A Sticky Side BusinessPublished 2:05pm Wednesday, November 13, 2013
The sap of the sugar maple is one of the most delicious natural sweeteners in the world with a host of natural health benefits. However, why do most restaurants serve Aunt Jemima with their hot cakes and not the real deal? Lucky for us, Minnesota is home to some of the best maple syrup producers in the world, proving why we need to chuck the corn syrup crock and grab a bottle of homemade heaven.
Nestled among 40 acres of maple trees, on the far west side of the Midwest’s hardwood forest, lays Jake’s Syrup. Started in 1994 by Jerry Jacobson and D. Mae Ceryes, this sticky business has quite a reputation in our northern woods and across the country. During their first year in business they set up 100 taps around their property near Vergas, Minnesota. This past year they collected sap from 2,000 taps; 40 acres of maple trees near Vergas and 80 acres by Frazee.
Making maple syrup was not a foreign concept to Jerry whose parents made homemade syrup on the land where he and D. Mae now live. However, it was not until he retired from the University of Minnesota in 1991 and moved home that the couple’s syrup making years began. They started making syrup as a hobby which has now turned into a full-fledged side business. While most Minnesotans are praying for warmer weather come March and April, Jerry and D. Mae hope for chilly days and cold nights. “Sunny and 40 degree days with 20 degree nights are perfect for syrup-making” D. Mae explained. “That’s when the sap really runs.”
This year, the pair collected a massive 40,000 gallons of sap in order to make 400 gallons of syrup. With that large of a reduction from collection to capping, one wonders what the process entails. As D. Mae described, “There are no additives to maple syrup, we just boil off the excess water.” When the sap is collected it is 3% sugar. First it is run through a reverse osmosis system (pictured) which brings it to 12% sugar. Next, the evaporator (pictured) reduces the water even more as it moves through each chamber of the machine. D. Mae is in charge of this stage of the process and proudly calls herself the CEO, Chief Evaporations Officer. By the time the sticky substance is bottled, it is 66-67% sugar, pure maple syrup indeed.
This couple used to celebrate making 14 gallons of syrup a day, until they received an energy efficiency grant from the USDA which allowed them to purchase the reverse osmosis system. Producing 65 gallons of syrup in a single 12 hour day is quite an improvement.
After this sweet sauce is bottled, it is sent to stores in an hour radius such as, Meadow Farm Foods in Fergus Falls, Ketter’s in Frazee, and the Maplewood State Park gift shop. Jerry and D. Mae’s picturesque roadside sign also draws in a great deal of business. Many customers knock on their door because they saw the sign, and keep coming back for more. In addition to classic maple syrup, you can find a variety of fruit syrup and jelly on the shelves of their in-home store.
Adorning the walls of this sweet boutique are awards Jake’s Syrup has won at county and state fairs and the Annual Maple Syrup Producers International Convention. Remember how Minnesota is home to some of the best maple syrup producers in the world? Well, Jerry and D. Mae are up in those ranks. In 2006 they were awarded first place in medium amber syrup and second place is dark. Jerry commented, “Not only were we shocked but the rest of them were too!” They decided to try their luck again in 2011. The pair took home second place in medium amber and official bragging rights. When asked what makes the difference between all the syrups judged from the 19 states and Canada, Jerry concluded that soil is the main differentiator.
At the end of my time with Jerry and D. Mae, they decided it was important for me to take the official maple syrup test. Jerry carefully squeezed three different kinds of syrup on three different spoons and they watched intently as I tasted each one. First was medium amber, second was dark amber, and third was a $1 bottle of Aunt Jemima from Wal-Mart. He compared this difference to orange juice and Tang. One is the real deal, while the other is just….not. In this unofficial taste test, Jake’s Syrup far outshined the competition and was my natural choice.