Q & A: Patrick Combs, Director of Liquids at Stem Ciders, Talks Product Innovation | Westword

Q & A: Patrick Combs, Director of Liquids at Stem Ciders, Talks Product Innovation

"What we’re making here, and what’s being made at other cideries in the United States, are really the next wave of things."
Patrick Combs in the barrel room at Acreage.
Patrick Combs in the barrel room at Acreage. Patrick Combs

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Patrick Combs spent the better part of a decade in the beer industry, working as a sensory scientist for Avery Brewing, production manager at Cerebral Brewing and quality manager at WeldWerks. But in 2021, he was offered the opportunity to join Stem Ciders in a product innovation role, a chance he couldn't pass up.

Now, as director of liquid for the company, Combs is leaning on his knowledge and experience from the beer industry to create new and exciting concoctions in the world of cider. From tequila barrel-aged ciders and dry hopped cider collaborations with space companies to cocktail-inspired ciders like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Hurricane and Singapore Sling, Combs is bringing new flavors and ideas to adventurous cider sippers and curious beer drinkers.

You can get a taste of his creations at Stem's two locations — the Lafayette production facility and Acreage restaurant, and the RiNo taproom and eatery, which debuted late last year.

We caught up with Combs to learn more about his role and his take on the cider industry:
click to enlarge Cider can and glass with raspberries and lemons
A collaboration cider with Advanced Space that celebrates the CAPSTONE spacecraft.
Stem Ciders
How do you decide how much experimentation you want to do versus how safe you want to be? There’s a wide spectrum in the brewing industry, from safe and repeatable to wacky and wild. Where do you fall, and why?

At our retail locations, I’m not afraid to do anything. We’ll put anything in a cider and at least make it a draft-only batch. Apricot Haze started in summer 2021. We made a 100-gallon batch, and it sold out in a weekend at the taproom. So we knew that was one that we needed to play around with and explore further. And that wasn’t necessarily a risk, but it was a really fun cider to make.

We have a cider that’s all wildflowers and a bit of citrus for Mother’s Day. The aromatics from the wildflowers are intense, the base character is intense. We sweetened it up with honey, and I think it landed in a really fun place.

But if we make it a national release, it’s going to be a more calculated decision. We distribute in twenty states and sell to 38 states through our online store.
click to enlarge Cider can with tangerine on the label.
Tangerine Whip is just one of Stem's flavorful ciders.
Stem Ciders
What is a cider that exemplifies what you’re doing at Stem?

Our current seasonal, Tangerine Whip. We use tapioca maltodextrin instead of lactose in there. We’re not using any GMO ingredients; we’re in Whole Foods and Natural Grocers. I wanted to use ingredients that are respectful of the path that we’ve chosen with whole ingredients. Organic cane sugar, as well. The tapioca maltodextrin replaces lactose, since lactose is one of the most common allergens in the world. It lets us have a somewhat creamy body and still have the perceived sweetness.

And then we use tangerine purée and Madagascar vanilla. We wanted the ice cream kind of profile, because that’s what most people associate with vanilla. Ugandan vanilla is very Raisinets-forward, and caramel, and Fiji vanilla is dry and sharper with rum notes. So Madagascar is more classic vanilla sugar cookies/ice cream.

How was the response?

The response has been very good. You know, we’ve created a beverage that only has 3.5 grams of added sugar and still tastes like a dessert cider. It tastes semi-sweet. There’s plenty of people out there making similar creations, but they’re twenty to thirty grams of sugar, the same as a soda. Then you add the calories from alcohol, and you end up with something that’s 250 to 275 calories in a twelve-ounce serving. And that’s just a lot; I can’t drink that. I selfishly want to make beverages that I can drink. It’s gotta have balance at the end of the day, and be sessionable to a degree. You don’t need to drink seven Tangerine Whips in a setting; I don’t ever want you to do that. But I also don’t want people to have a three-ounce sample and be like, "Okay, cool, I’m good, thanks."
click to enlarge Adirondack chairs facing a view of the Rocky Mountains.
The view from the garden at Acreage.
Stem Ciders
Stem Ciders, the Acreage location in particular, has a real focus on food. What part does food play into your decision-making process when creating cider and coming up with new flavor profiles?

It’s absolutely huge. Beer is so good at [pairing with food]. The disadvantage that we have is that apple acidity can be really good, but it can also be really clashing. So we have to land somewhere that is complimentary in a lot of ways, and every single time I go back to the lemonade balance — you have to have enough residual sweetness to balance the acidity. The consideration of "What are people going to drink this with?" and “How well with that mesh together?” is always at the forefront of my mind.

Apricot Haze is a great cider to pair with food because you have bitterness from the hops, you have tropical flavors, and you have body from the apricot itself.

Food and cider has always been an easy pairing in that you tend to pair cider with richer foods. You tend to pair it with fattier foods and spicier foods, because the sweetness and acidity tend to cut through all of that. It’s harder to pair cider with desserts and acidic food. But something like our Old Fashioned cider is a little closer to that dessert, and pairing it with a slice of apple pie is gonna be really nice.
click to enlarge Burger and chips on a plate in front of a flight of cider in glasses
Stem aims to deliver ciders that pair well with rich, flavorful food.
Stem Ciders
What is the future outlook for cider? What kind of people are getting into it?

