Nov 26, 2014
Orchard rides hard cider wave

When Andrew Blake first approached his family with the idea of starting a hard cider operation at Blake Farms cider mill and orchard in Armada, Michigan, the response was less than enthusiastic.

“We told him he was all wet,” said his dad, Paul Blake. “It didn’t make sense for our family or for our type of business.”

But Andrew, now 25, persisted. Having recently graduated from Michigan State University (MSU), he came back home to work on the farm and spent the better part of a year experimenting with making hard cider. It didn’t go so well at first.

“I’d bring it to family parties,” Andrew said. “That’s when I was having this big pitch to the family.

“They said, ‘Come back when it tastes good.’”

That’s exactly what he did. A year ago, the Blake family opened Blake Hard Cider, building a new tasting room where they’ve got about 10 flavors on tap and five for sale in bottles; they’re also sampling and selling wines that they’re either making themselves or having produced on their behalf. The hard cider is being distributed in 50 Michigan counties, with hopes and plans to expand to other states. People who attend events at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, home of the Detroit Lions, can even buy it there.

“It’s pretty neat when you go down there with friends and you see your product there with your name on the label,” Paul said.

A family farm

Blake Farms was established when Gerald and Elisabeth Blake, now deceased, left Detroit and bought about 159 acres some 35 miles away in 1946. They had 13 children, among them twins Pete and Paul, now 55 and the primary owners of the business.

“It started out as a u-pick farm – my parents were one of the first in the state to offer that,” Pete Blake said. “We grew up as kids working on the farm.”

In 1968, the Blakes built a cider mill, which Pete said was a turning point.

“In 1968, when we built our cider mill retail building, that’s really when the business started evolving,” he said.

Until about 15 years ago, the family delivered cider and sweet corn to grocery stores. Then they decided to concentrate more on their own retail operations. Today, Blake Farms operates three retail outlets, farming about 600 acres – 100 of them apples.

Coinciding with that, they specialize in “apple-based entertainment,” Pete said.

“We have a retail store that sells fresh apple cider, donuts, jams and jellies, and that’s in addition to our main cider mill building,” Pete said.

There are two retail stores at the main location “to take care of the large crowd we have in September and October,” he said.

Droves of people from throughout metropolitan Detroit come to enjoy apples, pet animals, walk through the cornfield maze, take pony rides and more. Blake’s offers haunted hayrides and a haunted barn. There’s also a food concession with hot dogs and Italian sausage, fries and buttered corn. Pete estimates they see between 400,000 and 500,000 people each fall at all of the locations, when they go from around 20 year-round employees to “a couple hundred” on the payroll. Many other Blake family members are involved, from running the office to providing seasonal help.

The Blakes also plant and sell Christmas trees, extending the season for visitors – and their business. They also have a landscaping division.

Now comes the hard cider, building the farm’s strength as a year-round operation and elevating the Blake’s brand to a new level.

A new generation

Andrew didn’t study agriculture when he went to MSU, known for its agricultural degrees and Extension expertise.

“I felt that growing up, I had some of the best teachers around in my dad and uncle and my cousin Eric (Blake’s chief of operations), so I didn’t feel I needed to go to school for that,” he said.

Instead, he studied business – economics and prelaw. After that, he worked in Chicago for a software engineering company and took an internship there in real estate development. Then he came home to the farm.

Along the way, he began thinking about hard cider. Seeing the craft beer and spirits market exploding in Michigan, and thinking how Blake’s was already a family entertainment destination – “all things apple-centric,” he said – he saw hard cider as a great opportunity.

“I thought it would keep the farm kind of relevant for a different demographic, and also just enhance or add options to the experience we offer,” Andrew said. “It was a really good parlay into what we were already doing.”

Still, there remained the small matter of convincing the family. Two things happened then. He got the recipes right. And they took a trip to Oregon so they could visit and learn about a variety of hard cider operations.

“Oregon was one of the first states to really push hard cider,” Pete said. “So we visited a lot of establishments.”

They returned from Oregon sold on Andrew’s idea.

“It’s an apple-based product and that’s who we are,” Pete said. “It fits nicely into what Blake orchards is all about – family entertainment, apple based.”

It took about nine months to apply for licenses and inspections, get approval and arrange financing. They built a tasting room, which opened in October 2013. Last winter, they connected with distributors who are taking Blake’s hard cider to retail outlets, bars and restaurants – and Ford Field.

“The margins get cut very low, and you’re distributing through a distributor, but the name recognition gets built up by doing it,” Paul said.

They’ve also launched a marketing campaign that includes TV commercials and billboards.

“Andrew is kind of leading the charge on that,” Pete said. “He’s got some friends … who have done a terrific job putting these commercials together.”

The message behind Blake’s marketing campaign is simple.

“We’re advertising our brand – the Blake name – all facets of it: the hard cider, the apples, family entertainment,” Paul said. “It’s a process that’s evolving.”

On a recent fall Friday night, the Hard Cider House was buzzing with a heavily skewed young-adult crowd, along with groups that included employees from downtown Detroit’s Quicken Loans who’d come for a team-building outing. Blake’s Cider House and Winery, which also offers a limited food menu, was recently named one of the Best Bars in America by the Esquire network. As a result, a crew from California came to film a segment to air on the channel.

Positioned for the future

With hard cider having the potential to consume about 20 percent of the apples they grow, and the rest going to cider, retail and a little wholesale, the Blakes are able to use 100 percent of their own crop now. They’ve recently ordered some new heirloom variety apples specifically for the cider, which they’re planting on additional acreage.

This past summer, Blake’s took it up another notch by rebuilding their main cider location.

“The response (to the tasting room) from our customers was so great, and our main building didn’t look like that, so we set out this summer to create the same image in our main building, and we think we did a pretty good job of it,” Pete said.

The response has been positive.

“There’s a lot of moving parts with anything you do such as this,” Paul said. “It looks great on the outside, but on the inside, there’s a ton of work and accounting and record-keeping and production logs that go with this, and adds to the workload.

“But as far as the future business plan, we’re really positive that it has some great potential.”

So is Mike Beck, one of the owners of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan, and president of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. The Blakes can’t say enough about how helpful he was in providing guidance as they navigated the process of starting their own hard-cider operation. He’s glad to do it because he sees value in numbers.

“I can’t create an industry on my own,” said Beck, who also makes hard cider at Uncle John’s, another farm-based entertainment destination. “I’m trying to create an industry here in Michigan. One brand can’t do it.”

With more than 100 cider mills in the state – about 40 currently making hard cider – he said expanding to hard cider is a no-brainer for those already making the regular kind.

“Say you’re getting $5 to $8 a gallon for fresh juice,” Beck said. “When I tell them (cider mill owners) that they can get close to maybe $50 a gallon (for hard cider), everyone looks at it differently.

“You have the orchard, you have the cider press, you have the tanks,” he said. “A few more pieces of equipment and a license is all it takes to get into the business.”

Kathy Gibbons

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