An idea as simple as bottled maple sap may go global, as Ottawa entrepreneurs take their pitch to Hong Kong
Above L-R TreeWell partners Mike Lalonde, Phillip Craig and Tyler Steeves after first bottling of maple sap in 2013. The enterprise appears so promising that founder Steeves was in Hong Kong this week talking with prospective distributors.
Until now, that is.
Gee, when I was a youngster tasting sap in the sugar bush outside Millbrook, Ont., before it was boiled into maple syrup, it didn’t occur to me there’s potential profit to be made in those thar tree limbs.
While the sap was pleasantly sweet but not ridiculously cloy by commercial soda pop standards, the light body and subtle flavour almost seemed, well, insipid — until someone like Tyler Steeves, former president of the Student Federation at the Univeristy of Ottawa, got the bright idea to capitalize on the subtlety of sap he sampled in the bush in Sharbot Lake in 2011.
His idea: to carbonate the stuff and cork it in thick, Champagne-like bottles as a fun, non-alcoholic beverage called TreeWell Sapératif. It is the essence of simplicity.
Steeves was in Hong Kong this week meeting potential retailers and distributors, even though the product is barely a year old.
So I hooked up instead with Mike Lalonde, the guy in charge of selling the stuff, the other day at Rainbow Foods in Britannia. Previously laid off from a job selling fruit smoothies made by Coca-Cola, Lalonde was able to update me on TreeWell’s story and the company’s rather encouraging success. Other partners in the venture — none is over age 30, by the way — are Phillip Craig, who runs the production end, and Dan Gagnier, with a high-tech engineering background.
“You just don’t bottle sap from a tree and expect things to be all right, you have to boil it to pasteurize it. But you can’t over-boil it to avoid elevating the sugar content too much, otherwise is could become too sweet like soda pop. And if you boil it too long, you lose some of the 54 natural anti-oxidants in the sap.
“So you have to process it in a completely closed and sterile environment to prevent contamination from outside bacteria. Then the tricky part comes in carbonating the sap while it remains in a closed, sterile environment.
“And you can’t just carbonate a warm product — it has to be cold — so we’ve set up a system involving old freezers and kegs. We don’t want to give away our secrets but, trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
For seed up money, the partners launched an online Kickstarter campaign where backers pledge cash in exchange for rewards — in this case, bottles of maple sap. Amazingly, the money-raiser exceeded all expectations with 320 backers pledging $22,000 (almost 50-per-cent more than the original goal). Lalonde says it took the entrepreneurs almost a year to engineer a bottling process. “Remember, we’re not Coca-Cola so everything we do is by hand,” he says.
The first batch of 600 bottles rolled off in early 2013 — and was something of a flop, he confides. “It took six people all weekend to bottle,” Lalonde recalls.
“We didn’t foresee that without boiling and only passing the sap through a fine filter, the bacteria would still be present and cause spoilage within three weeks. So we soon started to see sediment form in the bottles and, while it’s not harmful, it wasn’t the product we wanted. As a result, all 600 bottles went down the drain and the glass was recycled.”
The next batch, in November 2013, amount to 1,500 bottles, each 750 mL. “We couldn’t initially get a retailer interested in carrying it,” Lalonde says, “because of the short shelf life.
“But when we dealt with that issue, we discovered pasteurization actually improved the taste and people started jumping on board.” TreeWell is now carried at seven stores, the latest at McKeen Metro in the Glebe. For a list of stores, click here.
“We’re almost out of product now and we’ll start our next batch on May 8,” Lalonde says. “And we’ve improved the process using dairy equipment to pasteurize, so our capability moves to 1,000 litres a batch compared to 55 litres previously.”
Sap is purchased from sugar bushes in the Ottawa Valley and frozen in an industrial facility to thaw as needed. “We’ve got enough sap now for 14,000 bottles, which should last until the next maple season,” Lalonde says.
Meanwhile, Steeves was in Hong Kong this week with a University of Ottawa business administration team to discuss exports to Asia. “They absolutely love it — they love maple, they love the taste, the brand is attractive and it’s sophisticated.”
And retailer Rainbow Foods in the Britannia Plaza says it fits well with its natural food line. “We promote local and when we had local suppliers in Saturday showcasing their products the response was amazing,” says Coleen Hulett, store manager.
“We sold an entire case within an hour and had to get another. We sold about two within three hours.”
Some may flinch at the price — at $15 or $16 for a 750-mL bottle, that’s about $1 more than some pretty respectable Spanish methode-champenoise sparking wines at the LCBO. “But the price doesn’t seem to bother people, and that surprised me,” Hulett says.
“People like the effervescence,” adds Dorothy Wilson, Rainbow’s general manager.
“It’s a kind of gourmet, natural food product for people who may not want the alcohol. And it’s fun.”
Sugar content of TreeWell sap rings in at roughly 30 grams (six teaspoons) in a 750-mL bottle, compared to 80 grams (16 teaspoons) in typical soda pop. “The Asian market for us could be huge,” Lalonde says.
“We’re talking about selling them pallets of the product, each pallet with 50 cases of 12 bottles. We have other retailers interested from as far away as California and Alberta, but we’re limited by availability.
“You know, I was always into consumer packaged goods, and what appeals to us about this is our passion for being entrepreneurs. I was laid off by Coca-Cola, which owns the Odwalla and Simply Juices line, while Tyler was laid off by Maplesoft, a high-tech firm, so we decided to start making things happen for ourselves.”
Indeed, they have done just that.
Check out the TreeWell video: