The company, called The Maple Guild, bills itself as the “largest single source producer of maple ingredients.” The company, which is an offshoot of Connecticut-based hedge fund Wood Creek Capital, started in 2015 with taps in 200,000 trees spread across 16,000 acres the company controls in Vermont. That has grown to about 350,000 taps this year, said John Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing.
Large scale forms base for innovation
From the beginning the company was built around innovation and scale, Campbell said. The maple syrup market had for years been characterized by mom and pop syrup makers or larger operations that were generally aggregators of syrup produced first by someone else. The Maple Guild wanted to turn that picture on its head, and gain control of the entire value chain Campbell said. And, with its hedge fund backers, it has the capital to do so. Wood Creek claims to have $2 billion under management.
“I don’t know if anyone had really taken the time to innovate around this category,”Campbell said. “It’s been around since the Native Americans started tapping trees.”
Campbell said the dark amber type of syrup has been the industry’s mainstay. That familiar, highly caramelized taste is what most people associate with maple flavors, but it’s as much an artifact of the production process as it is the actual flavor of the sap, he said.
“The traditional dark amber syrups are produced by boiling. When you boil a kettle, it’s heat from the bottom up and it takes a long time, so the sugars have a long time to caramelize,” he said.
Campbell said his company wanted to shoot for a lighter, ‘cleaner’ taste, so it came up with a steam process in specially designed evaporators with a very high surface area. The resulting syrup is lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, he said.
“We can make a 50 gallon drum of syrup in minutes,” he said.
‘Enhanced’ maple water
The Maple Guild uses a slightly dehydrated maple sap base as the starting point for the steam evaporation process. It’s also the base material for the company’s latest offering, a line of ‘enhanced’ maple waters that feature a suite of multivitamins and flavors.
It’s a hefty scent of opportunity that drew the hedge fund hounds. According to an analyst group called Global Alternative Waters, the market for plant-based waters, including birch, coconut and maple, will double by 2020. Global sales in 2016 were pegged at about $2.7 billion.
Campbell said The Maple Guild saw an slot open for a plant water that could draw on the underlying health message of the plant base while also offering flavors and other ingredients.
“The maple base supplies a dose of manganese as well as trace minerals. It also adds some sweetness and a faint trace of a maple flavor note. But we add antioxidants, electrolytes, and b-vitamins to create a functional beverage, and we are offering it in cranberry-pomegranate, blueberry, and citrus flavors,” he said.
Water is just the start
In addition to the waters, The Maple Guild is also launching a line of maple-sweetened teas, Campbell said. These brewed leaf teas (not powdered), use a bit of the company’s syrup as sweetener, and come in at only 45 calories per serving, he said. The company’s production process means that the maple flavor won’t overpower the tea, and that lighter flavor note opens up other applications, highlighting the company’s mission to develop maple as not just a source of syrup but as a multifunctional natural ingredient, he said.
“If you look at the overall syrup market, maple syrup is just a small part, but it’s growing at 15% to 20%. We really wanted to show the versatility of maple. One of the things that we are trying to bring to the forefront is that there are so many uses. You could use it to sweeten your coffee instead of table sugar. You could use it as a rub for a pork loin or as a marinade for salmon,”he said.