Superior Maple is a family-run sugar shack located in Goulais, Ontario, born out of a love for the bush.
It consists of 30,000 taps across 300 acres of homegrown superior maple trees, overlooking Lake Superior, just north of Sault Ste. Marie.
It is run by Elita White and Jonathon Henson, whose father, Barry Henson, a former logger and farmer, started the business in 2010.
Barry grew up in Leeburn, Ontario, on a farm, where he would cut wood for heat and cooking.
Every spring, he would take part in tapping trees and harvesting maple sap to make syrup for friends and family.
In 1965, he began his carer in logging, starting his own company with his cousin, Henson & Tregonning Logging Limited.
Eventually, as he saw the struggles within the logging industry, he wanted to see what else he could do to support his family.
In 2005, property became available in Pennefather Township. Barry’s love for nature aided in his decision to purchase 1100 acres to have the wood rights.
It was then that the idea to start a maple sugar bush operation was planted, and an expert checked out the property and confirmed that he had the capacity for upwards of 250,000 taps.
In 2010, Superior Maple Products was born, producing all-natural, 100% pure maple syrup.
No additives. No preservatives. Just superior maple syrup.
The first year, the building was erected and 6000 taps were installed.
Continued success resulted in 11,000 taps the following year.
When Barry passed away in 2013, his children chose to carry on his legacy, continually growing the operation.
Elita White and Jonathan Henson were kind enough to give SaultOnline a full tour of the facility and how the sugar shack works.
So I took the drive out to Goulais one lovely, sunny, April afternoon to check out one of the Sault’s sweet spots.
Once I got onto Thielman Road, I followed the signs ‘6km Maple syrup!’ and ‘1.5km Maple syrup!’ If you wanted to take a visit, you wouldn’t miss it. (Directions can be found on their Facebook page).
When I arrived, I learned that a group tour of school kids had just passed through, bringing back nostalgic memories of when I was in elementary school riding out a sugar high at one of our local sugar shacks.
Visiting as an adult, I learned a lot about what goes into running this kind of business.
Starting in the great white North’s outdoors (while the snow may be almost melted in town, there was still a decent amount on the property), the siblings showed me where the operation all starts.
“As the weather gets hotter, the sap doesn’t freeze at night and if it doesn’t freeze it isn’t any good,” Elita explained.
“Based on the weather forecast, this time next week, we will likely be done collecting syrup
They inform me that once the trees bud, the syrup isn’t good anymore.
The longest line runs 1.6km from the building to the back of the property.
Setting up the lines and running them through to the building is one of the major aspects of this operation. It requires staff to be out in the bushes checking for leaks caused by animals like squirrels and bears biting into the lines, as these leaks cause air to get into the sap and disrupt the production process.
“Surprisingly, we don’t get a lot of moose disturbing the lines. We see their tracks so we know that they are here, but they seem to go under and around the lines,” Elita explained of their forest-friends.
We then headed into the facility to check out the post-tapping process.
The establishment was built from scratch.
Everything about making syrup is noisy,” Elita told me, laughing as we spoke in raised voices over the buzzing sounds of machines, tanks, and vacuums working symbiotically together to create “liquid gold.”
The sap runs through the lines into releasers. I was pleasantly surprised to see how fast the sap was flowing, and how foamy it looked!
A lot of this equipment was designed in Quebec, the world’s largest producer of maple syrup.
“It’s nice sap when the foam is white,” Eilta explained, “When it starts to turn yellow, that means it’s starting to go bad. It means it is too warm out and bacteria is growing.”
This equipment works symbiotically with vacuums and moisture traps to prevent overflowing.
The sap then gets stored in these three 8,000 gallon tanks before being produced into syrup.
The barrels pictured in front of the large tanks are full of ready-to-serve syrup.
Amidst the tour, I had to ask Eilta and Jonathan how they learned the ins and outs of so much equipment, managing so many trees over such a vast property! It seemed like so much to take in, and yet the knew the inner workings of the operation and the bush like the back of their hand.
“We did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people who had done it before. We also did a tour in Quebec and learned a lot about how the operations should work out there, but a lot of the experience you gain on the fly by doing it and learning as you go,” Jonathan shared of their beginnings.
“Roger who works here was a huge resource for us. He grew up tapping trees with buckets and boiling syrup, so he quite the asset. The first year, he tapped all the trees himself,” Elita mentioned of their valuable partner.
This brought me to the final stages of production, where the sap becomes delicious, sweet, sticky syrup!
The reverse osmosis machine purifies the sap.
The sap goes through the reverse osmosis machine, which takes water out of the sap (approximately 80% of the water). This process bring the sugar content from between 0.95% – 3.5% (usually averaging around 2%) to 11%. The water leftover is then used to clean the machine, which they usually run one to two times a day, depending on the season.
The sap is then pushed into the evaporator to heat up so that the sugar content rises and it caramelizes, thus making it syrup.
The bottom pans pictured below can hold about 150 gallons of concentrated sap. As it moves through the pans, and a lot of the water levels off, it is becoming more concentrated.
The process is constantly in movement, each line and device working symbiotically with the other to keep the syrup flowing and the production as efficient as possible.
Afterwards, it is pushed through a filter to take out any imperfections, leaving pure syrup.
Finally, the syrup is reheated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and then packaged.
Running this kind of operation – from starting point to finished product – out of one facility with a small, but dedicated, staff is no small feat.
It requires passion, dedication, and a plethora of knowledge. All of which the Henson family showed me on my visit.
This brought us to the end of our tour, and to my most anticipated question.
I asked Jonathan, “What is your favourite part about doing this?”
Without hesitation, he told me, “Today was probably one of them. Seeing the kids at the tour and their smiles while they tasted the syrup. Just seeing people enjoy the product. I enjoy the bush work and being out walking. I really like that. Days like today when your outside, with the sun, walking through a little bit of snow, hearing the birds chirp, seeing a squirrel and wishin’ he wasn’t chewing through your line.”
A connection with nature.
“If anyone shows up, we do our best to give tours. Families really enjoy that and find it interesting,” Eilta said.
They also give back to the community by partnering with schools to sell the syrup for fundraising purposes, as well as participating in city celebrations like Canada Day, the Fall Festival, and giving to charities and organizations such as the Soo Curlers pancake breakfast, Galilean Bible Camp, ARCH and the Avery pancake breakfast.
City Meat Market, River Rock Gifts, and Husky all sell Superior Maple Products, and products can also be purchased at the office at 211 Brule Road and at the sugar bush on Thielman road.
They have also been at the Mill Market, and their syrup is used at Joseph’s Homestead and Vibe Eatery (in coffee and smoothies? Yum!)
When asked, “what’s next?” Elita told me, “We may expand more, our goal is always to get bigger. I just started making candy and I want to make maple butter!”
That sounds delicious, and I am sure I’m not alone when I say – Superior Maple Products, you better let me know when I can get my hands on it!
I left having learned a lot about an operation that is so integral to Canadian and northern identity, and better yet, one that is undertaken by a local family.
Moreover – I didn’t leave empty-handed!
I encourage you to visit them, or check out their website here.