Once upon a time, on a sunny fall day on a quiet street in Chicago, a food blogger walked up to the gate of a long and low brick building. Before her was an aging metal panel of buzzers, and a tattered piece of paper taped over half of them with alternate instructions for only certain parts of the building. After a brief head scratch, the food blogger decided to move onto more modern technology and call the person she was meeting. A minute later, a tall woman with cropped red hair and improbably merry round black glasses popped out of a door a half block down the long and low brick building and yelled “RACHEL!”
One would somehow like to think all this craft and local food happens in fabulously rustic kitchens or perfect retro factories with just the right amount of hipster grunge, but really? Sometimes it happens in a long and low brick building, and frankly, I don’t give a damn, because the end result is delicious.
The tall woman in question is Melissa Yen, creator of Jo Snow Syrups. I had seen her out and about at the Chicago street festivals, doling out snow cones using what appeared to be a vintage ice shaver (it’s not vintage, it’s just a Japanese company that happens to make them look vintage.)
On a particularly hot day at one of the festivals, I circled her booth like a parched vulture until finally the line was short enough, and dove in. My first experience was the tangerine lavender honey syrup drizzled over shaved ice in the classic little paper cone we all know from childhood. But this was no purple flavor or blue flavor. This was that smooth round sweet of tangerines, that little tang of honey and undercurrent of lavender rolling about, and I swear my core temperature dropped 10 degrees while my eyes rolled backwards from the pleasure of cooling down in such a scrumptious manner. A couple of months later, on a chillier September day, I encountered her again at a fair and tried the cantaloupe cardamom (which she thought was a bit too cardamom-y,) and I spied a bottle of woodruff syrup, a wonder I had encountered at a bar in Brooklyn a month before. I chatted with her a bit about how she was so much more than a fancy snow cone purveyor, and she graciously agreed to come have me hang out for a bit one fine day.
And finally that fine day arrived. I made my way down to the door at the end of the long and low brick building, and upon entering, the first thing that hit me was the scent. Of granola. She uses part of the kitchen that Milk & Honey Granola uses, and there were several ovens full of granola roasting away, letting loose a homey scent of oats and sugar. We donned some very fashionable hairnets and went into the corner where she and two women were working away. Despite the proximity to the ovens full of tempting granola, I was drawn like a cartoon following an animated scent trail to her giant “tilt skillet” (a giant vat where they actually cook the syrup in enormous quantities that has this crazy motor setup that will slowly tilt the skillet over so they can empty it out into kettles for bottling.) Inside she was steeping cardamom rose water syrup.
Let me pause here a moment. When I usually think of flavored syrups, it usually involves flavors hatched by a chemistry lab somewhere in New Jersey, bearing little resemblance to the flavor of the object in question. Purple flavor is purple flavor, not really grape. So when I say Melissa was steeping cardamom rose water syrup, I mean I was staring at a vat of syrup with an incredible quantity of whole cardamom pods and some cinnamon sticks steaming away, releasing a scent that really was within a hair’s breadth of causing me to float up and along in a state of ecstasy like a Looney Tunes character of old. Apparently the little old ladies at the Middle Eastern market look at her like she is insane when she buys 22 pounds of cardamom pods at a time. Fair enough. But this is totally my type of mad scientist insanity.
On the table was a bin of figs from the day before, when she had been working on syrup for cream soda, for Farmhouse, a local restaurant. Actual figs, no weird chemicals involved. This is not to say there is no chemistry. Of course there is! It’s food, there is always chemistry involved, but not necessarily chemistry involving strange foreign substances emerging from a lab. Right when I got there she was testing the pH level of the cardamom rose water deliciousness to make sure it was at the right level, since it has to be at a certain level to ensure shelf stability. The only thing she uses to alter the pH is citric acid.
Earlier in the day they had made and bottled some of the concord grape syrup, which is definitively not purple flavor. In fact, it isn’t even really all that purple. Sort of a glowing purply-red, like the best parts of a sunset, leaving me to occasionally just gaze at it wistfully.
