Niagara County has long been heralded for its bountiful apple production. So it makes sense that the new Black Bird Cider Works, which crafts hard apple ciders, is calling Niagara home.
The tasting room of the year-old cider-making operation opened in late March at 8503 Lower Lake Road, next to Donovan Orchards, which supplies the apples.
Both are owned by Scott Donovan of Rochester, who entered the farming trade in 2006 with a penchant first for growing quality fruit and eventually making fermented ciders. He also has a solid business background.
In fact, he continues to work full time as an internal audit director at a global medical device company in Rochester, having earned a master's degree in business administration from Syracuse University.
But Donovan is a white-collar worker who has no trouble rolling up his sleeves on the farm. Eager to show off trees he carefully researched and selected, planted and learned how to prune, spray and harvest, he's also quick to point out that he relied heavily on local experts willing to offer advice.
"I really had no idea what I was getting into when I bought the farm in 2006," he said. "It was kind of crazy. But I hired a consultant the first three years and learned a lot from him."
And while commuting an hour from his Rochester home to work nights and weekends on the farm -- and sleeping in his car many a night in the early times -- he doggedly built up a successful fruit business on his 37-acre farm bordering Lake Ontario. He now has 25 acres planted with 20 varieties of apples and sells apples fresh to markets. And not the little guys; Wegmans is a big client.
His farm also includes more than two acres of apples designated by Northeast Organic Farmers Association-New York certified organic, he said. He intends to add three more acres of organic next year, enabling him to offer even more organic hard ciders as well as his regular products.
The farm already had some orchards in need of some TLC when he took over, and he has since planted new orchards, he said.
"I'm learning," he said. "I've planted some more modern varieties and some special cider varieties that are not meant for eating."
A native of Saratoga Springs, he first considered the idea of one day starting a business like this while living in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. He observed a strong emphasis on organics -- and he tasted handcrafted cider that got his attention.
"I wanted to have my own business," he said. "It's hard work, but it's fun, and I get to be outside. Once I bought the land, the next logical step was thinking about handcrafted ciders. It's a great business. I love it."
Donovan is an experienced creator of home-brews of some 20 years, who has the opportunity to sample handcrafted beers and ciders as he travels the world for his full-time executive position. Once he was growing his own apples, he went on eBay and found a restored 1921 cider press and began experimenting in cider.
"The first couple of years, we made about 40 gallons of cider -- all prototypes," he said. He explained that the key is getting the right blends of apples and controlling the fermentation in either his French oak barrels or stainless steel fermentation tanks.
"Steve DiFrancesco, the winemaker at Glenora Wine Cellars [on Seneca Lake], is a good friend of mine, and he helped me refine the cider-making process," Donovan said.
Two years ago, he started taking larger amounts of his apples to a local cider press to complete that step in the process.
"We do everything else here. We grow the apples we use, ferment the cider here, blend it, age it, bottle, label and package it here," Donovan said, adding that he may press the apples on-site in the future.
"I want to grow this into a big business," he said. "I want multistate distribution of this product."
He has erected two buildings on the farm: a red New England-style barn that contains the tasting room and processing area, and another for farm equipment.
Donovan credits his girlfriend, Margaret Glover, for helping with the new business venture. He also has a core of five to seven part-time employees, including tasting room associates Michelle Hawkins of Lockport and Kelly McGough of Buffalo.
Hawkins, who helps make, fill, cap and label the cider, as well as sell the product, said, "I'm excited to be the first employee [hired for the tasting room]. I had never worked for a winery or cidery before, and I am learning a lot."
Donovan has a cider-tasting planned from 4 to 7 p.m. June 22 at Wild Horse Wine & Spirits, 9648 Transit Road, East Amherst. The Blue Monk, 727 Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo, stocks his product, as well as the Beers of the World shops in Rochester and a couple of Rochester restaurants known for their craft beers.
"I want to attract the customers that understand craft products," he said. "Most educated beer consumers have some knowledge of ciders. I want to package products for different markets throughout Western New York and into Syracuse and Ithaca. Next year, I want to enter the top cider competition, which is held in Bath, England."
His English cider already earned a silver medal, and his Wood-Aged took a bronze in the 2012 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, which attracted more than 300 competitors. A "perry" produces cider from pears, which Donovan also has his eye on, having harvested a record crop of pears from his land last season.
And while many area farmers are struggling with a loss of crops this year because of the damaging warm temperatures in March and subsequent frosts, Donovan said it looks like the majority of his fruit was spared.
Black Bird Cider Works currently offers five varieties of hard ciders, from dry to sweet, and all contain from 5 to 7 percent alcohol content. They are: Farm Style (organic and regular), Crackling Apple-Cherry, Dabinett English-Style, Organic Oak Barrel-Aged Dry and Semi-Sweet. Fifth Harvest will become available Friday. An additional five are "on the horizon," Donovan noted.
The tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through the end of December, closing for winter and reopening in March. For information, visit www.BlackBirdCiders.com.