In the spring of 2015, Jason Lion was working on a community gardening project on Hupacasath First Nation Reserve near Port Alberni, BC when he noticed the land had an abundance of Bigleaf maples. Lion, a graduate of our Applied Biology program who majored in plant and soil science, knew that these particular maples could be tapped for syrup, and he began to wonder about the potential for sap production.
After a year of research and testing — not to mention earning his degree — he is now working with the Hupacasath on Kleekhoot Gold maple syrup. “Kleekhoot” is Nuu-Chah-Nulth for “where the fish swim up the river”.
“While bigleaf maple syrup has been produced for many years on a hobbyist scale, we are the first to use professional grade equipment,” said Lion, adding that the Hupacasath hope to achieve a business model that combines environmental sustainability with innovation and economic opportunity for the community.
Bigleaf maples are only found on the West Coast, in limited patches in lowland areas. What sets this maple syrup apart from the syrup produced from sugar maple trees is its familiar yet distinct flavor. It also has a much higher content of calcium and magnesium than sugar maple syrup.
The sap is collected via a tubing system that connects the tree to a vacuum pump. Once the sap is harvested, the tank is taken to a sugar shack where the sap is put into a reverse osmosis machine that begins the process of concentrating it into syrup. Once the sap is fully reduced, it’s run through a filter press to remove impurities, then hot-packed into glass bottles. A new batch of syrup is created every day.
Maple syrup production occurs during winter and requires a freeze-thaw cycle to generate sap flow within the tissues of the tree.
“Winter in coastal BC can be very unpredictable – in some areas, freezing doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “Climate change could prove challenging for us as freezing temperatures become less frequent in the Port Alberni region, and may eventually necessitate moving the project to higher elevations.”
Lion is currently gearing up for the commercial launch of Kleekhoot Gold in early 2017. The syrup will be targeted to tourists and sold in BC souvenir and gift shops.