It's a sticky business: Jake's Syrups brings sweet success for rural Vergas pair
RURAL VERGAS -- Life is sweet for Jerry Jacobson and D. Mae Ceryes.
Since they first began the enterprise known as Jake's Syrups & Natural Products in 1994, the rural Vergas residents have parlayed their hobby into a successful part-time business.
From March to mid-April, the couple's chief occupation is producing maple syrup.
Jacobson taps the trees -- about 1,600 taps on 120 acres -- and Ceryes handles the evaporation process.
"I started tapping on March 10, but (the sap) didn't run until about March 17, which is still early," he said. "It stopped running on March 31."
Once the sap has been removed from the trees, it's put into bulk tanks, which hold it until the evaporator is ready for the next batch.
"The evaporator will do 120 gallons of sap an hour," Jacobson said.
Each batch of sap produces between 3 and 4 gallons of maple syrup, he added.
To determine when the syrup is ready for bottling, Ceryes uses a hydrometer that was specifically made for checking sugar density.
"Ideally," Jacobson said, "maple syrup is about 66.6 percent sugar."
Once the density is where it should be, the syrup is put into storage drums and placed in the finishing room.
The syrup is then poured into stainless steel pans, heated to a temperature of 211 degrees Fahrenheit. It is then measured once again for sugar density, then run through a 14-frame filter press into the bottling unit.
"We do quarts, pints and half pints -- those are the standard sizes (for syrup bottles)," Jacobson said. "We also do a lot of fancy bottles -- people like those for gifts."
Pure maple syrup comes in three colors -- light, medium and dark amber.
"The light amber is produced at the beginning of the season, dark at the end," Jacobson said.
The darker the color, the more intense the flavor of the syrup, he explained.
"There's a much stronger flavor (produced) at the end of the season," he said.
The light amber, by contrast, is "so delicate," Jacobson said. "That's really the most appealing to me, but it's a matter of individual taste."
Jake's Syrups are not only popular with customers at craft shows and summer festivals, but at events such as the international competitions run annually by the North American Maple Syrup Council.
In 2006, Jake's Syrups took first place for their medium amber, and second place for their dark amber syrup.
"We're the only Minnesotans to have taken first place in the 35-40 years they've had that competition," Jacobson said proudly.
Last year, Jake's Syrups also did very well at state level competition. They took first in two of the three Grade A classes at the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association's (MMSPA) statewide maple syrup contest, which was held May 16, 2009 in Roseville.
Jake's Syrups took first in the light amber and medium amber classes, while an entry from Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup of Star Lake, near Dent, placed first in the dark amber class.
Jacobson, who is the past president and current vice president of the MMSPA, said syrups are judged on color, taste, density, clarity and proper labeling.
Besides the small gift shop on their property, the couple also markets quite a bit of syrup at craft fairs and other special events, such as this weekend's Maple Syrup Fest in Vergas.
While maple syrup makes up the bulk of their product line, they do market a few other things as well.
"In the summer, we do a lot of berry syrups, jams and jellies," Jacobson said, adding that they also produce maple sugar, and some maple candy as well.
Jacobson will be giving tours of their syrup business during the annual festival, which takes place this Saturday, April 10 (one week later than normal because of the Easter holiday).
Maple Syrup Fest
The centerpiece of the Maple Syrup Fest is a pancake and sausage feed -- featuring pure maple syrup, of course -- which takes place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Vergas Community Center. Juice and coffee will also be served, at a cost of $8 per adult and $4 per child age 12 and under.
There will also be various maple syrup-related booths set up in the community center throughout the event.
Other activities slated in conjunction with the festival will be a 5K Run/Walk, which begins with an 8 a.m. signup at Billy's Corner Bar. The race itself starts at 9 a.m. in front of the restaurant. Medals will be awarded to the top three finishers in each age group.
The Vergas State Bank Relay for Life Team will also be hosting craft shows from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at various local churches. There will be a $1 charge to attend all the craft shows, with all attendance fees going toward the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
Downtown Vergas businesses will also be offering specials during the festival, and there will be a map available at the community center showing which area maple syrup producers will be giving tours and syrup production demonstrations (weather permitting).