Take a drive up the winding Caribou Trail just north of Lutsen and you’ll find yourself surrounded by large, mature maple trees. With its cold nights and warm(er) afternoons in the early spring, this area is the ideal location for a maple syrup farm. So it’s no surprise that Lutsen is home to a large maple syrup company who is working hard to produce some of the best organic maple syrup you’ll ever try!
Started in 1996, The Sawtooth Mountain Maple Syrup Company tapped their first tree and would quickly grow into a massive operation. In the 2019 season they tapped over 24,000 maple trees which collectively produced 312,000 gallons of sap. This sounds like a lot, but once compressed and boiled down, the operation yielded an impressive, but sizable smaller, 7,800 gallons of maple syrup. Along with their retail partner, Wild Country Maple Syrup, the final product is bottled and delivered to restaurants, repackagers, and retail outlets in Minnesota and beyond.
The Sawtooth Mountain Maple Syrup Company started out and remains a family-owned and operated business. Chris Cordes, his sister Kirstin van den Berg, and her husband Greg Nichols currently operate, maintain, and produce the maple syrup. The actual harvest and production season is rather short- only 6 weeks in March and April most years- but during that time they work countless hours ensuring the operation goes smoothly and their maple syrup is of top quality. During the offseason, they maintain the trees, the taps, and the lines, and count down the days until the next harvest begins.
I had the opportunity to take the drive up the Caribou Trail and see the farm first hand on a warm day in late March, shortly after the sap started to flow, to learn how maple syrup is made. The sun was shining brightly on a cloudless day and over two feet of snow still blanketed the ground, but my truck made it easily down the gravel road to the property. In the trees you could see their labor of love- thousands of trees and miles of tubing connecting the taps and weaving it’s way into the main sugar house for processing. You can only imagine how much time, energy, and work goes into tapping and maintaining each tree and each line year after year, as operation grow to include more trees each season. Especially when you consider that the area can get buried in four feet, or more, of snow every winter.
I saw the retail store first. A quaint little log cabin that looks straight out of the stories of original settlers on the Gunflint Trail. The bottling barn is next to that- the place where the Wild Country Maple Syrup folks have their operations. However, it was the large building in the back, the sugar house, that I came to see.
I was first greeted by Lucy, the black retriever mix dog that protects the sugar house from unwanted visitors. She’s large but gentle and not-so-great at her job. I got more requests for a pet than a warning to stay away. Greg greeted me at the door and we got straight to business. The stainless steel boiler is quite the sight to see! Kept so clean it literally sparkled. Quiet on the day that I visited as it was still early in the collection season and there wasn’t enough sap for a boil. Next, Greg and Kirstin showed me the holding tanks. Going in I knew the farm collected hundreds of thousands of gallons of sap, but I couldn’t truly visualize how much that was until I was one of the tanks filled to the brim. Kirstin showed me the smaller tanks- just 1700-2300 gallons- as well as how the sap makes its way from the lines outside into an extractor that then releases the sap into the holding tanks. Later, Greg took me up to the two larger tanks- which hold 4,500 and 4,800 gallons. The massive size of the tanks show just how much sap is required to create a small amount of syrup. You need 40 gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of syrup. All that sap takes up a lot of room!
From the holding tanks, they condense the sap down through a reverse osmosis system that reduces the amount of water in the sap. From there it goes into the boiler and gets condensed down even further until it comes out in the form you recognize as maple syrup. They put the syrup into barrels and from there it gets distributed out, mostly to Wild Country Maple Syrup who bottles it and sells it, although they also distribute whole barrels to restaurants and other retailers.
I left the farm having learned a lot about the syrup-making process and being extremely impressed with the entire operation at The Sawtooth Mountain Syrup Company. I want to give a big thanks to Greg and Kirstin for taking the time out of their day to show me around. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, the sugar house isn’t open to the general public so this was a one-of-a-kind tour. However, the retail shop and the property are open to the public. Wild Country Maple Syrup coordinates the tours so contact them if you’re interested in seeing the property- it is incredibly beautiful and worth the trip! Check it out in the fall to see the leaf change at its best. If you just want to get some maple syrup straight from the source you can head up there to enjoy the serene drive and pick some up from The Sawtooth Mountain Maple Syrup Company. I highly recommend adding this to your list of things to do during your next trip to Lutsen.
Check out the video below as Greg shows us around the sugar house and we get a glimpse into the life of a maple syrup farmer.