by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

In a recent webinar, Aaron Wightman, maple specialist at Cornell, highlighted emerging value-added opportunities for maple syrup producers. According to Wightman, maple syrup production has increased dramatically in New York in the past 18 years, and other states are experiencing similar trends. “Although demand has also increased somewhat, there is evidence that this abundant supply is beginning to drive down prices. By value-adding, you direct syrup out of this supply stream and into other markets,” Wightman said.

Most syrup producers are familiar with the typical maple confections – cream, candies and sugar. The Cornell Maple Program is actively involved in developing unique products and opening new market opportunities to maple producers. Aided by their own research and recipe development, the Cornell Maple Program sees great opportunity in the beverage market, specifically soda, wine, beer and kombucha.

Wightman said developing any maple-based beverage involves a similar process. First, a palate-pleasing recipe needs to be created. Then, the formula must be tested under a variety of conditions to ensure a safe and shelf stable product. Finally, the beverage must be efficiently produced, marketed and distributed.

With soda, Cornell has focused on developing recipes that use maple syrup as their only sugar source. The opportunity for maple in the soda market is considerable. Although sales for mainstream soda brands are declining, Wightman said, “the craft soda industry has grown considerably.”

The Maple Program found that maple soda is most compatible with lemon, ginger, orange, vanilla and grapefruit flavors. Wightman emphasized that because maple soda is low acid, citric or phosphoric acid is necessary to control the growth of botulism. For sodas that will spend time at room temperature, it’s also important to add preservatives that further inhibit mold growth. These preservatives, however, do have some impact on flavor.

With any new endeavor, producers must also consider barriers to entry. “Two barriers to the soda market are the availability of bottling facilities and the volume of product required to make an acceptable profit margin. Many bottlers, sometimes called copackers, have large minimum run requirements,” Wightman said. Distribution is another challenge to soda production.

Another lucrative beverage is wine made from either sap or finished syrup. By most estimates, 2019’s sales of NY maple products were somewhere between $30 million and $50 million. Compare this to the NY wine industry, which generated nearly $5 billion in economic activity in 2019.

Wightman said, “A refined process is required to make good maple wine. Yeasts find the fermentation environment created by maple to be more stressful than that created by grape juice. If done improperly, maple wine can taste rotten or astringent. Care must be taken at each step of the winemaking process to create a quality product.”

The Cornell Maple Program, in conjunction with the Cornell Department of Food Science, has developed refined winemaking guidelines for maple syrup. One critical part of their research involved testing different yeast strains and dilution rates. Several yeast strains performed well with maple, but they found that strain V1116 consistently produced quality wine while retaining notes of maple flavor. Their combined research also showed that a yeast nutrient is typically needed for maple wine production; the most important nutrient is nitrogen.

Wine drinkers may find maple wines too syrupy. Wine makers may want to experiment with adding tartaric, malic or citric acids to make the flavor profile more sophisticated. Acids add tartness to the wine and also help preserve wines that will be aged. Tannins are another amendment that can help build a wine’s flavor profile. Maple wine can be aged in oak barrels or wood chips or a liquid oak tannin can be added during fermentation or aging.

A third beverage opportunity is beer brewed with a maple element. Wightman said, “Our goal at the Cornell Maple Program is to develop a variety of strategies for making high quality beers with a maple component. Our research has focused on options for beer styles from several categories ranging from dark to light and also alternative styles like sours and saisons.”

Maple syrup can be used at any part of the beer brewing process to achieve different goals. For a strong maple flavor, a dark syrup should be added later in the fermentation process. Wightman also suggested priming with maple syrup to achieve a strong maple flavor. For a medium maple flavor profile, replace some of the wort with maple syrup during primary fermentation. A final strategy is to use maple syrup as a sugar source without creating a discernable maple flavor. For example, maple sugar could be used for priming. Even though this use of maple is minimal, consumers may be attracted to the use of a locally-produced ingredient.

Kombucha is another beverage that presents an opportunity for maple syrup producers. Kombucha is a fizzy, tart beverage made by fermenting sweetened tea. Water, tea, a sugar source and a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria (SCOBY) are the required ingredients. The SCOBY is a collection of living microorganisms that ferment the tea, similar to a vinegar mother. “The yeast convert sugar into alcohol, then the bacteria convert the alcohol into a variety of acids which give kombucha its characteristic tart flavor,” said Wightman. The Cornell Maple Program has found that swapping out cane sugar for maple syrup yields tasty results.

“Looking ahead, there are many new options for maple products on the horizon. Cornell is already working on formulations for chocolate, sports supplements, soap, mead, hard cider and others. Maple is a versatile and valuable product with limitless possibilities. Don’t be afraid to experiment and think outside the box,” Wightman said.