Michael Jaeb makes syrup at his 55-acre Holmes County farm from the bark of shagbark hickory trees. The name comes from the peeling bark that curls off the trunk. The nuts are sweeter than pecans, but Jaeb wants only the bark.
He harvests it, then scrubs off the dirt, moss, and lichen in the stainless steel, three-compartment sink of his licensed commercial kitchen.
“Sometimes I have to break them into smaller pieces just to get them in the sink."
He runs water over it and scrubs off the dirt and moss.
His shagbark hickory syrup contains only three ingredients.
“I make a tea essentially from the bark. So there’s water and the bark. And then I add natural evaporated cane juice crystals, which is a less refined sugar. And that’s boiled and taken up to 220 degrees and finished.”
The product name is a nod to his neighbors
His farm is in Millersburg and the name of his business, Simple Gourmet Syrups, reflects the location.
“I could have taken the easy path and put a horse and buggy on it and called it Amish syrups or something, which would be disingenuous number one because I’m not Amish. But I did want to have some sort of subtle connection to the area that I’m from.”
The part that’s not so simple about Jaeb’s shagbark process, is trudging through woodlands to strip off the bark.
The trunk sheds its bark naturally, so it’s a sustainable process.
Keeping the right heat and sugar content requires constant vigilance
When Jaeb’s done scrubbing the strips he has to dry them out.
He toasts them "in about a 300 degree oven for about 10 minutes or so. And it is then put into a large stock pot with water and is simmered for four or five hours, and I turn the heat off and let it sit for another four or five hours.”
He carefully monitors the temperature.
“So I’m putting my instant-read thermometer down in the center. I have to bottle between 180 and 200 degrees, and I’m pretty sure that we’re close.”
How sweet it is, is his next concern.
“I’m going to take a sample here to see where we’re at in terms of sugar content. Put a drop or two on my refractometer, and I am almost there. I am at 69.8 percent.”
Then he has to lift the 40-quart stock pot off one of his commercial range’s six burners and pour it into a vat that has a spout so he can get it into bottles.
Shagbark Hickory is one of 31 varieties of syrup Jaeb sells. You’ll find him at farmers’ markets in Canton, Cleveland and Columbus, as well as community events and festivals. Simple Gourmet Syrups are also sold in 35 stores across the country and on Jaeb’s website.
His pastime became his passion
It used to be just a hobby.
“I started when my children were very young. Just tapped a few trees in the backyard. I thought it would be an interesting thing for them to see how the process worked. And at that time I started cooking in a 15-quart saucepan and burned several batches.”
Now he taps as many as 700 maples in a season, as well as the walnut and beech trees that grace his farm. He makes syrup, jams and glazes from the fruit of his apple, cherry and pear trees, and harvests elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb and butternut squash to handcraft his syrups.
He makes them in small batches with well water and sweetens with organic cane crystals. No corn syrup, no artificial colors.
“All the ingredients I either grow or gather on this farm or I buy from other local growers.”
Some of his products are exotic, such as his habanero orange syrup, and some are kind of playful, like coffee-toffee peppermint stick syrup and cinnamon sticky-bun syrup.
“My grandmother Jaeb, who died 25 years ago, made the most incredible sticky buns and that’s where the flavor came from.”
Most commercial maple syrup isn’t flavored, so he’s trying to carve out that niche.
“I do a maple walnut. Pure maple syrup with wild-gathered black walnuts in the bottle. And this year, I’m going to try cinnamon maple. So I’ll put a cinnamon stick in with the maple.”
Two years ago he started making black walnut syrup, which he describes as “grade B dark amber maple syrup on steroids, very close to almost sorghum molasses. It’s just a very robust flavor.”
He finds shagbark hickory syrup not quite as strong.
“It’s a much more subtle, much more complex flavor than maple syrup. It’s not as overpowering. Some folks taste it and say it’s floral. Some say it’s nutty. Some say smoky.”
When you think syrup you might think pancakes. Not Michael Jaeb. “I don’t like pancakes myself I rarely eat them.”
Not for pancakes alone
Jaeb cooks with his syrups and sells a recipe book showing how to make marinades, sauces, chutneys and more with them.
His favorite use of shagbark syrup?
"I will just stir-fry shrimp in a little olive oil and then at the very end, when it’s almost finished, drizzle a little bit of the shagbark. And it caramelizes and just makes a nice crusty glaze."
"My son makes homemade barbecue sauce: a little bit of ketchup, a little bit of onion , some garlic, and then adds the hickory syrup.”
Many of his specialty syrups are for livening up libations, like lavender martinis.
“The lavender syrup and vanilla vodka and a little squeeze of lemon. The elderberry makes a great martini. I have a grapefruit mint that is very good with seltzer water and a little bit of vodka if it’s after 5.”
The business is about three years old and Jaeb still has only one employee, his 15-year-old son.
They have no culinary training.
“I’m probably not even a very good chef. But I love to cook, and I do all the cooking here at home. I like to play around with flavors and try new things.”
He’s been experimenting with syrup ever since he moved his wife and three children to the farm 15 years ago. He’d grown up in the countryside near Canton and after getting a degree in industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art was making a good living as a graphic artist and product designer. He lived for a while in Boston, had clients all over the world, but wanted to come home.
“And I wanted to raise my children kind of the way I was raised and have as much produced off the farm. Dinner always used to be, when they were young, look at the plate and see that everything was from here versus from the grocery store.”
A good thing resulting from a bad economy
Jaed also had an epiphany on a walk through his woodlands that, although money doesn’t grow on trees, you can make money with them. That was one day while the economy was tanking.
“Right in the middle of the recession, most of my design work went away to almost nothing. So I was looking for an opportunity, and it just kind of presented itself.”
He still takes on product design work but mostly for his own business. He does all his own labels, photography, and merchandising displays.
And he buys only locally-grown ingredients, on principle.
"The red raspberries are gone now. I won’t buy red raspberry concentrate to make the syrup, so when it’s gone there won’t be any more until June or July.”
"I’m committed to the local fruit and ingredients, which certainly puts a ceiling over my head in terms of how big I could get.”
Planting the idea of keeping it in the family
He hopes it’ll be a family business and recently asked his son if he thought he might take it over one day. If so, Jaeb might plant some super-sweet maple trees developed at Cornell University.
“They have much higher sugar content, and so I thought about planting a field or at least some of those. I’m not sure I want to be doing this for 15 more years, so if he’s not interested, I’m not sure if I will plant the trees.”
Meanwhile he’s focused on developing his shagbark hickory niche, and consuming a lot of it himself.
Native Americans use shagbark medicinally but Jaeb has noticed no physical effects.
Still, “I’m happier.”
He works hard, but it’s a labor of love.
“I enjoy every day. Some more than others. But I really do enjoy what I’m doing.”
Michael Jaeb has bad news and good news for fans of his Simple Gourmet Syrups. He’s sold out of Maple Syrup and Maple Walnut.
But he’s starting now to tap his maples again.
And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we meet a group of elementary school kids who are learning along with their parents how to cook healthy meals.