I think a lot of craft beer drinkers are branching out and exploring other brands. One of the craziest things I saw at [the Craft Brewers Conference] was a person in the cider industry speaking to breweries who would say that their number-one seller was an IPA, but their number-two seller was a cider that they bring into the taproom for everybody else that is looking for non-beer options.

Even in our own accounts, we have seen accounts that are breweries that sell some of the most cider of any customers. Breweries are bringing in cider and they want an option on tap, and they want something that they can stand behind. I think that’s interesting.

Sometimes people just want something a little different, and I think, as a country, we’ve placed such an emphasis on craft breweries in that they are a place to gather with friends, to play board games, to watch sports, to grab food from a food truck and just spend some time and hang out with people. We just have more people headed into breweries now that have never spent time in breweries and aren’t necessarily beer people. There are people like my mom — they’re not beer drinkers, they’ve always been wine drinkers, and they’re looking for something that kind of checks the same box.

Where is cider today compared to beer?

I don’t have all the answers here, but cider was often super-sticky, sweet — it tasted like Martinelli’s with alcohol in it back in the day, and plenty of mainstream cider still does. What we’re making here, and what’s being made at other cideries in the United States, are really the next wave of things. And I think we’re still twenty years behind the craft beer scene; we’re headed into the early 2000s of the beer scene by equivalent, where it’s like, yeah, we made a mint julep and an Old Fashioned cider.
click to enlarge Cider in a hand with wood logs in background.
Neural Nectar, a cider with lion's mane mushroom extract.
Stem Ciders
You use a lot of different flavors in some of these ciders. Is there a point where a cider is no longer a cider?

I think a lot of people in the cider industry are afraid of doing some of these things. Even on the beer side, there’s a huge resurgence of beer-flavored beer, and I’m all about it. That’s part of the reason that Howdy Pilsner is within our stable of brands. We wanted a beer brand that we could sell with our cider. So if you want beer-flavored beer, we make it. You want crazy ciders? We make it. You want off-dry, real dry cider? We make it.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think you can be afraid to "cover up the apple character," because the soul of the beverage is still there.

Our Old Fashioned cider has a lot of ingredients in it. Neural Nectar and Tangerine Whip have a lot of ingredients in them. But when you taste them, you still know you’re drinking cider. There are elements in there that let you know that you’re not drinking a kettle sour beer; you’re not drinking a different beverage.

I think there are sort of two camps there, just like when I was on the beer side. There's "We want to preserve the character of the beer. If we make a peach IPA, we want to still taste plenty of hops and malt, and we’re afraid to throw too much peach character at it because it might overwhelm the [rest of it]." And that’s fine, you can make a nuanced beverage that way and blend in a way that makes sense.

But people are usually expecting what you are billing for, right? So if I tell you this is a Tangerine Whip, this is an orange creamsicle-inspired cider. It had better taste like an orange creamsicle, and you'd better have a smile on your face and just an unexplained level of happiness, or you’re going to walk away from that interaction just sad.

Our mint julep cider is a perfect example of that. If I give you a cider and say this is mint julep and it doesn’t have a bourbon character, a sweetness and mint, I’ve failed.

I can make something that’s ultra-nuanced, that has a very delicate hand of mint. But that’s not mint julep. A mint julep is muddling mint, a huge sprig of mint in the top, and you’re burying your nose in the glass when you take that sip. And if I can’t re-create that experience, then I’ve failed.
click to enlarge DInner in the barrel room at Stem Ciders.
The barrel room at Stem's Acreage location hosts special events.
Stem Ciders
What was the inspiration behind your tiki series?

Tiki is having a bit of a moment in the cocktail world. I’m personally obsessed with the entire tiki cocktail culture of reviving old drinks from old recipe books, of creating new drinks that are an homage thereof. And I wanted to create something that sort of checked a lot of the same boxes. With Singapore Sling, we’ve got some juniper berry in there to re-create the gin character, and some fennel and other herbs. We took the alcohol percentage to 8.5 so that it delivers on bringing a stronger drink. I wanted to re-create those cocktails as respectfully as I could, to check all the boxes on the flavor profile while maintaining a sessionability.

You’ve gotta be able to drink sixteen ounces if I’m going to serve it in [that format]. And if you get halfway through and you feel it’s too acidic, too sweet or too veracious, then we’ve failed. I wanted to push those boundaries and see what directions we could go with. It can get hot up here during the summer at Acreage, and the ability to create something that is sort of the tropical escape of a beverage is really exciting.

Hurricane Haze is the next one; it’s based on the Hurricane cocktail, so we use a lot of passion fruit, rum-like spices. We lean on ingredients like long pepper, a high-toast vanilla oak to help re-create some of that vanilla-forward rum profile. It’s just a different play on the imperial ciders that we’re seeing so frequently now.

For more information on Stem Ciders, visit stemciders.com.
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