Andrew Blake is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He’s part of the third generation of Blakes to work on Blake Farms, a booming operation located in Armada, Michigan, a small town about an hour outside of Detroit. It started as a modest, 100-acre apple orchard, purchased sight unseen by his grandfather, Gerald, in 1946, after he left his job as an engineer for Chrysler. With a homegrown workforce of 13 children to help around the farm, plenty of things got done.
In the time since, under the direction of Andrew’s father and uncle, the farm’s footprint has expanded 10-fold in area, and the amount of workers is nearly 50 times the size of the nuclear family that initially populated a three-bedroom farmhouse. With integrated retail elements, Blake Farms has transformed into a family-oriented agri-tainment destination and serves as one of the more-visited tourist spots in Michigan, with nearly 700,000 annual visitors.
But where was Andrew Blake going to fit into it all after graduating from Michigan State University? It turns out that, with a little luck and a particular kind of thirst, he’d launch an entirely new wing of the Blake empire and take the company into the beverage aisle of grocery stores in nearly half the states in the union.
And that’s only so far.
As Blake’s Hard Cider continues to grow and prosper, he’s looking to give back to the world by supporting causes the company believes in, culminating in an initiative they call the Kinder Cider Series.
Also, mead? Here’s what Andrew Blake had to say.
Kevin Tall: Hey Andrew, thanks for taking a bit of time to talk with me. So, to get started with a little background, talk to me about the genesis of Blake’s Hard Cider from Blake Farms.
Andrew Blake: After graduating college, I didn’t really have an idea of what I was passionate about, what I wanted to get into. But we had a big juice-making operation, and, with that, a lot of resources for a lot of opportunities. I started making hard cider and wine in my house in college after taking a couple of classes at the local brew shop. I came back to my dad and uncle with this idea to turn part of our business into a hard cider winery with a tasting room. No plans for anything extremely huge. We opened the tasting room in 2013 and got really lucky with timing. We make a lot of really, really great liquid because we grow a lot of the produce and products that we turn into our hard ciders and our wines.
We’re currently the eighth-largest craft hard cidery in the country. We’re in 19 different states and we have a pretty large, fast-growing platform and we’re becoming a very well-recognized brand within that space.
Blake’s Hard Cider was initially your idea. I know you were an econ major, so was that a passion project or just good business sense? Had that always held interest for you or was it just a sort of vertical integration?
Like most things, with good business, a lot of it’s luck and just striking the right chord. I was an econ major because I got dropped out of the business school because I wasn’t disciplined in my college years. I like to think that’s changed now. So that’s what kind of sparked me to get my act together to try to bring some value back into our family business and that’s when I got pretty passionate about learning to craft and make wines and hard ciders.
Do you oversee all the different cider varieties?
I do, yes. So, basically, Blake Farms currently employs close to 700 employees, with all the different companies, and the hard cider portion of our business has 50 employees, and I directly oversee every aspect of the hard cider part of our business.
As far as the daily production aspect, what’s your current role?
Any more, I’m working on it in an R&D fashion, in a conceptual fashion. Coming up with new flavors, designing profiles. I’m proud to say that, with our success, we’ve been able to hire winemakers more talented than myself, and that’s a really good feeling. We actually have a dedicated staff of trained winemakers and cider makers and beer makers who work at our facility and I’m currently playing more of a strategic role.
So talk to me about Rainbow Seeker, your newest release, which is, I believe, the first of the Kinder Cider Series.
Basically, what the Kinder Cider Series is… we’ve had the seasonal few that we’ve had out there for a long time. We’ve always been a family establishment and we’ve always been passionate about embracing family; that’s what made us successful. We’re a family company, we support local families that work here, and families come out and enjoy our experience. The Kinder Cider Series was our attempt to bring awareness and support to different things — socially, culturally, economically — that we feel affect our world and our native Michigan.
Rainbow Seeker is a pineapple-and-sage-infused hard cider. Real pineapple juice, late-harvest apples. It’s going to be distributed in 19 states throughout the country, all large retailers. Meijers, Krogers, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods. We actually partnered with the Human Rights Campaign, so it’s a product made in partnership and support of the LGBTQ community. We’re donating, at minimum, $40,000 to the cause to help support and raise awareness for the different issues that HRC is taking on.
