Spirit Tree: a vision to be green

In September 2019, Spirit Tree Cidery celebrated its 10th anniversary.

In this blog, we are sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the environmentally award-winning building and some of the challenges in making it a reality.

Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge, owners of Spirit Tree, had a big idea. They had a vision of creating a high-end farm-to-table cidery and bistro, unlike anything Caledon had ever seen. Their vision was so unique that they wanted to start from scratch by finding a property where they could plant their own orchard.

They eventually found the property, where Spirit Tree currently resides, on Boston Mills Road. Before they took possession, it was just open fields with a few scattered apple trees. With the help of their family, they planted their entire 46-acre orchard by hand, planting over 2,500 apple trees or whips (baby apple trees) in one year.

Mindful of the Environment

It was important to the Wilson’s that the entire operation was energy efficient and environmentally friendly from the ground up. So, everything from the orchard to the building was created with that in mind. Their intentions were good, but the Wilson’s faced many challenges and roadblocks to open Spirit Tree. It took over four years of planning and permits to even start construction on the building.

A Building Made of Straw

Many people visiting the cidery for the first time might think the building is a historic agricultural building. That is because it was designed to resemble the century-old bank barns common in the area. The building was constructed out of large straw bales. Imagine a giant Lego set of straw bales stacked on top of one another.

The building is so unique it became the first winery production and agricultural building in Ontario to utilize straw bale construction. The result was a building with an insulation value of R-50+, twice of what is typically required in a traditional home.

Originally the Town of Caledon and Niagara Escarpment Commission were concerned about the safety of a building built entirely of straw and demanded expensive engineering reports. After some time, they dropped their concerns and construction was able to start.

Supporting the load of the building are giant posts and beams. The walls were filled with straw bales that were grown by a neighbouring farmer. There is an estimated 700 bales of straw in the walls of Spirit Tree. The straw walls were then secured using a polyvinyl mesh (resembling chicken-wire) and completely covered with three-quarters of an inch of lime/concrete stucco. It took three coats of stucco to fully cover the internal and external walls of the building.

Staying Warm in the Winter & Cool in the Summer

Instead of using fossil fuels and electricity to heat and cool the building, the Wilson’s went geothermal.

When you arrive at Spirit Tree and park your car, you are walking on two 3,700-foot-long loops of pipe. Environmentally friendly ethanol is pumped through these loops, absorbing heat from the earth before returning to the building, where a heat exchanger heats the interior using a forced air system. In the summer, the loop is reversed to cool the interior. Only a small amount of electricity is required to run the ethanol loop pump and the fan motor.

Wood Fired Stone Oven

Did you know that Spirit Tree makes environmentally friendly pizza and bread? Huh? That is because our pizza and bread are baked in our wood fired stone oven.

In the centre of the building is a one-of-a-kind wood-burning artisan oven. It was designed by the late Alan Scott, one of the world’s most famous brick-oven artisan designers. Using the ancient technique of thermal mass retention, the oven is heated by a wood fire directly in the oven chamber. The oven is fired overnight, and the heat is absorbed into the massive stone masonry. In the morning, the ashes are cleaned out, the oven floor is mopped clean, and baking can begin.

This oven allows us to bake nearly all our products using a renewable fuel source, with outstanding results that cannot be replicated by more conventional gas or electric ovens.

Ensuring a Fruitful Harvest

If you walk into the orchard, you might think the grass is over-grown and neglected. However, the long grass and wildflowers between the rows of apple trees help prevent soil erosion and are a natural food source for the native pollinators in and around our farm. In the spring when the apple trees are in bloom, this army of pollinators will ensure an excellent fruit yield.

Keeping an apple orchard free from disease and pests is a fine balancing act. Wanting to limit the amount of sprays and chemicals used in the orchard, Spirit Tree opted for a more natural way to keep the apples free from pests. Using Advanced Integrated Pest Management (or AIPM), Spirit Tree ensures they have a superior apple crop by using organic or soft chemical control.

The trees are continually monitored using insect lure traps, degree-day modeling, visual inspection and soil and tissue sampling. This allows us to fertilize using only what is required and when it is needed. Tom and his team can pinpoint localized infections and treat only the infected areas of the orchard, thus minimizing the use of sprays and to use only those chemicals that are targeted to that particular pest.

Great Tasting Cider

​Even the cider-making process was reconsidered with the environment in mind. Traditionally, sweet cider is flash pasteurized using a gas-fired boiler to eradicate any possible pathogens in the juice. The problem is that many of the beneficial nutrients and enzymes in the juice are destroyed when heated, and this method also uses a lot of energy to run the boiler.

Spirit Tree opted to treat its cider using a Cider Sure UV Unit, where the juice is passed over a glass pane illuminated using ultraviolet light. Any possible pathogens are eradicated with no heat being used, maintaining the naturally occurring nutrients and enzymes released during pressing of the fruit. Not only does it ensure that the ciders maintain their natural benefits, but it uses much less energy. ​

Despite the rocky start and bureaucratic red tape Tom and Nicole experienced in opening Spirit Tree, they were awarded “Environmentalist of the Year” and the “Agri-Food Innovation Excellence” in 2010. The Spirit Tree operation continues to focus on environmentally friendly practices as most of the product sold in the Farm Shop and the over 80% of the ingredients used in the Bistro are all locally sourced.

Come celebrate 10 years of Spirit Tree with us from September 27-29 and check out our environmentally friendly building.