A short drive from the Canadian border in upstate Vermont, an artery-like network of tiny plastic tubes nearly 6,000 miles in length — a distance of about 25% of the way around the Earth — protrudes from 450,000 maple trees.
Each drop of maple sap extracted from the trees flows slowly into this network before arriving at a nearby building that once housed an Ethan Allen factory, where the valuable syrup is produced, bottled and distributed.
The Maple Guild, the company that produces some of the sticky-sweet bronze liquid each year on 25,000 acres of sparsely populated land in the northeast, began distributing its maple syrup in April after spending five years preparing the infrastructure, refining the technology it uses to produce the syrup and gradually ramping up output. With the public’s appetite for almost anything maple gaining momentum, the company's entrance into the market couldn’t be better-timed.
“Maple itself, it’s really on an upward trend. It’s a better for you sweetener, low glycemic, natural, organic and people are looking for that all the time,” John Campbell, The Maple Guild’s vice president of marketing and sales, told Food Dive. “We’re hoping that we’ve given them a number of different ways to view it and see that it’s not just for breakfast anymore.”
Maple's popularity comes as consumers look to more natural, healthier ingredients, while at the same time reducing their intake of artificial sweeteners and processed sugars, according to those in the industry. Some speculate that millennials, who are especially cognizant of what goes into their body and where it comes from, also are looking to try something new — especially if it’s the same product they fondly remember watching their parents or grandparents consume while they were growing up.
While maple syrup is commonly used in meats and as a topping on pancakes and waffles, the time-honored ingredient is showing up in countless other foods and beverages, often as an imitation flavor. The sweetener appears in Starbucks’ maple pecan latte, maple water — sourced from the sap of maple trees — maple vodka from Vermont Spirits and maple whiskey, produced by big brands such as Crown Royal, Jim Beam and Knob Creek.
Among food companies, yogurt makers Chobani and Brown Cow have added maple as a flavor. RXBAR, recently purchased for $600 million by Kellogg, has created a maple sea salt bar. There’s maple cotton candy, maple salad dressing and even maple-smoked cheddar.
'Hit it while it's hot'
At The Maple Guild in tiny Island Pond, Vermont (population 821), the company produces traditional maple syrup along with special blends infused with vanilla beans or cinnamon sticks. One variety is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. It doesn’t stop there. The company also crafts cream, tea, vinegar, marinades, BBQ sauces and nutrient-infused water with maple. The Maple Guild's products are found in supermarkets including Giant Eagle, H-E-B and Whole Foods.
“Companies are looking for a trend and it could well be that the powers that be… they are saying ‘Look how pumpkin really takes off during this time of the year, let’s hit it while it’s hot’ ” with other products such as maple, said Lester Wilson, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. “Everybody is looking to sell more products to the millennial population.”
Maple’s surging popularity is largely relegated to a few categories. While sales of all products with maple were down 0.4% in the year ended Sept. 2, 2017, according to Nielsen, sales of beverages with maple rose 25.6%, maple syrup jumped 6.9% and processed meats with maple, 7.3%. Together, sales of the top 10 maple product categories totaled about $564.5 million for the year ended Sept. 2 compared to $506.7 million a year earlier.
“Maple has always been there, it’s just been a sleepy little category.”
Justin Gold — the founder of the fast-growing nut butter brand sporting his name — first started mixing maple into his spread for sandwiches because he enjoyed the taste. Today, his maple almond butter, which has been on the market for a decade, is one of Justin’s most popular items.
“Maple has always been there, it’s just been a sleepy little category,” Gold said.
A great business idea
Few entrepreneurs have capitalized on the maple awakening more than Kate Weiler and Jeff Rose who founded DRINKmaple in late 2013 as a way to sell the sweet water extracted from maple trees.
The triathletes tasted maple water for the first time at a coffee shop in a sleepy Canadian town in Quebec while waiting for registration to open for an Ironman race. Captivated by its hydrating capabilities and impressed by research they uncovered before the next day's competition, the pair took the idea back to the U.S., where it had yet to catch on. They decided to start their own business.
“We had no intention of starting a business, but we got back here and tried to buy it, but no one was selling it. We’re like 'Why isn’t anybody doing this, this is such a great idea. ' ”
Today, DRINKmaple appears in about 16,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Wegmans, CVS and Giant. Rose and Weiler have expanded their product line beyond the popular maple water to include new varieties such as raspberry lemon maple and grapefruit maple.
“We had no intention of starting a business, but we got back here and tried to buy it, but no one was selling it,” Rose said. “We’re like, 'Why isn’t anybody doing this, this is such a great idea.' ”
Rose said sales are at least doubling each year, though he declined to provide specific numbers. The water, which is maple sap before it is boiled down, is similar to coconut water in that it contains antioxidants, prebiotics, minerals and electrolytes, but has about half the sugar and a much more subdued taste that can woo even the most skeptical drinker, according to Rose and Weiler.
“Maple water does not have a polarizing taste, unlike coconut water,” Rose said. “We’re trying to do our part to bolster the maple community in a less commoditized way.”
Pumpkin's popularity holds firm
Despite growing interest and innovative new products, Iowa State’s Wilson said maple faces a few looming obstacles that could hinder future growth.
For one, it’s competing with pumpkin during the fall, a season that has long been synonymous with the round orange squash varietal. The pumpkin explosion shows no sign of abating, with sales for these flavored products totaling $414 million for the year ended July 29, an increase of 6% from the prior year as companies create beer, Oreo cookies, Jell-O, lattes, pizza crusts, yogurt, gum, dog food and even pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds.
It’s also possible that maple's popularity in other parts of the country may never match the enthusiasm it receives in the Northeast, where nearly all of the estimated 4.3 million gallons of the sweetener in the U.S. is produced each year. And, like many other products and ingredients before it, consumers could grow tired of maple and simply move on to something else.
John Campbell with The Maple Guild is optimistic that the sweetener's popularity won't wane any time soon, and will in fact continue to grow. In the unlikely event that doesn't happen, he’s prepared.
“I don’t think I’m going to see it that way, “Campbell said.” I’m thinking maple’s topping pumpkin spice, but we also have a pumpkin spice maple just in case it’s not,” he said with a laugh.