This is just one. We’re coming out with three more. We have one that’s coming out with an equal amount of investment in supporting veterans with PTSD through the Warrior Angels Foundation. We’re currently vetting other campaigns and non-profits in Michigan.
Basically, we’re just trying to use our platform — I think we have almost 200,000 subscribers on an email list and different social media platforms. Just trying to bring a little awareness to these kinder issues. I think with all the political hostility that’s going around, the polarization, I think we can all use a little kinder approach to certain issues.
I think everyone can use a little more kindness and probably a little more cider. What inspired the connection to the Human Rights Campaign, specifically?
When we sat down as a group, we said we want to look at issues that directly affect our small-town community. It’s interesting. I know a lot of people think things like equality are big-city issues, but they’re not. So we’re sitting around, talking about the different issues, whether it’s the water quality of the Great Lakes or the protection of them, and we started talking about different issues that we, within the company, had in our personal lives, our family lives, out in the community. Equality was one that was kind of surprising to come from a small-town farm community. But it’s one that everyone brought up in the conversation, it was one that everyone had some sort of connection to, with the LGBTQ community, with family members, friends or kids. So we thought it would be a great first cause to bring awareness to. It’s just timed right, with spring and summer launching Pride festivals throughout the country. The stars just kind of aligned for it and it made sense for the first one of the series.
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That’s interesting; I think it defies what most would consider traditional thinking for a small-town environment.
You know, there’s a lot of progress that needs to be made in a lot of different areas in a lot of different parts of the country, but these aren’t big-city issues, specifically. A lot of these issues affect and touch everyone and it’s important to realize that, I think. We’ve become a pretty large company based out of a small town, I think that gives us a unique perspective. If we can share that with the world and start some conversations with whomever is willing to listen, I think that’s an important thing.
I totally agree. It’s not a ‘big-city issue’; it’s a ‘daily-life issue.’
We wanted to be able to give back. We’ve had a lot of success, we’ve has a lot of support in over 70 years of business and we want to be a company that actually takes a stand and has an opinion on some things. Some people say we should not do that, but I think if you’re leaning forward with kindness and genuinely good intentions, you should try to raise the bar. Life’s hard enough, you know?…I think there’s a great space for businesses to do a ton of good in all walks of life.
Of Blake’s current lineup, what’s your favorite?
My favorite product is Beard Bender, which is our traditional dry cider. Being a cider maker myself, you really get a feel for the type of apples you use. You can really tell the complexities and nuances of the apples themselves in a traditional dry cider, so I always gravitate towards that. Rainbow Seeker is up there too, though. It’s, honestly, one of our best products. I think it’s a really well-balanced semi-sweet cider, infused with pineapple. I think it really hits the mark, I think it’s a perfect summer drink.
Looking forward, into the future of the craft brewing and craft cider industry, what do you think is on the horizon?
I think one of the reasons we’re pretty successful is we’ve got great liquid. We have great branding and we had really great timing as well. The industry was almost in a gangbusters, almost vertical growth mode, and you’re starting to see that start evening out like all things do. I think you’ll keep seeing innovation, but I think you’ll see a thinning of the herd. Really good companies and people that are grounded in really good values and work ethic and are fiscally responsible will be around, and obviously, companies that make really good liquid. Truly good brands and products will rise to the top and stay. Right now there are a lot of products out there. One of the things that I think separates Blake’s in that category is we’re one of the few cideries on the national level that can grow, press, and ferment everything right on-site, so we really have a unique opportunity to be involved in the process all the way through, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the product that we make.
Looking at the craft landscape, meads are growing in popularity. Is that something Blake’s has ever taken a look at?
We actually work with local apiaries that actually support the hives that pollinate our orchards. That is something that we’ve often talked about, but cider is in such an aggressive growth mode that we haven’t had much time to think about other divisions that Blake’s may become or get into. Meads have always been of interest to me. Actually, myself and some of our cider makers are R&Ding some mead projects at the moment… It’s definitely something in our future, it’s just a matter of time.