Denver Seitan Company: One year later

Owners discussing the finer points of nutritional yeast.

Owners discussing the finer points of nutritional yeast.

One year and one day ago (September 11, 2011), this company was more-or-less founded upon some serious ideals: deliciousness, quality, and beards. It’s been an amazing year. Thank you all so much for eating. Don’t ever stop.

Seriously, if you stop eating you will straight up die.

Here’s a shot from the archives of the owners discussing the finer points of nutritional yeast.

Shut down by the Health Department

denver seitan - mark and timYou may have noticed that we’ve been a little quiet lately. Perhaps too quiet… We were absent from Neat Market on Sunday, and we haven’t been filling orders or taking new clients. We’re not avoiding you – trust us. Here’s what happened:

The legal and regulatory framework surrounding small, craft producers of vegan goods was only somewhat known to us as we embarked upon this adventure. Piece by piece, we were adding in the protections necessary to keep the company running and keep our products safe for all of you to enjoy. But we didn’t work fast enough. Our seitan was confiscated by the Health Department as part of an embargo. This is why you haven’t seen our stuff at Marquis Pizza or the Vegan Van recently. It’s also why we’ve gone dark as of late. We wanted to be able to tell the whole story and have solid answers for you all at once.

After working closely with numerous agencies and filing loads of applications, we’ve gotten the “You can sell to humans again – your products aren’t likely to kill them.” certification from Denver and the State. In the end, it was a matter of us not following the rules properly and DEFINITELY NOT a matter of making dangerous wheat treats. This is good news! We’ve got to change around our labeling a bit to get in compliance, but other than that we’re a straight-up real company, yo.
Expect some sweeping changes to our product line, packaging, and penetration into the Denver community. You’ve stuck with us this long – help us explode into the next era of wheat meat-fueled glory and conquest. We look forward to feeding you.

– The Denver Seitan Dudes

P.S. Please share this newsletter widely on Facebook and Twitter – we want our legions prepared and hungry when the time comes. Also, follow us on Instagram (denverseitan) -where we’ll be posting all kinds of interesting and behind-the-scenes shots. Also, we love you.

The Story of Denver Seitan Company

A vegan animal activist (Josh), a flexitarian small-batch coffee roaster (Mark), and a raw veggie humanitarian (Tim) went out to hike Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in all of Colorado. The 14,440 ft. mountain had always intrigued the trio, who often dreamed of lofty things and ever loftier ideals – like quality, justice, and fun times. As these manly men, who were also in touch with their feminine sides, reached the summit, they realized that they were alone, and also surrounded by odd clouds.

“Where are the other climbers?” pondered Josh.

“Yeah, guys, this is really weird.” stated Tim, nervously.

Just then Mark, who has very sharp eyes, pointed to an opening in the clouds. “Guys, look! An opening in the clouds!”

The trio walked anxiously toward the opening. More clouds moved away, and what was formerly the summit of Mt. Elbert revealed an even taller peak behind it! Mark, Tim, and Josh, seeking adventures beyond their wildest dreams, climbed higher.

GPS devices failed, boots fell apart, and rations (no animal products) ran low, but the team advanced, fighting through vicious hailstorms and snowfall and angry goats to reach the True Peak of Mt. Elbert. The journey took many minutes.

As the trio emerged to a sunny and warm rock field at the previously hidden summit, they beheld a small Chinese man (of course) meditating (of course) intently (of course) upon three small wrapped packages at his feet.

“You have come a long way to be with me this day, my friends.” said the wizened old bastard.

Josh, Mark, and Tim approached the old man cautiously and took up seated positions in front of him.

“Do you seek to unlock the ancient secrets of seitan?” the man asked.

“Say what?” questioned Mark.

“Thousands of years ago, empires rose and fell upon the fortunes of their wheat meat. Seitan is the logical conclusion to all things. You three have been chosen to reveal its existence to the world. Take the packages in front of you and return to the human world. Change the diets of Americans for the better while at the same time providing an artisanal food at a not-quite-artisanal pricepoint.” And with that, the old man vanished.

Tim, Josh, and Mark each unopened one of the mysterious packages. They were, indeed, filled with delicious, hearty wheat gluten in a variety of flavors. Josh, who speaks Chinese, read the ancient recipes and their names: “Chickenesque – comforting like the soup of the same name on a cold day. SmokySpicy – with a kick and long-lasting flavor. Sicilian – Classic Italian flavors with a kidney bean twist.”

The trio embraced and jumped into the air at the same time while each taking a big bite of seitan, which was super-tasty. Bright light exploded behind them and they paused in mid-air like some kinda movie.

They ran back down the mountain as fast as they could to bring the gift of delicious, artisan seitan to the people of the world.

And thus was born the Denver Seitan Company.

Note: This story inspired by a fever dream that Tim’s little brother had a decade ago.

