Ash & Elm Cider Co.

Rooted in Tradition. Crafted for Today.

Filtering by Tag: Orchards

Working for the Weekend: Our Visit to Blake's Hard Cider

Since we started this business, Aaron and I have been itching to spend some time in a large-scale cidery to get our hands dirty and have a bit more exposure to the day-to-day operations. We’ve visited countless cideries around the States, but finally got our chance to work a couple weeks ago when we visited Blake’s Hard Cider in Armada, Michigan.

Blake’s Hard Cider is a really great place – a family-owned orchard for decades, one of the sons, Andrew, decided to add hard cider their already bustling business. Not surprisingly, the cider part of the company has grown by leaps and bounds in the first couple of years, and now they’re neck and neck for the largest cidery in Michigan. We reached out to them to see if they might be interested in some weekend day-laborers, and they responded with great interest and warmth. Our trip was planned!

The night before we left, we decided that, instead of getting a hotel nearby, we’d camp out at a local park. It was beautiful, relatively serene, and the price was right ($25/night). We’d definitely do that again – for a weekend spent working, it was nice to also feel like we were on vacation for a few hours each evening.

Campfire

On Saturday morning, we met up with Rob, their production manager, to learn about the processes involved in running a large-scale cidery. We saw their tanks, canning line, coolers, concrete pads, loading docks, and their expansion plans. After the tour and lots of questions, Rob put us to work labeling and filling bottles.

Intense focus while labeling bottles of cider.

Intense focus while labeling bottles of cider.

Aaron taking care of business.

Aaron taking care of business.

We did a pretty good job, and cut down the amount of work Rob had to do on a Saturday. They treated us to lunch in their tasting room and let us try a sampling of their house and seasonal ciders (tasting notes: YUM). Spending time in the tasting room was great – it gave us a lot of ideas about the design and function of our soon-to-be tasting room.

Some good ciders in the tasting room at Blake's Hard Cider.

Some good ciders in the tasting room at Blake's Hard Cider.

We spent Sunday morning talking with Robert, the cidermaker, who cut his teeth in Napa Valley and New Zealand working in wineries. He and Aaron hit it off, and spoke about all things fermentation/yeast/clarity while I chatted with Andrew about the business side of things: staffing, HR compliance, pricing, and distribution.

We headed back to Indy on Sunday afternoon, tired, buzzing with new ideas, and grateful for the generosity of our new friends at Blake’s. If you are in Michigan, seek out some of their cider – it’s great!

Where Will We Get Our Apples?

A lot of people ask us where we’ll get our apples from. When we started working on this project a year ago, our plan was to work with local orchards to source apples for our cider. We met with an old friend whose family owns an apple orchard, and she dropped some wisdom on us that was a bit surprising: Indiana sells all the apples they grow, and in fact, we have to import apples from Washington state and China just to supply everyone with enough apples to eat! In other words, while we have several orchards sprinkled throughout the state, we don’t come close to having enough extras laying around to fuel a large cider company.

Another issue: the great majority of apples grown in Indiana are considered dessert apples - the kind you can pick up and eat or use to make an apple pie. Historically, those aren’t the kinds of apples that are used in traditional cider-making. Now, lots of cideries in the States use dessert apples to make their cider. We plan to, too, for a lot of our products. But having traditional cider apples available can bring a complexity to cider that is hard to get with dessert apples alone. Can’t we have both?

Luckily, our friendly neighbor to the north, Michigan, is an apple powerhouse. They are usually tied for second place in the nation with New York (behind Washington) in apple production in the States, and they also have the infrastructure to package, store, and ship their apples. They have a seemingly endless supply of dessert apples, but they also have a lot of folks growing traditional cider apples as well plenty of apples that are good for cider-making as well as eating, like Northern Spy, Jonagold and Gold Rush.

So, what’s our plan? For the majority of our ciders, we’ll ship juice down from Michigan. We can get different blends to fit with the style of cider we’re making and get a good mix of sweet, tart, and bitter to make a flavorful cider with a lot of complexity.

We’ll also work with those Indiana orchards as much as possible. The busy season for apple orchards usually runs from Labor Day weekend through Thanksgiving, but come December 1st, people aren’t thinking about apples anymore. Unfortunately, plenty of apples are still on trees in December, so orchards end up pressing the juice to stock their shelves throughout the winter or having an excess of apples that they can’t sell. This is where we hope to come in and help them extend their growing season by buying up those late winter apples so that we can showcase the orchards around the state and make a truly local cider. We can’t wait to share it with you!

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