Story by Ed Carroll | Photography by Michael C. Butz
Mike and Marilyn Gardner bought the farm in 2001 and now find themselves in a sticky situation. Literally.
The Shaker Heights couple purchased Heritage Lake Farm, a 100-acre plot in Geauga County’s Troy Township, mostly as an investment but also out of a shared love for nature. An attorney by day, Mike Gardner is also a botanist.
As for their sticky situation, it’s also a sweet one. In 2018, the couple began producing and bottling Mike’s Maple, their own brand of maple syrup tapped and boiled on their farm. Earlier this year, Mike’s Maple earned a distinction fairly unique to maple syrup: kosher certification. Courtesy of Cleveland Kosher, the certification makes the Gardners, congregants of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, the first – and thus far, only – kosher maple syrup producer in Ohio.
Though it took 16 years for their syrup-producing goal to be realized, Mike Gardner saw the farm’s potential right away.
“One of the first things I did, even before I bought it, was bring out a forester to evaluate the woodlands for maple syrup production, because I recognized the potential then,” he said. “Then I had the woods harvested, but we didn’t take out the maple trees.”
Three years ago, the Gardners installed a tubing system into their sugar bushes on an experimental basis to see how much sap they could produce and whether syruping would be viable. The sap produced that year was sold to other syrup producers.
The following year, they built a sugar house intending to produce their own syrup, however, the building wasn’t finished until late in syruping season. So, February 2018 was when the couple first started actually producing syrup.
“We’re kind of newbies,” Gardner admits.
From tree to table
For the Gardners, syruping season begins by tapping the trees and installing their tubing system’s vials. This year, they began the first week of February, ahead of when the weather first warmed up. When temperatures rise above freezing for an extended period of time, they can turn on their vacuum pump to extract sap from trees.
Once the sap is flowing, it travels through an intricate network of tubes that zig-zags between trees to a pump house, and from there, an underground pipeline system delivers it to the couple’s sugar house.
Mike Gardner says the sugar house can store approximately 1,100 gallons, and an additional 1,650 gallons can be stored outside. Due to the low amount of storage space, the couple begins boiling the sap shortly after storing it.
“Initially, if we get 500 gallons, we’ll start boiling, because the sap is continuing to (accumulate),” he says.
The storage tanks are elevated and the sap transferred to the evaporator the old-fashioned way: by using gravity.
The Gardners admitted they didn’t know anything about making maple syrup when they started, and as a result, they teamed up with a neighboring Amish sugar maker, Samuel E. Miller, to help make Mike’s Maple. Miller helped the Gardners finish the instillation and harvest the sap the first year and has stayed on to help ever since.
Keeping it kosher
Due to the steep learning curve, the Gardners had no marketing plan for their syrup, at least initially. In 2018, the couple made 350 gallons of syrup, 270 gallons of which they sold wholesale. The remaining 80 gallons were used to gauge interest at the retail level.
“The market is fairly well-covered, so we had to find new outlets somehow,” Gardner says. “After we got the first season under our belts and some comfort in how much we were able to produce, and (with) the ability to do some planning, we decided to see if we could get it kosher certified and offer it up to the observant community.”
Neither Mike nor Marilyn Gardner observe kosher dietary laws themselves, so they spoke with Malka Rosenberg, owner of Unger’s Kosher Bakery in Cleveland Heights, and noticed she carried maple syrup from New York.
Rosenberg suggested they connect with Cleveland Kosher for certification for Mike’s Maple. However, due to how late in the season it was when they contacted Cleveland Kosher, they weren’t able to get certification until earlier this year, when the rabbi observed their entire syrup-making process.
There’s some debate among kosher-keepers as to whether 100 percent pure maple syrup even needs kosher certification, given that all of the ingredients come from plants or the maple tree itself.
However, in the finishing process, the syrup has a tendency to foam up and boil over the pans, which creates a sticky mess, and if one isn’t careful, can become a fire hazard due to the heat involved. The Amish have long gotten around this issue by using either milk or animal fat to contain the foam as an anti-foaming agent, but using either would mean the syrup isn’t kosher.
To get around this conundrum, the Gardners use a kosher anti-foaming agent made largely of ground seashells.
“We’re trying to expand our market, and it makes sense to us that if we’re sharing this delicious product with a non-kosher market, why wouldn’t we want to share it with the kosher market as well?” Marylin Gardner says. “I guess we feel it’s a gift and everybody is deserving of being able to have some. Not only was it a great market to tap, but we wanted to share the wealth, so to speak.”
Expanding the market
Now that the first batch of Mike’s Maple is out the door, the couple is trying to change the perception of how people use syrup. Marylin Gardner points out that syrup is a lot more versatile than most think. For example, she recently used the syrup to make a sweet-tasting shaved-ice treat.
“I think the typical thinking is its used primarily for breakfast foods; waffles, pancakes and French toast,” she says. “But now, it’s being used in balsamic vinegars, in different kinds of alcoholic beverages (and) in sauces.
“There’s so many uses people aren’t aware of.”
Mike Gardner notes that maple syrup is a “wonderful, all-natural sweetener,” as people will put it in smoothies, baked goods and even in ice cream.
“There’s a variety of alternative uses people don’t traditionally think of,” he says. “That’s part of the marketing plan, to expand the market by increasing people’s knowledge of how (maple syrup) can be used – not just as pancake syrup.”
Fun facts about syrup
- North America is the only continent on which maple syrup is produced
- Ohio regularly ranks fourth or fifth in production among the 12 maple-producing states in the U.S.
- The maple industry contributes $5 million annually to Ohio’s economy
- Approximately 100,000 gallons are produced yearly by 900 producers
- Native Americans are widely recognized as the first to discover maple syrup
- 35 to 45 gallons of sap equals approximately 1 gallon of syrup
- 1 gallon of syrup weighs approximately 11 pounds
- 1 gallon of syrup yields approximately 7 to 8 pounds of maple sugar
Source: Ohio Maple Producers Association
Where can you try Mike’s Maple?
- Bell & Flower in Chagrin Falls
- Black Pig in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood
- Cafe Avalaun in Warrensville Heights
- Coffee, Coffee, Coffee in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood
- Corky and Lenny’s in Woodmere
- Davis Bakery in Warrnesville Heights and Woodmere
- EDWINS Butcher Shop in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood
- Grumpy’s Cafe in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood
- Juma Gallery in Shaker Heights*
- Larder: A Curated Delicatessen in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood
- Luna Bakery & Cafe in Cleveland Heights and Moreland Hills
- Mason’s Creamery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood
- Nature’s Oasis in Lakewood
- Original Pancake House in Fairview Park and Woodmere
- J. Pistone Market in Shaker Heights
- Play Grounds Family Cafe in Lakewood
- Popcorn Shop in Chagrin Falls
- Shaker Wines in Shaker Heights
- Soho Chicken + Whiskey in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood
- Spice Kitchen & Bar in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood
- Still Point Gallery in Cleveland Heights
- Sweet Moses in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood
- Village Diner in Orange
- Yours Truly, with multiple Northeast Ohio locations
*sold out, plans to re-stock around holiday season
Source: Mike and Marylin Gardner