How we build a seitan recipe and release it to the wild

Creating a seitan recipe is a dangerous process, if by “dangerous” I mean fascinating and aggravating at the same time. Whether it’s seitan cutlets, seitan bacon, or seitan wings, there are a few simple steps that determine what ends up in our active roster. Here’s how it generally goes:

1. Determine a need: Sometimes these needs come from our own minds, but our customers let us know, too. For instance, our friend Amie at the Vegan Van told us in no uncertain terms that we must carry a chorizo-style log.

2. Create a “parent components list”: Don’t confuse this with a recipe yet. What we do at this stage is decide what on earth ought to go into a given recipe. For chorizo, this meant a robust heat profile, preferably with multiple chili pepper flavors, a deep red color, some vinegar backbone, and an emphasis on traditional Mexican/Spanish/Portuguese spices. Oh, and GARLIC. We also had to bear in mind that chorizo seitan needed to be a bit less dense than our other styles.

3. Research “parent recipes”: We’re not reinventing the wheel – we’re just putting some 20-inch riiiiiiiiims on it. Their are plenty of chefs out there posting their own versions of recipes, so we take to the web and look them up, trying out a few promising versions and looking for what makes each one really sing. Should we use whole coriander or coriander powder? Do most recipes use red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar? How do we balance texture with ease of cooking? These are all topics that hop through our brains during this stage.

4. Deep testing: Once we’ve determined what items (spices, flours, liquids) will constitute our “core recipe”, we test it – ruthlessly. This is the aggravating stage. Every test batch that we make represents lost profit potential, and some of these versions are decidedly disgusting. One of our first attempts at chorizo was overwhelmingly vinegary and literally stiff with chili powder. It was inedible. We take notes and try again, altering what might seem like minute amounts of certain spices. The difference between 1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper and 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper is vast. Take a spoonful if you don’t believe us. :)

5. Yield tests and profitability: We’ve come a long way since the days when our logs were all shaped differently. We now use a standard weight for all logs, and we know how much raw material will yield X number of logs. For a given recipe in development, we have to determine what our raw costs are vs. how much we can conceivably charge the hungry public. On top of that, we’ve got to bear in mind that one “batch” of chorizo may produce four logs, while a batch of Sicilian or Chickenesque may only produce one or two logs. If all of these numbers line up, we’re on our way to a new product!

6. Human trials and alterations: Although our friends and membership-holders get special access to the deep testing phase, we still have to run this stuff past the general public. By this time, we’ve got the recipe, costs/yields, and weights dialed in, so if we do have to make more small changes we can quickly deploy them. If a majority of our testers find a style to be too spicy/smoky/floppy/stiff/dry/gummy/sweet/whatever, we can alter our recipe without much fuss.

7. Branding and wiping away a tear as our little baby goes off on its own: So much of what we do at Denver Seitan is tied up in how we talk and present our wheat meat. We’re big on solid, unitary branding, so how we name our seitan and design its packaging stamp (stay tuned) is a huge part of the process. The chorizo recipe that we’ve been following went through a few name and identity iterations, but we settled on “Sureizo”, since it’s still pretty close. If a customer wants to dig deeper, we can say that, “We’re sure that this is vegan.” See how damn clever we are?

And that’s the process, folks. Sureizo is a less-dense, easier-to-crumble, delicious log. Three different kinds of chili pepper provide a complex and long-lasting heat, and fresh garlic suffuses the whole hot mess. We dig it, and we hope that you will, too.

Our first profitable night at Denver Seitan Company

At the time of writing (November 25th, 2011), Denver Seitan Company was about two and a half months old. 

A big part of the momentum behind Denver Seitan Company has been CHOMP, a monthly vegan dinner run by Plants and Animals Denver. Josh, one of the points on our Glowing Triangle Shuriken of Business Doom, is an organizer, so it’s a natural fit. At last October’s CHOMP, we brought a ton of logs to sell and plenty of samples (probably too many samples, actually), including some raffle items and a few other giveaway logs. Some people paid us, even a few at our desired price point, but we more or less burned money on the promotional value of the event.

In hindsight, it was more than worth it. The response online and off was incredible, and built momentum that propelled us into serious planning sessions. We returned to November’s incarnation of the vegan feast with some modified recipes and slightly fewer logs than last time. To be honest, we were a bit tired from all the cooking and thinking and raw material purchases. This CHOMP was make or break. And we…maked?

We turned a profit, at least in an isolated sense. The ingredients that I’d purchased for that night would last us at least two other cooking sessions, so there was plenty to go around. We sold every log that we’d brought before dinner was over, which is crazy. We even had to wrap up a few of the logs that we’d brought to chop up as samples!

Money in our pockets at the end of the night – cost of materials to last for a few more weeks = Something in the black. A positive change. A profit. Now granted, in the history of the company, we’re still in the red. Start-up costs will eventually be met, but at least for that one night we were a “functional” business.

I’m looking forward to many more evenings such as this. Demand for our product is growing.

We are the Denver Seitan Company. You will be convinced of the merits of wheat meat. Resistance is futile.

Actually, resistance is pretty much fine, cuz we’re not gonna force this lifestyle on anyone. It’s too awesome and we don’t want to water down our mojo. 😉