A Northern Sap Run
Up on a ridge in the heart of the boreal forest, a sugar shack runs day and night to fill barrels with sweet amber syrup straight from the sugar maples that welcome you on the last turn of a steady climb. The hike up to the shack may leave you feeling a little winded, one last gasp before your breath is fully taken away by the serene landscape in which this production takes place.
We don’t really get a spring of blossoms perfuming the air in northwestern Ontario. Instead, the earthy scent of mud reawakening lingers as the rivers gain momentum and the sun sits a little higher in the sky. At this time of year, the warmer days are contrasted by the regular unexpected snowfall. The one we know is always coming, but never cease to marvel at. It is this temperament in weather that gets the sap running, pulsing through the trunks of maple trees everywhere. When the evenings are still cool and the days remain above zero degrees, the maple season has begun. And you better be ready for it.
The Maple Guys––as I like to call them––are well attuned to these variabilities, ready for a marathon of sprints up and down the ridge to tap sap as it trickles through a network of lines destined for the evaporator in the sugar shack. You could say that they thrive in an environment of quirks, one in which I imagine is filled with camaraderie and a balance in trying to figure out how to make it all work.
To bring equipment up through a forest and build a shack at an elevation of 200 metres is no small feat. To build this shack on crown land in a region accustomed to seeing trees only for their lumber is an accomplishment in its own right. And yet the operation continues to grow. Now in their fifth Season, the Nor’Wester Maple Company has found steady ground running an average production of 1000 litres per year tapped from 1400 trees––a humble increase from the 25 trees they started with.
When the sap starts running at the end of March, the beginning of the season is marked with a light golden syrup that is very sweet with only a subtle maple flavour. As the days warm, the forest awakens and the natural yeasts in the air begin to impact the depth of flavour resulting in a darker, amber colour. This gradual transition can be seen in batch samples that line the windows of the shack, a visual representation of the process that takes place when the natural yeasts in the air lands in the sap and splits sucrose into glucose and fructose. Fructose will burn and caramelize at a lower temperature than its sugar counterparts, a characteristic that contributes to flavour and requires technique to capture throughout the season.
Last year’s production was remarkably different from the one before it. A deeper amber flavour full of sweet vanilla notes was bottled, a contrast to the previous year’s brighter taste profile. Bottling the shifts of season is akin to bottling wine, where the end result is a representation of the terroir in which the product lives. The environment and bacterial cocktail of yeast and pollen in the air cannot be replicated. While maple is produced in a host of regions, there are few that are uniquely northern, and this gives the Nor’Wester Maple Company a distinct maple identity.
This small operation sells what they make and have found that their customers want to be a part of the story, sometimes sharing their own stories of growing up in maple producing families in other parts of the country. This recognition of the hard work required to tap trees and bottle syrup means they don’t tend to shy away from the price that a local, small-scale production demands.
The buy local movement and the pride it instills has further allowed the Nor’Wester Maple Company to thrive. The nurturing of a relationship between producer and consumer through education and programming have taught consumers to understand and value the efforts behind a resource heavy production. They could never compete with the size and scope of larger operations and the economies of scale that come with a more commercial approach, but the maple products that line the supermarket shelves are not reflective of the efforts taken by a small team to capture the local taste of a mountain ridge in a bottle.
The maple experience here is also different than the one you would get in southern Ontario or Québec. The imagery associated with the sugar shack in Canada tends to be one of jovial feasts, music and celebration that is typical of the Québecois experience. A celebratory means to revel in the often outlandish, yet always spirited, cabane à sucre. While the Maple Guys aren’t interested in the theatrics of replicating this French experience, they do bring a certain animated enthusiasm that is only found in those who find pure joy in being outdoors for the entirety of the maple season.
The simple fact that you can’t drive to this northern sugar shack means you’re in for an immersive adventure from the start. This isn’t a passive experience; the 2km hike at a steady incline into the woods connects visitors to the sugarbush from the get go. What may be considered as restraints have pushed the Maple Guys to innovate on a daily basis. Tapping trees off-grid with no water access means that when something breaks down, there’s a whole process to fix it. These higher costs of production paired with a shorter growing season will always result in their products demanding a higher price. With their sights set to expand to new properties, they may be able to scale to a more competitive price point, but the experience of the northern sugar shack will continue to live on in the experience they build themselves.
The Maple Guys want people to feel proud that the bottle they’re pouring from was tapped in our northern woods. Maple is symbolic of Canada, but it’s not just connected to Québec. There are other maple stories to be told and other interpretations of the sugar shack experience to be lived.