BlackBird Cider Works in Barker is situated on a lovely plot of land nestled among apple orchards and with views of Lake Ontario. Visitors can try ciders in the charming tasting room. Owner Scott Donovan, 59, has been producing cider here since 2011. What began as a hobby in 2005 has since turned into a thriving business including the Barker location, a pub in Chandler Street in Black Rock, and distribution at Wegmans, among other markets. The Cider Hall is housed within the renovated Linde Air complex. When the weather is fair, the garage door goes up to reveal a huge patio space with seating, activities, and a bocce court.
Prior to and during the early years of BlackBird Cider Works, Donovan worked as an internal audit executive at a medical device company. For nearly a decade, he did double duty making cider and working full time. Though he’s devoted his time to growing the cider business, things have not slowed down much for Donovan, but we were fortunate to catch him for quick Q&A about the history of BlackBird cider—and what’s coming up.
Forever Young: Describe your life pre-cider.
Scott Donovan: Internal audit was one of several professional disciplines I have experience in. I have a broad business background and actually started my career in the manufacturing industry after graduated from RIT with a business degree and a concentration in operations management. My first job was with General Electric in Syracuse, NY. That was a great company to work for and they sponsored me through the MBA program at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. I held a lot of positions in manufacturing and as I gained more experience, I moved into more senior positions including plant manager and VP of manufacturing. I mention all this because I believe my operations and internal controls background has been very helpful in growing apples, making cider, and successfully operating a small business.
FY: What got you interested in making cider?
SD: I knew I wanted to have my own small manufacturing business someday, and while working in the Seattle area in the early 2000s, I became interested in craft hard cider. I also noted while traveling in Europe for my job that cider was a very popular beverage. So, in 2005 after I moved back to Western New York and while working a full-time job, I began looking for an orchard to purchase. In the summer of 2006, I found and fell in love with the Lakeside Orchard in Barker, which is in the Northeast corner of Niagara County. That’s where it started.
FY: Where did you learn the process—what was that like?
SD: When I started making cider commercially, there was very little guidance. Unlike beer, wine, and spirits, cider had been a forgotten beverage for decades, so there was little technical information. That has changed a lot in the last ten years. Luckily, my friend Steve DeFrancisco is a very experienced commercial wine maker, and he helped me a lot in the early days. When we first started, it was definitely a lot of trial and error, which is so different from today where we have very well established controls over the production process from beginning to end. Today, I have a small, highly-skilled cider making staff lead by someone who is technically qualified and has a strong passion for making high quality tasty ciders.
FY: Tell us a little about the cider-making process at BlackBird and what products you offer.
SD: We pride ourselves In having our own estate orchard, which gives us a tremendous breadth of fruit to work with. Our process starts with carefully selected apple varieties. This is a very busy place in the fall as we are harvesting apples and pears and pressing the fruit and, of course, making cider.
Once we have fresh juice, we begin the fermentation process. Once the batch of cider has completed fermenting, it is aged and then packaged. Of course, there are dozens of steps in each of those processes, but that’s a high level view. As a result of having our own orchards, we have a very broad range of ciders, I like to say we have something for everyone. Today we have seventeen unique ciders. Our product line runs from extra dry to sweet. We have ciders made with heritage cider apples and also ciders aged in spirit barrels. We have several fruit ciders now, too.
FY: How do you develop recipes?
SD: Today, recipes are developed as a team project. We welcome new ideas from the cider making team and often experiment with mock-ups. We do taste testing. Once we believe we have a commercially successful product, we test market it in our tasting rooms and then make a decision to move forward in a package or not.
FY: What has been the most popular cider you’ve created? Why do you think people like it so much?
SD: We have had a lot of successful products over the years. Customers like our ciders because they taste like a cider, and we strive to always ensure the apple characteristic is present in the flavor profile. The two that come to mind are the Estate Reserve, a semi-dry cider in a black can and Buffalo Bluegrass, a bourbon barrel aged cider, sold in bottles.
FY: What would you say was your biggest catastrophe, cider-wise?
SD: For years, we have prided ourselves on not only the taste but the sparkling appearance of our products. No hazes or cloudy characteristics. Years ago, we decided to make an old English style rough farm cider, also known as "scrumpy" cider. It was cloudy and chunky. We didn’t like the way it looked or tasted and never made it again. Luckily, we never sold that label in the market.
FY: What is your favorite cider to drink outside on a warm summer day?
SD: I like Estate Reserve and Chandler Street Cherry, a semi-dry cider infused with Niagara County tart cherries.
BlackBird Cider Works
8503 Lower Lake Road, Barker; 795-3580;
Buffalo Cider Hall
155 Chandler Street, Buffalo; 240-9689
Wendy Guild Swearingen is editor of Forever Young.