Gordon Jones, 68, loads an armful of gray, scraggly tree bark into a homemade washer and begins a centuries-old process of extracting a delectable syrup from "shagbark" harvested from hickory trees in central Indiana.
"It's not made from sap like maple syrup; it's made from the bark of the tree," says Jones, who owns 64 wooded acres near Trafalgar, Ind. (pop. 798). "A shagbark tree sheds its bark when it becomes seven years old, so we have plenty of bark."
Jones and his wife, Sherrie Yarling, 62, own Hickoryworks and produce about 1,000 gallons of the thick, amber-colored syrup at their home-based business each year. Chefs and gourmet cooks prize the syrup for its complex, nutty flavor.
"It's very smoky and sweet at the same time,'' says Michael Cassady, owner of The Uptown Cafe in nearby Bloomington, Ind., who uses shagbark hickory syrup in barbecue sauce and as a glaze on pan-seared duck breast. "I always thought it was a really unique and special product and the history behind it is so interesting."
Jones and Yarling obtained the syrup recipe by happenstance shortly after they moved in 1990 from Palm Beach, Fla., to Indiana and began cultivating shiitake mushrooms on oak logs. One day an elderly man in a pickup truck stopped by the couple's home and asked if he could buy some of the downed oak trees for firewood. While the logs were being loaded, the man picked up a piece of shagbark hickory bark and said his great-great-grandmother used to make delicious syrup from it.
Curious, Jones thought he would try making the syrup himself. The results, he says, were disastrous. Without knowing the man's name or phone number, Jones had no way of finding out what he had done wrong.
"Luckily the man came back for more wood," Jones says. "Then he brought me this really tattered old recipe on yellowed paper. I worked with it and came in to give Sherrie a taste and she said, 'Wow!'"
That's when the couple's business backgrounds kicked in. Using Jones' sales, marketing and restaurant experience and Yarling's expertise as a paralegal, the couple launched their company Hickoryworks in 1991.
Jones constructed a building next to their home and invented equipment to produce the syrup. A 55-gallon plastic drum, similar to a rock polisher, serves as a bark washer, jetting in water while the bark tumbles until it's clean.
"I used to wash each piece of bark by hand," he explains. "Then I was lying in bed one night thinking about how to do it easier and faster and I came up with this. It saves a lot of time and elbow grease."
After it's washed, the bark is placed in a 150-gallon commercial coffee maker where the extraction process takes place. The hickory extract is aged, sugared and boiled down to syrup before being bottled and shipped to customers who use it in everything from beer and barbecue sauce to cake and caramel corn.
The couple also produces syrup from poplar tree bark, but has no plans to outgrow its two-person operation. "We wanted to find something we could do to get back to nature," Jones says. "We're having fun making it at this speed, just the two of us, and that's how we want to keep it."