Most of us have gone to the grocery store and picked up a small bottle of pure maple syrup only to be shocked at the price. Why exactly is maple syrup so expensive? The production of maple syrup requires older, mature trees, perfect late-winter weather, and a lot of capital and energy to filter and boil watery sap into usable, concentrated syrup. While it may seem the syrup should be cheaper because trees produce it for “free,” nothing could be further from the truth. The production process, also known as maple sugaring, is complicated and dependent on factors often outside the control of producers.
Maple Syrup Production Requires Mature Sugar Maples
While you can produce syrup from almost any maple and even yellow birch, sugar maple, as the name suggests, produces the most sugar in the maple family and is the standard for profitable maple syrup production. However, sugar maples grow slowly, and to produce plentiful, sugar-rich sap, a tree has to be mature and full-crowned. Because they are a slower-growing species, it can take 100 years to grow a stand of maple timber eligible for tapping. Not only does this lead to a natural scarcity of eligible stands, but it means maple production competes with other profitable uses for land. Landowners must ask: does it make sense to preserve this timber for syrup production or harvest the timber now for valuable hardwood lumber and potentially make more money? The net result of this question is ultimately less acres available for syrup production.
For some landowners, the decision of what to produce is a matter of opportunity cost and personal preference , while for others, it is really a matter of capital expense and cold reality. Land growing mature sugar maples usually comes at a pretty premium due to its scarcity, and if a land purchase was financed by debt, a landowner may have little choice in how to manage it. Timber harvests usually offer more immediate cashflow with a larger lump sum, so this is often the easiest route to take. This is why so many maple syrup producers are family businesses where land has been in the family for decades, if not generations.
Production of Maple Syrup Requires Expensive Equipment
When most people think of a maple sugaring operation, they are likely to imagine two kids collecting buckets from the taps on a snowy day in a quant, picturesque village in Vermont–maybe a scene similar to what can be seen on the Vermont quarter. Indeed, many small woodlot owners still produce maple syrup in such a traditional manner, but their total production is tiny, and in most cases, they are only producing syrup for themselves, friends, and family. It takes 44 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, so it is difficult to scale such operations. Commercial producers use much larger and capital intensive operations involving miles of tubing connected to often thousands of taps (the largest producer in Vermont has around a half a million taps across 24,000 acres). In some cases, tubes are even connected to vacuum systems to increase production and expand the season.
Raw sap is mostly water. To get the concentrated syrup we pour on our waffles and pancakes, most of the water needs to be removed. Traditionally, water was boiled out of the sap, but boiling is a long and energy-intensive process. With modern technology, much of the water can be separated from the sugar and removed with reverse osmosis to create a more concentrated sugar solution. From there, the concentrated is sugar boiled to further remove water and caramelize the sugars, requiring more specialized equipment. The final product is a bottle of maple syrup.
Optimum Production Requires Optimum Weather
Maple sugaring is no different from other types of agriculture. Total output is dependent on favorable weather conditions, but maples are incredibly specific on the type of weather they require. For sap to run through the tissues of the tree, the days must be above freezing and the nights must be below freezing. The alternating freeze and thaw cycles help produce the forces necessary to actually move the sap.This can mean the season can last two months or two weeks in late winter. Maple producers are very much at the mercy of mother nature, and the massive variability in production is a big reason for why maple syrup is so expensive.
A good season isn’t just dependent on weather in late winter, however. The weather of the previous growing season can impact the sugar content of the sap and production of trees. Dry summers can reduce the soil moisture available needed for trees to move sap, and an overly wet or otherwise stressful summer for trees can decrease sugar content, meaning more sap must be boiled to get the same volume of syrup.
Appreciate Your Maple Syrup
Real maple syrup may be expensive, especially relative to the artificially-flavored corn syrup shelved next to it, but don’t complain too much. There is nothing that can match the unique flavor of real maple, and maple sugaring is a long tradition deserving of respect and preservation. Next time you pour some syrup on your pancakes, take a minute to appreciate the expense, hardship, and uncertainty in its production.