Alumni have great spirits

Sep 012011
Authors: Kirsten Gaede

Heather Bean graduated from high school at age 14. She graduated from CSU with a Master’s of Science in Chemical Engineering at 20 years old. Today, Bean has left the stodgy pace of the corporate world to a more creative side of science, hand-crafted spirits.

Bean and her partner, Jeff Copeland, started their distillery and vodka bar, Syntax Spirits, about a year ago.

“The name is really just a bad pun for the ‘sin tax’ which is what people say for the tax on tobacco, alcohol and firearms, you know, anything that is fun has a ‘sin tax’ put on it because people will pay it,” Bean said, “I also like the name because I used to be a programmer and a writer. So, the English syntax or the computer syntax has always been important to me and Jeff, who was a programmer too.”

Their first product is vodka called ‘Syntax V’ (pronounced, sin-tax five) and is sold in more than 75 bars and liquor stores throughout Colorado. They hope to have white rum by Christmas.

The Syntax Scientists

After Bean graduated from CSU with a Master’s of Science in Chemical Engineering, she went into a career at Hewlett-Packard in Fort Collins. Copeland has a background in science and is a legacy of CSU, where he completed a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science.

To stay in the black, Copland continues to work part-time at the National Center for Atmospheric Science in Boulder. Their combined savings and additional effort from Copland fund ‘Syntax Spirits’ without any loans or investors.

To help them with their up-and-coming business, they have hired two employees. Ryne Sherman was hired to be their chief distiller and Ryan Dregalla, a fellow CSU alumnus, as the director of sales.

“For me, the mission statement here goes so many levels beyond just going and doing science somewhere.” Dregalla said, “So, I am willing to do whatever they need me to do to be part of this and they need me to be doing sales, public relations and marketing. To me it’s a challenge and that’s why I got into science to begin with, this is something I’ve never done before.”

Dregalla graduated CSU with a Bachelor’s in science in Microbiology in 2007 and a Ph.D. in the Cellular & Molecular Biology Program in 2011.

Sherman has a background in fermenting science and brewing in general from working at the Crabtree Brewery, next to their distillery.

The “Syntax Scientists” are all avid kayakers. Bean, Copland and Dregalla met while playing a sport called ‘Kayak Polo’ and have since gotten Sherman hooked on the sport.
“It is really how we all got to know each other,” Dregalla said.

Bean’s Dream Company

Bean, who made home brews for years, got the idea for Syntax while traveling to Portland, Ore. on business. She discovered a relatively untapped market in the brewing industry, micro-distilleries.

“Out there (Portland) microbreweries are like Starbucks, there is, pretty much, a brewery on every corner and when I was out there, they were just starting this new, funky-thing, hand-crafted distilleries. My friends told me that I had to go see these new distilleries,” Bean said.

“When I saw these businesses, it was like they were where micro-brewers were 20 years ago. It was new, it was small and you could get into it, on a fairly small scale, without having to have millions of dollars in start-up capital to go big. That really appealed to me,” she said.

It was perfect timing for Bean to find her niche because she felt her corporate career growing old.

When she got home, she separated herself from her corporate work environment and recruited Copeland on as a proprietor and distiller.

Together, they began obtaining the appropriate licenses and used craigslist and eBay to gather all the various components needed for a large-scale distillation. Bean used her mechanical engineering skills to design everything down to the copper distillations tubes and she installed the boilers herself.

“The hard part was finding a way to assemble (the parts) to fit our needs,” Bean said.

The Unique Flavor

“Most vodka is made in pots. The system we have allows us to control every aspect of the vodka’s flavor,” Dregalla said. “A professor once told me ‘to make something new, you must start with something new, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

After the distillation processes, Sherman takes time to scientifically experiment with Syntax V’s flavor by ‘infusing’ local fruits and vegetables.

“Our most popular flavor is the (Perky Pepper) and that is a really a cool one. The base is a mixture of jalapeños, Serrano and bell poblano peppers,” Sherman said, “It sounds like it would be so spicy, but it’s not. You can really taste the pepper’s individual flavors.”

Environmentally Friendly

Syntax Spirits prides itself on being a sustainable business. The wheat they use to make the vodka is picked up three blocks down the road from their distillery and vodka bar. Wheat left over after production is fed to another farmer’s pigs and they encourage their customers to bring back their bottles to be sanitized and reused.

“This isn’t about getting rich,” said Dregalla, “It’s a quality of life thing. We are doing something that is challenging and fulfilling.”

_Collegian writer Kristen Gaede can be reached at _

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