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Even if you haven’t been to Blake’s Hard Cider Co. in Armada, you’ve probably brought a piece of the 800-acre apple orchard home. After all, they have more than a dozen flavors of apple cider available year-round for retail purchase and on tap at a variety of Lansing locations like the Avenue Café, Mac’s Bar, the Unicorn Tavern, UrbanBeat Event Center and of course, across all Meijer, Kroger and Quality Dairy stores. The cider’s reach extends far beyond Michigan, too.
“We’ve got different brands that are on tap in 13 different states. By Dec. 1, that’ll be 16 different states,” said Chelsea Iadipaolo, Blake’s marketing director. “There’s Flannel Mouth, our classic; El Chavo, the Mango Habanero; Wakefire, our cherry and orange peel; Beard Bender, our dry, and Grizzly Pear. It’s still apple-based but with pear juice and elderflower.”
And of course, many more than that.
Those five flavors are the most popular in Michigan. Nationally, El Chavo is breaking the most sales records. In fact, Blake’s Cider Co. is doing so well that it has become the nation’s fastest-growing hard cider company, projected to reach 600,000 gallons of the stuff by the end of the year.
“That’s based on Nielson data from last year,” Iadipaolo said. “We also happen to be the most visited cider mill in the U.S.”
These explosively popular drinks have a strong connection to the Lansing area, too.
“We’re owned by three Michigan State University graduates,” Iadipaolo said. “Two of which were in the agricultural program, which, obviously, MSU is known for.
Lansing is near and dear to our hearts and we’re proud to be all over the state.”
It all began in 1946 with Terry Blake, still in the military after World War II.
“He wrote to his wife, Lovey Blake, that he wanted to take his earnings and buy an orchard,” Iadipaolo said. “Thirteen kids later, the cider mill’s true workforce, and here we are today. Children 11 and 12 are Pete Blake and Paul Blake, the current owners with nephew Eric Blake. You’ve got three Blakes running the orchard.”
With the hard cidery’s success, it may seem like making its popular alcoholic brews has also been a 71-year tradition, but in reality the cidery is a famous “you-pick” produce location and autumnal attraction. The hard cider company only launched three years ago — and with much persuasion.
“Paul’s son graduated from Michigan State, comes out of college and said, ‘I’m going to try real estate.’ He went to Chicago, worked a little bit out there and then said, ‘I need to be home,’” Iadipaolo said. “He tried to convince his family to make hard cider. It took him six months to convince them to pull a liquor license to actually make the product.”
After many rough batches and tons of trial and error, Flannel Mouse, and a host of other flavors, was born. And it certainly paid off in terms of demand.
“We just completed our third expansion. This last one was a $2 million buildout which doubled our capacity,” Iadipaolo said. “It’s a 48,000-square foot production facility that’s equipped with heated floors, it’s super environmentally friendly, green and economical. We had to do it to meet the demand, and Whole Foods just picked us up in three new states.”
Iadipaolo believes that the demand for the company’s drinks has gotten so high for two reasons: half a million annual visitors and timing.
“Having that kind of foot traffic in our backyard has played a large role in our success, but also kind of getting in at a good time too. Craft beer kind of took off in ’08, ’09, ’10, that’s when we saw that spike,” she said. “The U.S. didn’t really feel until craft had taken off for a few years and really made a name for itself. In 2014, we launched our hard cider company based on the notion that there really wasn’t any other craft hard cider in the market. We had the apples to do it, and we believed in taking this idea of Angry Orchard and teaching consumers that there’s so much more to hard cider than that, and there’s another option than big beer.”
And the company is hard at work developing new flavors to keep their piece of the market engaged at the same level. Iadipaolo believes that their most recent creation, Professor Plum, developed only a month before, will catch up in national popularity soon.
“A hard cider maker came to us and said, ‘Listen, we had a great crop of plums this year on the farm. I want to make a plum cider and ferment the cider on plum skin,’” she said. “We thought, ‘Plum? Cool I guess.’” But it blew all expectations out of the water.
“It is by far the best cider in my opinion that we made so far. It outsold every other cider in the tasting room instead of Flannel Mouth,” she said. “That cider is going to be part of the Forage Series. I think that’s a very unique story in itself that we literally went and picked plums and waited a month. We waited a month and got some that gave it a little bit of a different flavor profile to come up with the perfect recipe.”
In the end, that is the most labor-intensive part of the cider-making process.
“A lot of thought goes into it, a lot of different fruits go into it and experimenting and waiting, a lot of fails, drinking but it’s our favorite part. The R and D, the research and development, is the most important part,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the liquid. You can’t mask terrible liquid with a good package the consumer is too smart.”