On paper, 13,000 gallons a year sounds like a lot of syrup. But compared with the output of Vermont (1.94 million), New York (806,000), Maine (539,000), and Wisconsin (225,000), Minnesota has cornered less than 1% of the maple market. That’s just fine by Brother Walter Kieffer.
The Benedictine monk has been tapping sugar maples at Saint John’s University, a private liberal arts school in rural Collegeville, since the early 1960s, but the tradition predates him. The university put its first 150 taps out in the Abbey Arboretum in 1942 to supplement the sugar-rationing efforts of World War II. “Monks have a real sweet tooth,” confesses Kieffer.
As modest as those beginnings were, Saint John’s is known for producing the state’s most elusive syrup. Bottles are never sold, only gifted, so the best way to score this liquid gold is to volunteer during maple-tapping season.
When we met Kieffer on a brisk morning last March, the 73-year-old Litchfield native was still waiting for winter to take its final bow. A cycle of daytime temps in the high 30s and low 40s and overnight freezes is what gets the sap oozing. As we crunched along a snow-covered trail in the Abbey woodlands, Kieffer pointed out the taps he’s already set, their empty buckets awaiting that first drip, drip, drip. This is Kieffer’s favorite time of year. “When the birds are singing and everything is coming back to life,” he says, “it’s revitalizing. It’s Easter. It’s rebirth.”
After a week of relative warmth, Kieffer will fire up “Big Burnie,” his sugar shack’s hulking evaporator, and start cooking. “It doesn’t look that way yet, but it’ll be green everywhere soon, and once the trees bud, we’re done,” says Kieffer. “That’s it for the season.”
That magical window—usually peaking in late March or early April—is ideal for visitors to witness maple production. On a private tour, Kieffer talked at length about vacuum pumps, gravity lines, and spiel size, and showed us the sustainable way to hammer a tap hole. Saint John’s annual, family-friendly Maple Syrup Festival (April 4) doesn’t require pre-booking, and attracts up to 1,500 attendees for maple-tapping, syrup-cooking demos, hot maple sundaes, and horsey rides.
Beyond trickling trees, this idyllic corner of Stearns County has more to experience. On a guided tour of Saint John’s campus, Kieffer showed us the imposing Abbey Church of Saint John the Baptist. The architecturally polarizing cathedral was designed by the Bauhaus-schooled Marcel Breuer during the university’s boom years. Its Brutalist bones are made of austere concrete, but the kaleidoscopic wall of stained glass, designed by Polish painter and visionary art professor Bronislaw Bak, really stole our breath. Kieffer says the nearly 60-year-old cathedral needs $50 million in renovations, but we were too floored by its hard-edged, melodramatic beauty to notice.
After farewells to Kieffer, we looped over to the Saint John’s Pottery, the studio and gallery of master potter and longtime artist-in-residence Richard Bresnahan. Our timing was perfect. Around 3 p.m., Bresnahan and his three apprentices gathered around an irori, a traditional Japanese-style hearth, to have afternoon tea. We were welcomed to join, as are all guests.
“If you’re in an academic institution—a monastery like this—hospitality is really important,” says Bresnahan, offering us date cookies and steaming cups of fragrant green tea. “Whether a young person has questions about their goals in life or simply wants to hang out with people that aren’t their classmates, our door is always open.”
We were fascinated to learn about Bresnahan’s background and philosophy on clay making. The potter tutored under art historian Johanna Becker and later Nakazato Takashi, a 13th-generation master based in Karatsu, Japan. Bresnahan moved overseas in the 1970s not knowing a lick of Japanese and spent years under Takashi’s wing.
Today, Bresnahan’s studio still uses regionally sourced clays and glazes made from the ashes of navy beans, sunflower hulls, and other natural materials. He bakes his pieces just once every two years in the Johanna Kiln, which he designed for the university—the largest wood-burning kiln in North America. And he instructs each of his mentees to make 1,000 versions of every single piece, believing perfection is attained only through repetition.
“When you get to about 400 or 500, you start to think, ‘This is really stupid,’” laughs Bresnahan. “Then you get to 600 or 700 and you think, ‘I can’t do it. I gotta quit.’ But then you get to 800, and it’s like, ‘Ah, s—; it’s only 200 more. I might as well finish the damn thing.”
After dropping some cash in the sales gallery, we headed to the wee neighboring town of St. Joseph (population: 7,126). We noticed laptop-pecking college students congregating at the Local Blend, a café with an unusual menu offering: a turkey sandwich schmeared with maple pecan cream cheese and drizzled in maple balsamic vinaigrette. This maple syrup is sourced from St. Joseph’s Wildwood Ranch.
While Wildwood’s reverse-osmosis setup and intricate vacuum system are more advanced than anything you’ll find at Saint John’s, it’s very much a family-run operation. Wildwood owner Shelly Carlson’s father, the late Wally Honer, started tapping maple trees on this property in the 1970s. When Shelly and her husband, Tom, inherited the land in 1999, they upgraded her dad’s equipment and ramped up production. The couple also sold 265 of their 320 acres to Stearns County, which in turn created the lovely Kraemer Lake-Wildwood County Park. If you visit during one of the ranch’s open-house tours, you might share the trails with cross-country skiers and snowshoers. “It’s kind of cool,” says Shelly. “We’re basically a working sugar bush in a public place.”
The Carlsons’ hard work has paid off. In 2018, the family won the Best in Show ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair. Shelly admits, “There’s always that desire to go bigger and tap more,” but she isn’t in a rush to expand. Not until Tom retires from his full-time job as a veterinarian, at least.
“This is just a hobby,” he says with a smile. “Or, as maple people say, ‘A hobby that’s gotten a little out of control.’”
Eat, Play, Stay in St. Joseph
St. Joseph is about 80 minutes northwest of the Twin Cities. If you drive up in the morning, stop halfway for a delectable chicken wild rice omelet at Cornerstone Café in Monticello. Lunch and dinner options include overstuffed deli sandwiches at Bo Diddley’s, New York-style pies from Sliced, and traditional cabeza, lengua, and carne asada tacos at Taqueria La Campechana in nearby Waite Park. Or tear into Brooten’s Redhead Creamery cheese curds while sampling a flight of dry heirloom ciders at Milk & Honey. For IPAs, sours, and stouts, try Bad Habit Brewing within hops-chucking distance of the College of Saint Benedict campus.
Stroll 1.5 miles along Lake Sagatagan to the diminutive Stella Maris Chapel, a century-old Gothic church. Elsewhere on the Saint John’s campus is the Abbey Woodworking studio, where monks carve Mid-Mod-style furniture, crosses, and coffins; and the Breuer-designed Alcuin Library, permanent home of the oversized, hand-written Saint John’s Bible.
Whitby Gift Shop sells jewelry and hand-painted glassware made by nuns. A four-minute walk north, new boutique Weathered Revivals curates Minnesota-made goat milk lotion, hand-sewn pillow covers, and Swany’s locally milled pancake and waffle mix. Pair the last one with a bottle of butterscotch-sweet Wildwood syrup, sold at the co-op next door.
Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse is a monastic retreat open to everyone. Private rooms and suites have ascetic decor but huge picture windows overlooking pristine Lake Sagatagan. Suggested donations, from $70 per night.
Ashlea Halpern and Andrew Parks co-founded Minnevangelist, a website devoted to spreading the gospel of Minnesota’s greatness. Follow their adventures on Instagram at @minnevangelist and visit minnevangelist.com