It's peak sugaring season in much of the Northeast, when the country's maple syrup producers tap their trees to collect the sap that flows freely this time of year. It takes about 40 gallons of maple sap -- and nothing else -- to make one gallon of real maple syrup. By contrast, the artificial stuff -- think Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth's -- is mostly corn syrup.
Fake maple syrup resembles real maple syrup about as much as Velveeta resembles a good Camembert. But when I asked 1,000 Americans which they preferred on their pancakes, the artificial brands won out big time. Just over 25 percent of respondents to an online Google Consumer Survey panel said that real maple syrup was their pancake topper of choice. Seventy percent chose either Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth's, Log Cabin or Hungry Jack, while another three percent chose something else.
Looming behind this preference, of course, is the specter of price. A gallon of Mrs. Butterworth's will set you back just under 8 bucks at Wal-Mart. A gallon of the real stuff, on the other hand, typically retails for anywhere from $40 to $60. The labor-intensive process of collecting and boiling down all of that sap is the reason the price is so high.
And this process only happens on a commercial scale in the Northeast. Vermont is the nation's undisputed King of Maple Syrup, accounting for more than 40 percent of the total U.S. output of over 3 million gallons in 2014, according to the USDA. Seven of the top 10 maple-producing counties are in Vermont. While New England states have the highest production levels, there's a surprisingly robust maple syrup industry in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, too.
Overall maple syrup output has risen sharply since about 2008 (thanks, Obama!), climbing by more than 50 percent since then. In 2013, the national maple industry's output was worth about $132 million. For perspective, the legal marijuana industry in Colorado sold $700 million worth of weed last year. And our 3.3 million annual syrup gallons are just a fraction of the 12 million churned out in Canada, mostly by Quebec's powerful syrup cartel.
Interestingly, the inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of real maple syrup hasn't really budged in the past 20 years, hovering right around $40 since 1992. So some producers are getting creative in their search for more revenue. The latest innovation is a push to sell "maple water," which is really the raw sap, straight from the tree. Producers are marketing it as a competitor to coconut water, touting its alleged health benefits, and selling it under brand names like DRINKmaple, Vertical and SEVA.
While it has yet to catch on in a major way, a quick look at the numbers tells you all you need to know about why producers are pushing it aggressively. Say you have 40 gallons of maple sap on hand. You can boil that down to syrup and sell it at retail for about $40. Or, you could package it up into 16-ounce cartons and sell them for $3 each, which multiplied by eight cartons per gallon times 40 total gallons would yield $960 in revenue.