North American explorers dubbed maple water the “wholesomest drink in the world” more than 300 years ago.
Now a new wave of entrepreneurs is rediscovering the sweet refreshment and racing to cash in on a hot market for natural beverages. Businesses — from forest investment firms to fledgling startups — saw coconut water explode into a $150 million a year phenomena. They’re banking on maple water as the next big thing.
“Coconut water has already proven this is a valid concept,” said Michael Farrell, a maple specialist and the director of The Uihlein Forest at Cornell University. “Maple water is local, tastes better and has less sugar. It’s a no-brainer.”
The time is now for maple water. There is a tight spring window of two to three weeks to draw the water from maple trees. A few maple water products are on shelves now. More are expected in stores next month.
But Farrell and others say companies drawing maple water from trees in the Northeast and Canada need to overcome a few mass market hurdles. The biggest problem? Most people have never heard of maple water.
In the spring, water flows through maple trees naturally and delivers nutrients from the ground up. Farmers tap the trees to draw maple water, which is also known as maple sap. The same liquid is commonly boiled down to create maple syrup.
In its raw form, maple water is roughly 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar, Farrell said.
It takes 40 gallons of maple water to create just 1 gallon of syrup. But entrepreneurs like Kate Weiler, the cofounder of DRINKmaple in Concord, are selling all the pure maple water they tap from the tree.
To give her product, called “maple,” a shelf life, Weiler said the maple water is pasteurized in a way that retains its original minerals and nutrients. Then the maple water is bottled in sterile packaging to further extend its life.
Weiler, 31, and cofounder Jeff Rose, 35, discovered maple water on a trip to Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, to race in a triathlon last August.
Weiler, a second-career sports nutritionist, says she fell in love with the taste right away and although they weren’t planning on starting a company, the teammates were inspired by the unprocessed drink.
“We see so many products out there that are just manufactured in a lab,” Weiler said. “I really believe we should consume products that come straight from nature and don’t include artificial dyes and flavors.”
The duo are also drawn to the sustainability of maple water. The process doesn’t damage the tree, and there are an abundance of local maple trees to tap. But creating an entirely local product has proved difficult.
Maple water must be bottled quickly, so the farm must be near a packaging facility.
Rose and Weiler initially wanted to work with maple farms in New Hampshire or Vermont, but the nearest packaging facility in New York required a minimum order of a million cartons, Rose said.
So the pair opted to work with a farm and a packaging facility near Montreal for a first run of 196,000 units, which will hit shelves in May. Next year, they hope to increase their inventory and work with a local Vermont farm and the New York processor.
Like many companies, the DRINKmaple founders were initially secretive about their idea to bottle maple water. When they finally started to talk to farmers about their plans, they learned of a dozen other companies trying to create the same product.
Vertical Water, a company owned by Feronia Forests based in Pittsfield, is selling a maple water that became available in stores this month. The water, which comes from trees in New York, is sold in Sprouts Farmers Market stores, located throughout the western United States.
The company was inspired by the success of the natural beverage market, said Paolo Cugnasca, the chief executive of Feronia Forests and a member of the Vertical Water board. Besides coconut water, companies are now making drinks using everything from artichokes to cactus plants.
For now, the jury is still out on whether coconut or maple water tastes better or is better for you. Maple water is more hydrating and has less sugar, but coconut water offers more nutrients, Farrell says. Coconut water has a stronger taste, but maple water is said to go down more smoothly.
Vertical Water claims to contain one-third of the calories of coconut water and just 5 grams of sugar. Most companies tout the fact that their product is produced and bottled in North America and not in far-flung places like the tropics.
DRINKmaple calls maple water mother nature at her best.