While waiting for the cardamom to be ready, Melissa pulled out another syrup that had been steeping, not over heat. It was a cucumber lemon basil. Now I will say these things do not necessarily look the most attractive while steeping, but oh my, do they taste wondrous. She laughed when she told me the first time they actually tried to cook the cucumbers. “Never, ever cook the cucumbers.” It was apparently… a mess. But out of experiments arise successful results. She took an appraising sip or two, and though she never said anything, I think I could see her taking notes in her head on what to tweak for the next batch.
Melissa had her own restaurant where she had started making custom syrups for things like cocktails and coffee, and after the restaurant closed, she decided to start making the syrup full time. She really does come at it with the eye of a chef, finding interesting flavor combinations, and she does collaborate quite a bit with local chefs to make syrups just for them. Her website has a list of cocktails for almost every type of syrup, and when I went to a bar later that night and mentioned Jo Snow Syrups to the bartender, her face lit up and said “Oh YES! I love her. I have big bottle of tangerine lavender honey I use to create custom cocktails, and they are always so delicious.”
Watching Melissa work was one of those moments of inspiration in watching someone with passion for their work, because while she clearly was taking care of business, pausing here and there to test the pH, taste the syrup and carefully assess where she thought it was in the process, she was also having a good time, laughing easily with the other two women (who were working just as intently) who help her out from time to time. One used to work with her at the restaurant, and the other is a paper and fabric artist who also works on a lot of artwork for Jo Snow Syrups, including stamps for the fabric bags they will have for the upcoming holiday samplers.
The kitchen is not a five days a week operation, which I actually found surprising given the volume of her syrups I see out there in the Chicago marketplace. Her storage area has lines and lines of boxes waiting for shipment, and when I watched the bottling process… well it really is two women, two vats, filling bottles one… bottle… at a time. Then sliding the bottle across the table, where Melissa slipped on a shrink wrap tube and sealed the whole deal with a heat gun.
We stepped out to the storage area, where she started to label the cooled concord grape bottles (you can’t label when they are hot,) again, one… bottle… at a time. This is one of those things I appreciate about the folks I have been lucky enough to talk to in the craft food industry. There is a lot of this tedium in the process that most people probably never even think about, and tedium is not exactly something any of us seek out or enjoy, but it is part of this overall process to create a product they truly believe in and enjoy, so they do it. And that is truly admirable.
Melissa showed me one syrup that has the nickname “Christmas in a cup”, Café de Olla, which if you sniff it, really does smell like Christmas, all full of cloves and cinnamon and light. She is creating a round of small bottles for Christmas sampler packs, and this one is definitely in there (and yes, this is a total hint to Santa.) Eventually we got down to an important topic. Beer. She does make a woodruff syrup, which is a traditional accompaniment to a Berlinerweiss beer, but we are not in our early 20s anymore, and not the types to guzzle bad cheap beer just because it is “lighter” and we want another beer (her husband is actually an avid and advanced home brewer.) But sometimes you want that refreshment, and so she created a hops citrus syrup. She was kind enough to make me a sample glass of this, just dropping some of her syrup into some soda water. This just made me incredibly sad that I spent the entire summer missing out on this crisp brilliance. If you don’t like hops, you probably would hate it, but I love hops, and this was hops steeped with citrus, giving you all the lightness and heady floral bits without the alcoholic heft of one more beer. She keeps a SodaStream machine in the break room alongside several test flavor bottles of syrup, and let me say that the setup would be a convincing advertisement for SodaStream, because all I want in my kitchen right now is one of those machines and several bottles of her syrups lined up right next to it. And then a few choice bottles of liquor to mix in on those feistier nights. Luckily, she bestowed a bottle of hops citrus on me. Now I just need to wait for Santa to drop a SodaStream on me (another less than subtle hint to Santa.)
If you live in the Chicago area, seek her stuff out. If you don’t, you can buy it online. Reading the names of her flavors is like reading a culinary bodice ripper: the individual words are perfectly innocent, but the combinations sound downright salacious. Rhubarb Rose Pink Peppercorn, Fig Vanilla Black Pepper, Balsamic Black Walnut, Apricot Ginger Za’atar… mmmmm… um… I made need a moment. Why don’t you just go on ahead and find her stuff. I’ll be over here having a quiet moment alone with my hops citrus syrup.