem's company headquarters. The overall concept will be unique in Colorado and a model for other cider makers around the U.S., putting Stem on the same playing field as more established breweries like Avery and Breckenridge that have recently opened massive restaurant-brewery complexes.