Caribou Cream is Shakin’ Up the Sugar Shack
A Look into the Making of Caribou Cream Maple Syrup
Caribou Cream Maple Syrup’s award winning maple syrup operation gives a new meaning to the phrase, “go with the flow.” The maple sap only flows once a year. So when sap from over 3,700 maple trees starts flowing into Caribou Cream’s Sugar Shack in Lutsen, MN, they’ve got to get it while it’s going…or flowing! And during peak season (usually early – mid April), it flows about 1-2000 gallons per day. Here’s how they turn it into one of the North Shore’s hottest, and most delicious commodities.
Cookin’ up the sap in the Sugar Shack
Caribou Cream’s award winning maple syrup is made with love inside a one-room cabin on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. It’s called the Sugar Shack (mostly because of the sugar that’s being processed, and partly because of the love). And there was some hot and steamy love going on in there today! Well, they were cooking sap, which made it really hot and steamy inside.
Seriously though, it was hot and steamy. That’s because Caribou Cream Maple Syrup is cooked in an Evaporator that’s wood-fired to 8-900 degrees F (measured at the steam exhaust flue). The fire gets fed by birch and maple logs every 7-10 minutes on a timer. Sugar maker Henry said that it’s probably 1,200 degrees right over the fire where the sap is cooking!
As its namesake reveals, the Evaporator’s job is to cook the liquid and evaporate water content, leaving a more concentrated sap – or syrup – behind. It’s a pretty interesting piece of machinery. Long-time sugarmaker Renee explains in the video below.
From the sugar bush to the sugar shack
Caribou Cream’s 3,700 maple taps stretch across about 65 acres of sugar bush (maple rich forest) in Lutsen, Minnesota on Lake Superior’s North Shore. A system of hoses tangles up the forest, sending the harvested liquid into collection containers back at the Sugar Shack. A vacuum system is used so the liquid doesn’t have to rely on gravity to get it to its destination. Watch the maple sap coming down the line in the video below.
Handing me a sample of the raw sap, local legend Herb Wills, owner of Caribou Cream (Herbie as he’s affectionately called), said I should take a sip. It tastes like cold water with just a hint of sugar. Herbie said it’s the absolute best, cleanest water you can have – naturally filtered right through the tree!
While he was telling me this, it was hard to hear him over the sound of the reverse osmosis system that was running. This is the first processing phase of the maple syrup. It extracts about two-thirds of the water out of the raw sap, which reduces the cooking time immensely. In the video below Herb is using a hydrometer to measure the density of the liquid, which will reveal the sugar content.
Incredibly clean water, a useful byproduct
When the reverse osmosis process extracts water from the sap, the result is the cleanest, most useful wastewater you can have! Herb has several enormous holding tanks for this leftover, super clean water, which came straight from the trees. And none of it goes to waste. It is used to clean all of the equipment on a regular basis (it is so pure you don’t have to use any other cleaning agents).
During the next step, after the sap goes through evaporation, the “waste water” byproduct is actually distilled water.
Finishing the cooking process
After sap comes in from the trees and goes through reverse osmosis, it flows inside the Sugar Shack to the Evaporator (which we already talked about). But we’re not done yet! The maple syrup that pours out of the Evaporator is pumped over to the Finishing Rig. An organic filtering agent, diatomaceous earth, is added to the syrup to help it pass through the Finishing Press. This is the only ingredient added to this 100% pure natural syrup.
Then it is pumped into the Finishing Press which filters and squeezes out the very maple syrup that you will put on your pancakes! Next, it’s pumped into drums until it’s ready for bottling. (If you watched Renee in the video above, you already knew this :)).
Here is a video of Renee and Henry working over the steamy sap and feeding the fire. The noise you hear in the background is the Filter Press and pump for the finished syrup. Watching them work, you tell there is a slow, steady rhythm, and they work in tandem with their tasks. You can’t miss a beat!
A North Shore exclusive
It takes about 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. At the end of a good season, Herb and his crew might end up with about 1,000 gallons to put on their pancakes. Actually, they bottle and sell right out of the Sugar Shack in Lutsen. It’s just a small unassuming place two miles up the Caribou Trail. But many find their way to take home this sought-after North Shore commodity. And Caribou Cream only wholesales to a few choice merchants on the North Shore, so it’s truly a North Shore exclusive.
And for even more North Shore deliciousness, many local restaurants use it in some of their recipes. A local favorite beverage is a hard cider by North Shore Winery called Herbie’s Blend Cider. It features…you guessed it, Herbie’s Caribou Cream maple syrup! The winery is located about three miles from Caribou Cream, but the cider is on tap at many other bars and restaurants. You’ve got to try it!
Winner of over 30 awards
Caribou Cream has more awards than any other Minnesota syrup producer. In fact, the Minnesota State Fair has asked them not to compete every year to give someone a chance! Among the dozens of awards displayed inside the Sugar Shack, there are four coveted Minnesota Maple Syrup Association Grand Champion trophies (from the MN State Fair), and two distinguished 2nd Place awards from competitions in Vermont. They are proud of them all, especially the awards from Vermont since it is known for having some of the best maple syrup in the world.
Come and get some
Caribou Cream is usually always open so when you’re in the neighborhood you can try stopping in. If you have cash you can buy a bottle on-your-honor. Pick up syrup gifts and a couple jugs for yourself. See the Evaporator. Admire the cute decorations and all of the syrup bottles in the gift area.
From mile marker 92.2. on Highway 61 (about a mile east of downtown Lutsen), turn on the Caribou Trail (Cook County 4). Travel about 2 miles up and Caribou Cream will be on the right. Look for the small sign.