When Kate Weiler called sugarmakers to ask about purchasing unprocessed sap to bottle and sell as maple water, the responses were not positive.
“We heard ‘no’ a lot,” she recalled.
Weiler came up with the idea to produce maple water, a plant-based beverage similar to coconut water, after sampling a bottle in a Quebec coffee shop. Convinced maple water would be a hit in the United States, Weiler continued making calls until she found producers near her hometown of Saint Albans, Vermont, who were willing to sell their sap.
Sugarmaker JR Sloan has been drinking sap for decades and loved the idea of helping a startup turn his raw sap into a commercial product that would complement, not compete with, syrup production. Sloan started selling sap from the 200,000 taps on his Fletcher, Vermont, farm, in 2014.
“I loved the taste of their product and thought it was a great idea to bottle and sell it,” said Sloan, owner of Green Mountain Mainlines. “We did a handshake deal to work together.”
With Sloan and three additional Vermont suppliers secured, Weiler and DRINKmaple co-founder Jeff Rose started experimenting with bottling the sweet liquid and selling it as maple water.
Maple water is an unprocessed product made with 100 percent pure maple sap with no additives or preservatives. It’s become a popular addition to the plant-based beverage market, which includes coconut water and watermelon water. Global market research firm Technavio estimates the market for maple water will increase 30 percent by 2020.
DRINKmaple hit store shelves in 2014 — around the same time as other maple water brands such as Sap on Tap and SEVA. Maple water can be purchased at major retailers ranging from Whole Foods and Costco to CVS.
“People are moving away from soda and looking for natural products; retailers recognize that and want to offer options,” Weiler explains.
Although maple water is more popular than ever, there are still misconceptions.
“When people hear sap, they think of a sticky sweet liquid like syrup,” Weiler said. “It has a hint of sweetness but drinking maple water is nothing like drinking syrup.”
To address misconceptions, DRINKmaple spends a lot of time handing out samples. Once people take a sip — and learn that an eight-ounce serving has just 15 calories and three grams of sugar — skeptics turn into regular customers.
As demand grows, the intention is not to divert sap from syrup making and into bottled maple water. Instead, the exploding market for maple water provides a sweet boost to producers who have overflow or want additional wholesale markets for their sap.
“The maple market is flooded and I thought it was a good idea to diversify — and it’s more profitable for me to sell the sap,” explained Sloan. “This partnership [with DRINKmaple] works out real good. I get the same price [for sap] that I get for syrup without the costs of fuel or labor. We hope they get even bigger so we can sell them more sap.”
Although it’s possible to drink maple water straight from the tree, bottling the single-ingredient beverage is complicated. For starters, a lot of sap doesn’t make the cut.
“It’s a single ingredient beverage; we’re not adding anything extra to hide impurities; it has to be clear, sweet, high quality sap,” said Rose.
“There is a lot of sap that we wouldn’t want to bottle that is still perfect for syrup, candies or maple creams,” added Weiler.
Since the product is not initially shelf stable, manufacturers had had to come up with additive-free solutions to preserve maple water. DRINKmaple flash pasteurizes its maple water before bottling; other producers freeze the sap, thawing just enough to bottle each new batch.
The effort, according to Weiler, is worth it.
“Part of the romance of maple water is that it’s a pure, simple product,” she said. “It’s great to see the category growing as more people realize that it’s refreshing and tastes great.”