Kate Weiler was in Mount Tremblant, Quebec, when she found bottled maple water in a local coffee shop. With one sip, she was hooked on the single-ingredient water with a hint of sweetness.
"I loved the idea that it was natural, plant-based hydration from a local, sustainable source that tasted great," says Weiler.
Maple water wasn't sold in her hometown of Saint Albans, Vt. In the process of searching for — and failing to find — a source where she could order it, Weiler decided to launch a business to bring the functional beverage to market.
Drinkmaple hit store shelves in 2014. Around the same time, several other brands of maple water came online. Weiler welcomed the competition because she believed it brought attention to the category. The drinks usually retail for about $3 to $5 for a 12- to 17-ounce bottle.
"People have been drinking maple water from buckets on sap farms for hundreds of years," she says. "We like to say that the un-trendiest beverage is now trending."
While demand has increased — global market research firm Technavio estimates the market for maple water will increase 30 percent by 2020 — there are still misconceptions about the product.
"We're so programmed to think of sap as sticky and gooey," explains Valentina Cugnasca, co-founder and CEO of maple water manufacturer Vertical Water. "It takes a lot of consumer education to explain what maple water really is."
The supply chain for maple water and maple syrup are the same: Farmers tap maple trees and collect the sap when it starts to flow in the spring. Unlike syrup, which is boiled down into a thick, sticky liquid, maple water is made from unprocessed sap that is 98 percent water. It goes from tree to bottle with no additives or preservatives.
"Nothing is cleaner than our ingredient label," Weiler says.
Maple water is often compared to coconut water, which has about 45 calories and 11 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving; the same size bottle of maple water has an average of 15 calories and 3 grams of sugar. Maple water also contains manganese, a nutrient responsible for calcium absorption and blood sugar regulation. Both are single-ingredient, plant-based hydration.
The popularity of coconut water has been essential for building acceptance of plant-based beverages.
"If it wasn't for the work the coconut water manufacturers had done to open up this category, no other plant-based beverage would have a chance," she says.
Robust coconut water sales have helped maple water capture the attention of retailers. Drinkmaple is sold in 4,000 locations across the U.S., including Kroger stores, and Vertical Water is sold in Whole Foods along with thousands of other retailers nationwide.
There is another reason the tree-to-tap trend is gaining momentum: It supports local farmers.
Vertical Water partners with 10 sap farmers in New York and Wisconsin, and Drinkmaple sources all of its sap from farms located within 20 miles of its Vermont headquarters.
When New York-based maple water manufacturer Sap on Tap approached sap farmers about a new market for their sap, the reactions were positive.
"It's one less step for them [because the sap doesn't need to be boiled down into syrup], and it gives them an additional revenue source," explains Sap on Tap founder Cyrus Schwartz.
Cugnasca emphasizes that maple water is not meant to divert sap from syrup making. Instead, it helps farmers use overflow sap.
"A lot of these farmers have limited production capabilities, and they take the taps out or turn off the flow when they reach maximum syrup production," she explains. "We're asking them to let the sap flow and sell it to us."
Sourcing sap is not as simple as partnering with sap farmers. The window to collect sap is limited (it runs for several weeks in the spring), requiring maple water manufacturers to collect enough sap in the spring to fill orders the rest of the year.
To complicate matters, the product is not initially shelf stable, and each manufacturer has had to devise additive-free solutions to preserve it. Sap on Tap, for example, freezes its maple water and thaws enough to bottle each new batch. Vertical Water and Drinkmaple both flash-pasteurize their maple water before bottling it to increase its shelf life.
"It is harder to bring it to scale," says Cugnasca. "We are very acquiescent to Mother Nature. And all we can do is take out as many hiccups as we can, because we can't tell Whole Foods that Mother Nature hasn't woken up from winter yet."
As demand grows, Schwartz is more worried about knock-off brands than the supply of sap.
"It's important that we keep manufacturers from cheating by adding maple syrup to tap water and calling it maple water," he explains. "If that happens, we'll lose a lot of credibility."
For now, the focus is on raising awareness of maple water.
"It's the opposite of what people expect," Schwartz says. "The flavor is very subtle, not sweet. We always tell people, 'You have to try it.' "
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina journalist and beekeeper who frequently writes about food and farming.