Juices. and hard ciders
Bernie Heideman started making Big B's juices in Hotchkiss in the early 1970s. When he sold the business to Jeff Schwartz in 2002, the operation was processing about 500,000 pounds of Colorado-grown apples a year.
Today, the company is doing about 10 times that volume: That's more than 5 million pounds of organic fruit in 2014.
About 20 percent of this 5 million pounds of apples went into the supply chains of brewers, distillers, and cideries in Colorado and New Mexico, and the rest went into Big B's-brand organic juices and hard ciders.
The company has supplied brewers and distillers with organic apples since 2008. "It's a great business for us," says Schwartz. "It gives us a break from pushing our own brand."
Big B's also grows and sources cherries, peaches, apricots, and pears for its customers. "The Colorado brewers are always looking for something new," says Schwartz. "There are so many guys doing innovative and creative things."
Odell and Epic are its two largest brewery customers, and Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico is the top distiller. "Each of our customers' fruit needs is increasing dramatically," says Schwartz. He says he's looking to continue to grow his sales to breweries and distilleries.
The bulk of the fruit goes into apple juices and non-alcoholic ciders. "The juice we can sell all day long," says Schwartz.
The company used about 200,000 pounds of apples in its Big B's hard ciders in 2014. Schwartz says it's a no-brainer. "What could be cooler than picking some apples, throwing them in the fermenter, and getting a great flavor?" he says. "I think we're just getting started, but it's going to take some time to develop the market."
About 1 million pounds of fruit were grown at Schwartz's 16-acre Delicious Orchards combination farm-market in Paonia and other local orchards that are often operated on long-term leases. He says he'd like to increase his growing to 30 or 40 percent of the total fruit processed, but is quick to note that "50 percent of 5 million pounds is a lot of orchards. At some point, we've got to decide where to focus."
Challenges: Supplying a market that's ravenous for all things local. "Fruit -- fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit," says Schwartz. "It's coveted and we're challenged by the high demand, especially organic."
Opportunities: The booming hard cider market. "But beer is king, especially in Colorado," Schwartz adds.
Needs: "We just need to maintain a good labor supply for ag," Schwartz says. "Labor is critical." He also says Colorado's notably health-conscious population has supported growth. "We need more of the same," he adds. "And happiness and love -- that's it."