Even the most devout pancake lover might not know one essential thing about maple sap: When it comes out of a tree on a cold spring morning, it is not at all viscous. Rather, fresh sap is roughly the consistency of water, rich in free-radical-fighting manganese, a source of refreshing electrolytes, and just a touch sweet. If you think it sounds like an ideal candidate for the next bottled beverage at your local grocer, you’re exactly right.
The market for healthy drinks is booming. Coconut water eventually became a $1 billion industry as it became known for its electrolyte and potassium boosts and earned a following among yogis everywhere, but it took a lot of competitive guerrilla marketing. And cold-pressed juice has gone from luxury item to common libation in a few short years. Let’s not even get into the ubiquitous vitamin waters. But is there room on the market for one more packaged beverage?
DRINKmaple founders Kate Weiler and Jeff Rose certainly think so. While competing in an Ironman triathlon in 2013, they tasted a beverage made from maple water and found it refreshing, but they thought it could be done better. The drinks they tried had an occasional tendency to go sour, due to not being properly filtered and bottled. And the couple just imagined how many acres of maple trees were literally untapped potential. With a background in holistic nutrition as well as a master’s degree in sports nutrition from Northeastern University, Weiler immediately thought of the potential for maple water to help athletes recover. Products like Goo and Power Bars were the norm, Weiler explains, but they don’t work for everyone.
“We couldn’t believe we weren’t utilizing something that comes from a tree,” Weiler says over pints of craft beer at a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. In between bites of her protein-fueled, dairy-free meal, Weiler checks on the latest reports from her staff as to whether the trees were producing sap. When she learns it is happening, she throws her hands up in the air. “Yes, there’s sap!”
Sap season happens in the spring in Vermont — one of the world’s major producers of maple syrup — and Weiler and Rose have taken the opportunity to show off their facility in the rural area of St. Albans, surrounded by forest, to members of the media. We stand above large vats, watching them fill as clear sap comes rushing in. Rose, who was an engineer before taking on the maple water venture, wrinkles his nose at one batch. “That one looks a little cloudy for us,” he says with remorse. He and Weiler agree they will probably not use it.
The company prides itself on rigorously filtering and cold-stabilizing the sap (“maple water” is the more marketable term they prefer, since most people incorrectly associate “sap” with the viscous processed form of syrup, but it refers to the same thing), as well as the fact that literally nothing is added to the product. What you get in a bottle is just what was in the tree, but it’s been cleaned up and made to sit on a shelf for up to two years.
“When Jeff and I started, our ambition outweighed our intellect,” recalls Weiler as we sample the maple water at the facility. When the duo first approached their prospective bottler, they were laughed at. “They were like, no way, who are you? The beverage industry is cutthroat,” Weiler explains. They resorted to a smaller production facility for their first output. But within a year of their May 2014 launch, which was entirely self-funded, they had raised $1.8 million and the big bottler was willing to take them on. Now, the label has expanded to more than 2,000 retailers across the country and is becoming popular in Europe as well.
Refreshing, not too sweet, an attractive hint of beige the only coloring, it’s easy to imagine maple water becoming a favorite post-gym beverage or a pick-me-up on a sweltering summer afternoon in the city. “We never would have done this if we’d known how much work we had to do just to build a category,” she says, adding, “We need to do a lot of education.”
The brand has found popularity not just with athletes. Mixologists, too, are now using it as the perfect addition to low-alcohol cocktails. During my recent visit to Burlington, we try a version of the iconic Italian spritz drink, the Americano, and a Pisco Sour made with the stuff. After tasting Weiler’s brand at a trade show, the writer and mixologist Warren Bobrow decided it would be a perfect ingredient in boozy concoctions and wrote an article about how well the maple water paired with barrel whiskey. It is currently used in cocktails at restaurants across New England, such as Tempo, in Waltham, Massachusetts. Essentially, the product serves as an alternative to simple syrup, a sweetener in cocktails.
“The reality is that so many people out there know they should drink more water,” says Weiler, “but they don’t.” This is true and yet, during our trip, after sipping maple all afternoon, I find myself desperately wanting just regular water. For this, no real substitute exists. Alternative waters are great for serious athletes who need hydration, no doubt. Not being one of these myself, I’ll take my maple water with rye, bitters, and Campari, stirred, happy to know that I’ll be slower to get tipsy, less likely to get a hangover, and possibly might even glow with the vitamin boost.