Reinventing Tradition in Michigan with Blake Farms and Blake’s Hard Cider Co.
By Brooklynn Johnson
Photo courtesy of Blake’s Hard Cider Co.
Gerald Blake was sitting in a bar in Detroit one day after work. The automotive engineer thought about work, and how much he hated his a job. An older gentleman gave a listening ear. “Life is too short,” the stranger said. “Quit your job.”
Andrew Blake, Gerald Blake’s grandson, explains how it all began.
“So he went north of Detroit about 45 miles and on scene bought an apple orchard, having never farmed or grown apples,” Blake says. Gerald moved himself, his wife Elisabeth and their thirteen children to the orchard in Armada, Michigan.
“[It] started with just my family, you know 13 kids and my grandpa, and my grandma,” Blake says. “Now Blake Farms employs 400 people seasonally, we have three different retail locations, and we are the largest cider mill in the country.”
To be specific, that’s 42 apple varieties and more than 45,000 apple trees big. The different retail locations include: Blake Orchard and Cider Mill, Blake’s Big Apple and Haunted Attractions, and the Almont Garden Center, all in Michigan. The three locations boast nearly half a million visitors every year.
Blake Orchard and Cider Mill was one of Michigan’s first you-pick style orchards, where customers would come out to the fields and pick exactly what they wanted, whether that be apples or raspberries, peaches or pears, or even around the holiday season, a Christmas tree. Their sweet cider had already made a name for itself. Hard cider was to come later.
Andrew Blake was not always sure if he was going to join in on the family business. He went to Michigan State University, about an hour and a half away from the orchard, studied economics and pre-law and had just been offered a job. A dream come true to those about to finish a degree and enter the working force. But he hesitated.
“I’m either going to do this and be in this for a long time, or I am going to come back and get involved in the family business,” Blake says. But he had to find his niche, what his role would be in the now giant, three generation family business. The answer was right under his nose the whole time, or rather, under his roof.
“I made hard cider from our sweet cider at the garage of my college house,” Blake says, admitting that the cider may have not been, well, all that good. “But I really thought that the idea was cool, and if I can master this and become really good at it, I think it could be a huge addition to the family business.”
And so joining the family business was exactly what he did. Andrew now owns Blake’s Hard Cider Co. with his father, Paul, his uncle Pete, and his cousin Eric, and they offer 19 different hard cider selects.
Blake’s has a cider for everyone. The whimsical Wisteria is brewed with a bit of lavender. The Catawampus is fun to taste just so you can say the word, “cat-a-wam-pus.” The Wassail, their vintage cider, has a wonderful hint of caramel.
While Blake admits to having bias in favoring of all of their hard ciders, the artisan in him is drawn to the dryer selects. “I think that all of those ones show a little bit more complexity in what we do with the apple variety, and I think the craftsmanship or how we are making it shows through,” he says.
He acknowledges that they could not have made it without some serious help. “You have this young, and vibrant consumer producing our cider, now there’s a little more romance and sexiness to it all,” Blake says. “A lot of people don’t realize the cider industry now is a lot different than it was 10, 20 years ago.”
When Blake was just starting seriously pursuing hard cider, the Michigan apple community was right there to help him. “They didn’t look at me as competitors, they looked at me and were like ‘Come, I’ll show you.’”
Blake Hard Cider Co., like its parent company, has been growing ever since. They look towards this next year with excitement, for they will be launching their cider along the East Coast.
“We are just really happy to be in it,” Blake says. “We like making a really sound, quality product, and we hope we get to continue to for many years.”