Early spring has maple syrup makers busy

LUTSEN, Minn. -- The warm March days of late helped wake sugar maple trees up from their winter naps in northern Minnesota, starting a process that has yielded sweet sensations for centuries.

LUTSEN, Minn. -- The warm March days of late helped wake sugar maple trees up from their winter naps in northern Minnesota, starting a process that has yielded sweet sensations for centuries.

The warm-up spurred sap to start flowing in maple woods across the region, called sugarbushes, where maple syrup lovers have hammered in taps to catch the sticky flow.

Either in buckets, bags or through plastic tubes, that sap is being collected now to be boiled down to make pure maple syrup.

"Forty degrees during the day is good, and about 25 to 30 at night ... you need the up and down to keep it going good," Mark Spinler said.

Mark and Melinda Spinler run Maple Hill Sugarbush just off the Gunflint Trail outside of Grand Marais. Mark said this season's early warm-up was just what their maples needed. But only if temps keep going up and down past the freezing mark.


The sap run "can last until the trees start to bud out, as long as you get that temperature range,' Spinler said. "Six weeks is about what we get out of a good season."

"This was a really early start,' said Dave Rogotzke, whose family taps sugar maples just north of Duluth.

The string of unusually warm days "kickstarts the trees' to produce sap. "But it can also shut things down if it gets warm and stays warm,' Rogotzke said. "So far, it's been just perfect. It hasn't been so warm that it caused problems."

In 2012, northern Minnesota temperatures warmed too soon and never cooled off, drastically cutting into sap production. In 2013 and 2014, spring came late but the sap flowed into May, and Rogotzke had two good seasons.

On average it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

The Spinlers tap 650 trees and will end up with about 150 gallons of pure, sweet maple syrup to sell each spring -- most of it by word of mouth or at the family's Superior North bicycle shop in town.

"We get a lot of school groups and people up here to watch how it's done,' said Spinler, who has been tapping trees and boiling sap down to syrup for 30 years, the last 15 of those commercially.

The Spinlers have an average-size sugarbush in northern Minnesota where operations range from a few hundred taps to more than 24,000 at Sawtooth Mountain Maple Syrup north of Lutsen -- Minnesota's largest sugarbush.


Rogotzke finished with 900 gallons of syrup bottled last year off his 200 acres where 50 miles of plastic tubing connects 5,000 trees in his sugarbush to his sugar shack, a high-tech processing center filled with gleaming stainless steel tanks and cookers.

A vacuum pump sucks the sap out of the trees, through the tubes and into a pair of 3,000-gallon stainless steel tanks designed for dairy farms. From there the sap runs through a reverse osmosis filter system that pulls out 70 percent of the water, saving time and energy in the cooking process.

The thicker sap is then cooked at 220 degrees to boil off even more water until sticky sweet perfection is reached. The family's bottled syrup is sold to local restaurants, grocery stores, over the Internet and out of their sugar shack in Lakewood Township.

On a sunny afternoon last week, Rogotzke battled through wafts of steam from the boilers to check the temperature and sugar content before declaring that batch perfect enough to bottle. "There's a lot of chemistry going on here,' he said.

"The weather has a lot to do with it. We had a little moisture this morning and a change in the barometric pressure and the trees were really going,' Rogotzke said before checking another valve and tightening a filter.

He's busier a little earlier than normal this year, but with many gallons of syrup already bottled, boxed and ready to deliver, Rogotzke wasn't complaining.

"I think today is the best day we've had so far this season,' Rogotzke said. "It's looking good."

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