Blake’s Hard Cider Celebrates 10 Years

On the 10th anniversary of Blake’s Hard Cider, Andrew Blake, the grandson of Blake’s founders, talks apples, innovation, and what’s next for the rapidly growing business.
Since founder Andrew Blake launched the brand in 2013, Blake’s Hard Cider Co.’s rapidly growing production has led the company to open facilities in Bend, Oregon, and Wolcott, New York, with over 1,300 acres of land countrywide. // Photograph courtesy of Blake's Orchard & Cider Mill

Andrew Blake doesn’t look like a beverage industry titan. He doesn’t even have his own office, instead working out of his truck most days. Dressed in cargo pants, flip-flops, and a faded T-shirt, he’s using his building manager’s office for the day. One telltale feature points to his real job, though: The distinctive farmer’s tan betrays the fact that Blake, like his father, uncle, and grandfather, grows apples for a living.

Over the course of our afternoon at Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill in Armada, we talk about global expansion plans (big plans) for his hard cider line. We talk about product testing, and scalability, and market research, and the importance of a bold creative strategy. But more than anything, we talk about family. And apples.

Galas, Fujis, Honeycrisps, McIntoshes, Idareds, Jonathans, Golden Delicious … Blake waxes poetic and rattles off an epic list of the apples from New York, Oregon, and Michigan that go into the hard cider product he launched in 2013. At that time, he’d recently finished college and — pairing his generations-deep knowledge of apple-growing with the keen eye for business opportunities that also runs in the family — saw an emerging and promising market in hard ciders.

“Everything we produce on this farm, from the vegetables and the fruit we grow to the products we make, all have very short shelf lives,” Blake says, “so we were always looking for a nonseasonal, shelf-stable product. It just so happened craft beer was growing at that time.” Since Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill was already making apple cider, the logical next step was to give hard cider a go.

Andrew Blake went from making hard cider as a student at MSU to creat-
ing a hard cider product at the family farm in Armada: Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill. // Photograph by Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill

The first batch was cooked up in his college garage while he attended Michigan State University. His market research at the time consisted of handing out free samples.

“You’ve got a pretty good customer base there to sample that out,” he says. “They tell you they love it because there’s free booze.”

For Blake, it was the right product at the right time. Hard cider was still an emerging but rapidly growing beverage in 2013. Industry leader Angry Orchard hit the market in 2012 and still takes up the lion’s share of the national cider market. But not for long, if Blake has anything to say about it.

“Our mission is to be the No. 1 cider in the country,” he says. “We’re apple folk. This is our heritage: This is all we do; this is what we do. And we think that we can continue to innovate the category and grow the category.”

As “apple folk,” the Blake family has been farming in Armada since 1946. Hanging in a place of pride in the Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill office is a letter that Gerald Blake wrote to his wife during World War II. In it, Gerald makes a promise to Elizabeth: Once he returns home, they’re packing up the city house in Detroit and moving to the country.

Photograph courtesy of Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill

From the first 100-acre farm in Armada, the Blake empire has expanded to more than 1,300 acres in three states, including cider mills, a home and garden center, tasting rooms, and other forms of “agritainment,” like hayrides and u-pick apple and strawberry offerings. In 2022, the company purchased another centenarian family orchard, Erwin’s Orchard & Cider Mill in Lyon Township.

Country outings for city folks helped Gerald’s 13 children grow the business from a small farm to a big business. Right now, Gerald’s twin sons Pete and Paul are co-owners of Blake’s Orchard Inc., while Andrew, Paul’s son, handles the rapidly growing hard cider business.

Blake’s Hard Cider Co. distributes in 29 states as of 2023. Growing that much and that quickly has been a blessing and a learning opportunity for Andrew.

“We’re entrepreneurial in nature” as a family and as a business, he says. “Innovation is a big thing for us.”

That innovation includes 22 creative flavor combinations, like its El Chavo mango habanero cider and American Apple, an 8 percent ABV imperial cider, and the willingness to take a leap when it comes time to expand. Blake’s Hard Cider recorded 111 percent growth in 2016, thanks in part to distribution deals with Kroger and Meijer stores.

By 2017, Blake’s Hard Cider was the 12th largest-producing hard cider company in the country. That’s when Blake decided it was time to double his production capability by adding a new production facility in Armada. In 2021, Blake’s Backyard reopened after renovations in Almont with a 10,000-square-foot taproom. Last year, Blake’s Hard Cider tapped Wolcott, New York, and Bend, Oregon, for new production facilities using locally grown apples.

Blake’s Big Apple in Armada features apple picking, cider, donuts, and fall “agritainment,” including zombie paintball, hayrides, and a haunted house. // Photograph courtesy of Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill

With growth and innovation comes some pain. There was “a lot of trial and error, a lot of failure,” Blake says. “We’ve had products that have fallen flat; we’ve made batches that we had to dump.” Scaling up production was a scary prospect, he says, because “a growing business takes a lot of money.”

One early mistake he takes the blame for: When the company switched from small orders of bottles to “entire truckloads” of cans, he himself placed the wrong barcode on each one of those cans. The only solution for the cash-strapped operation was for Blake to hand-label each wrongly stickered can himself.

It took him about two months, he says, but “I had really strong thumbs by the end.” Still, production hiccups aside, Blake is proud of what he and his family have built, both in the farm business and in the hard cider endeavor. He estimates that they’ll sell more than a million cases of hard cider in 2023 and see 2 million visitors to the Blake’s locations.

“The whole experience is just one of falling forward,” he says. “I think that’s the right way to think about it, too. If you’re not doing that, you’re not trying enough.”

Blake credits the success of the cider to his family and to his teammates. As the brand has grown, so have the skills of the staff he brought with him when he started the cider company.

Photograph courtesy of Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill

“We have a very, very young team that came on very early in the journey of Blake’s Hard Cider,” he says, “and they’re still with us today. So, watching all of our young talents turn into the next version of themselves and continue to grow professionally has been really rewarding.”

Grand business plans aside, it all comes back to apples for Blake. That’s what keeps him grounded. “First and foremost, we are farmers, and we’re proud of that,” he says. “We love what we do, and we’re proud to be apple farmers. It’s not easy, and it’s very humbling. But I think Blake’s can be unequivocally the best in the country, and we’re proving that out.

“I pinch myself sometimes because it’s great to see what we’ve been able to create that people want and enjoy.”

Blake’s Timeline

  • 1946: Gerald and Elizabeth Blake move to a 100-acre plot in Armada and founded Blake’s Orchard.
  • 1968: A cider mill is added, and the company changes its name to Blake’s Orchard and Farm. 2013: Blake’s Hard Cider Co. is started.
  • 2017: Blake’s Hard Cider doubles its production capability with a new facility.
  • 2021: A $1 million renovation and repurposing of Blake’s Backyard in Almont takes place.
    2022: Blake’s Lyon Township opens, and a new Blake’s Hard Cider facility begins production in Bend, Oregon.
    2023: The Blake’s Hard Cider facility in Wolcott, New York, begins production.

How About Them Apples? Facts About Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill

  • Apple varieties grown at Blake’s Orchard: 40+
  • States where Blake’s Hard Cider is currently available for purchase: 29
  • Put into the 2017 expansion of the Blake’s Hard Cider production facility in Armada: $2 million
  • Annual visitors to Blake’s “agritainment” attractions and tasting rooms: 2 million
  • Cases of Blake’s Hard Cider sold in 2023, approximately: 1 million 

This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.