Craft Beer Conversation: Small-Town Blake's Makes Big-Time Cider

WWJ News
October 18, 2019 - 12:25 am
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WWJ’s Zach Clark is searching metro Detroit for the best of the best when it comes to craft beer. On a quest for the best tastes, funkiest brews and most unique experiences on the craft beer scene, “Craft Beer Conversation” will be a weekly series highlighting the area’s best. Be sure to check it out every Friday.

ARMADA, Mich. (WWJ) -- Metro Detroiters have been heading to Northern Macomb County for decades to get a taste of fall at Blake Farms Orchard & Cider Mill.

The 100-plus acre farm has all the fall essentials – a “u-pick” orchard, hay rides, a corn maze, a cider mill and donut shop, and countless family activities. While Blake's has long been a school field trip destination -- any given weekday, the farm is packed with school buses and giddy children -- the family has taken major steps in expanding its brand in recent years.

Since 2013, Blake’s has become household name for their signature line of hard ciders.

With endless options available in the quickly expanding hard cider scene, it takes a lot for a brand to stand out. But Blake’s is doing just that – a 16-state footprint, a delicious stable of core ciders and a wide range of seasonal tastes, like the currently available roasted pumpkin Apple Lantern.

It’s all done on the family’s farm, which Gerald and Lovey Blake started in 1946 after moving out of the suburbs and into the country. While the original farmhouse still stands as Lovey’s Lavender Farm and Artisan Market, the facilities have vastly expanded in recent years. On top of cultivating their own yeast, to pressing apples on an elaborate system, they have more than 30,000 square feet of space where the magic of fermentation and branding happens inside massive tanks.

Blake’s is far more than just your standard hard cider – though the Flannel Mouth is about as good as it gets for a classic sweet apple cider. The dryer Beard Bender is the perfect opposite to the Flannel Mouth, while the Blake’s team likes to riff on flavors, such as the Triple Jam – made with their own strawberries, blackberries and raspberries from the farm for a sweeter, fruitier cider.

Then there’s El Chavo – a cider with a kick, thanks to their homegrown habanero peppers, balanced out with the sweetness of mango.

“That’s the one that we see that’s super popular when we step outside of Michigan,” said Mike Didio, Wholesale and Development Director for Blake’s. “It’s something that nobody’s ever seen before – introduce peppers into a cider and I think keeping that variety throughout our year-rounds and our kinders.”

Blake’s has a number of kinder ciders that give back to the community, including the Rainbow Seeker benefitting the LGBTQ community and Fido, in support of Pets For Patriots, an organization that helps veterans adopt pets.

It’s all available in the Blake’s Tasting Room – inside a barn that has stood for half a century -- where you can also get some good grub, such as a massive soft pretzel with an assortment of dipping sauces, a charcuterie board, burgers, flatbreads and more.

Didio says wholesalers across Michigan were very helpful in getting the brand off the ground when they first launched the hard cider line. Their product is now all over metro Detroit in bars and restaurants, small liquor stores and big box stores. And it’s not just found locally – they reach as far away as North Carolina, which Didio says is -- perhaps surprisingly -- their second biggest market.

“We’ve been very lucky with our bigger retail partners. The Meijers and the Krogers of the world brought us outside of Michigan and into their footprint. And then when you’re going into a new territory, you have that chain activation that allows the consumer to find your product a lot easier,” Didio told WWJ’s Zach Clark.

While cider is still the main attraction, a little more than a year ago, Blake’s decided to try their hand at craft beer – what Didio calls “a natural progression.”

“Being in Armada and being a smaller community out in northern Macomb County, finding a way to accommodate any consumer that walks into our taproom, I think we needed to make stuff that other people wanted to drink other than wine and cider,” Didio said.

Blake’s has about 10 beers on tap, ranging from the Top Hop – a juicy, unfiltered IPA made with MI chinooks and cascade hops – to the Donut Stout, made with Blake’s own fresh donuts.

“We hired the correct people back in production that actually could run that brew system and we trust to do it,” Didio says. “But ultimately, we’ve been fermenting products for five years. There’s no reason why we can’t step into the beer world.”

Located on Armada Center Road east of Romeo Plank Road, Blake’s has found that sweet spot when it comes to hard cider, as well as beer, that make it feel like it’s all been a part of the entire Blake’s operation since the family opened more than 70 years ago.

For more information about Blake’s Hard Cider and beer, visit blakeshardcider.com. Details about family-friendly activities are available on blakefarms.com.

Zach's Brew Review:

"When you think of hard cider, your mind likely drifts to things that are sweet, sour or even dry. But Blake's El Chavo totally breaks the mold with a dance of mangoes and habanero peppers on the tongue. It's a bit on the sweeter side but that kick from the habanero really balances it out. If you're looking for the standard cider experience, pick anything else from Blake's collection. If you're looking for a truly unique cider, El Chavo is the easy choice."

Listen below for Zach Clark's full conversation with Mike Didio, including the details on Blake's new Lite Cider:

Have a favorite brewery or brewpub you want Zach to highlight in his “Craft Beer Conversation” series? Reach out on Twitter -- @ZachEClark -- or via email at Zach.Clark@entercom.com

CHECK OUT MORE OF ZACH CLARK'S CRAFT BEER CONVERSATION SERIES