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Local couple wins at maple syrup contest

Arne Jacobson is Kurt's brother, who helped collect sap from Maple Haven's 1,000 maple trees. For every 25 gallons of sap, one gallon of syrup is produced.1 / 5
Kurt and Andrea Jacobson won second place for their Grade A Fancy in a contest sponsored by the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association. The couple, who love getting their family and friends involved in the process, say the hobby is hard work, but worth it.2 / 5
BJ Jacobson is Kurt and Andrea's sister-in-law, who is testing the syrup for sugar content and density.3 / 5
an evaporator boils the sap down, extacting the water and leaving pure maple syrup, which must then be cooked to just the right color and texture.4 / 5
The batch on the right needs to cook quite a while longer, the batch in the middle isn't quite done yet and the batch on the left is just right.5 / 5

Kurt and Andrea Jacobson are one of those couples that live the good life.

They have three grown children and grandchildren who they're close to, good jobs in Detroit Lakes, a strong faith and they live in a beautiful house that snuggles up to the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge.

One might say that for the Jacobson's, life is sweet; but now, it's getting sweeter ... by the jar.

"We bought Maple Haven in 2002," said Kurt Jacobson.

Maple Haven is what their 80-acre property is called, appropriately named after the 1,000 maple trees that sit sappily surrounding them.

Almost right away, the Jacobsons decided to clear their woods, make some trails and tap into those natural resources, literally.

"The first year we tapped about 25 trees," said Curt, who tells the story of how Andrea initially dumped all the sap out, believing it was just water.

"I didn't know it was clear like that," she laughed.

Since then, the Jacobsons have become a lot more sap-savvy, as they little by little built a fully functioning maple syrup processing spot on their sugar bush. (That's what you call the area where sap is collected.)

This year the Jacobsons tapped 350 trees.

"I might have cut myself on one of those trees because I got the sap in my blood," said Curt, his eyes dancing excitement.

Friends and family gather at Maple Haven around early March, when the sap starts to flow.

"It's turned into a family affair," Andrea said, "I tell them if you don't help haul sap, you don't get the syrup," she said with a slight southern drawl. (Andrea is originally from Lexington, Kentucky.)

The Jacobsons and their recruits extract the sap with a little tap line and food-grade buckets to protect the purity of the sap.

"A really good tree will give us around 25 gallons of sap per season," said Kurt Jacobson.

"But sometimes we do tap a dud, though, so we pull the taps on those babies," added Andrea Jacobson.

The gathering season lasts roughly a month, depending on the weather.

The crews use ATV's to haul the buckets back to the Jacobson's new sugar shack, where much of the processing happens.

All the sap is filtered and pumped into a stainless steel-lined bulk tank, where a gravity-flow pipe then pulls it into a large evaporator.

That is where the sap is boiled -- all the water evaporates out, and what's left is pure maple syrup.

For every 25 gallons of sap, you get a gallon of syrup.

"It usually takes three or four hours of boiling before you get your first gallon of syrup," said Curt Jacobson, "and then from there you can get a gallon every 50 minutes."

The syrup spills into a finishing pan, where the Jacobsons test it for sugar content and density, which they measure through a hydrometer.

From there they pour it into stainless steel buckets and haul it to the next station -- a finishing kitchen.

This is where it's run through a filter press, which takes out all of the sugar sand (sediment found in the syrup).

"Then it comes out this beautiful, clear syrup," said Andrea Jacobson, noting that they have run it through a coffee percolator to filter it as well.

So far the Jacobsons have relied on their neighbors for most of the filtering process, but are in the midst of building their own finishing kitchen for next year.

The Jacobsons did their own bottling, and plan to sell half of their stock to individuals and keep the other half.

"I like it in my coffee, sausage, and I make a really good tea with it," Andrea said, "so I don't like to see too much of it go."

Nobody can blame her, either.

Maple Haven Syrup has been deemed some of the best in Minnesota.

Although the Jacobsons consider themselves small-time rookies, they're more like rookies of the year.

The couple went up against what they call "The Big Boys" in a contest put on by the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association this year.

"I looked at all those bottles and told Kurt, 'don't get your hopes up'," said Andrea Jacobson.

The judges looked for density, clarity, flavor and color, and in amongst very large, established maple syrup producers, the judges awarded the Jacobsons second place for their Fancy Grade A Maple Syrup.

"We really couldn't believe it when they called our name," said Kurt Jacobson, "but now, I think if we tweak our density just a bit we can take first next year," he laughed.

The win doesn't begin to go to the heads of this down-to-earth couple, though, as their real joy comes from the process back home.

"It's kind of a throwback to the days when people were self-sufficient and at the same time very neighbor and community oriented, because it takes many people to get it done," said Andrea Jacobson, "You're making something so natural and you're relying on the help of neighbors and family to pull it off -- that's what we love about it."

The Jacobsons say it's a hard-working hobby that has brought them closer to each other and to friends and family -- even in-laws.

"Our daughter-in-law's father, Bob Stelzer, became just as much a part of this as we did," said Kurt Jacobson, as his wife added, "It's been so much fun to built these relationships that we maybe otherwise wouldn't have had."

The Jacobsons hope to grow that idea of community building as their operation grows.

Their goal is to pull more people from the area into maple syrup producing.

"We're hoping to get more people to do it; maybe have a little seminar here to show people how easy it is," said Andrea, "and then maybe they could tap their own trees and bring their sap here to combine it and have like a little co-op or something."

Although the Jacobsons only sell their syrup to individuals now, they hope to have their FDA licensure soon so they can begin selling to stores as well.

If you're interested in buying some Maple Haven Syrup, call Kurt Jacobson at 218-841-3601.