Maple soda is a very rare thing.
Maple syrup is caramelly and sweet, making it a seemingly obvious choice for a soda ingredient. Yet, there are only a few maple soda brands out there, mostly based in Canada and Vermont. Among the few and proud maple sodas is Sprecher Brewery's Maple Root Beer, a variation on our award winning root beer made with maple syrup and real cane sugar.
The rarity of maple soda left me wondering, why? Why so few? Sprecher Maple Root Beer is beloved by our customers for its unique and complex flavor profile. Are other soda makers just missing the memo on how good maple syrup is?
The wheels started turning, and I ran through potential theories. Maybe it is because maple syrup is such a regional thing? Or perhaps maple soda is rare because maple syrup is so darned difficult to make? Or maybe, just maybe, maple soda is rare because nobody wants to deal with the maple syrup mafia.
O, Canada! What darkness does your maple leaf hide? via Wikimedia Commons
You read that right. There is a maple syrup mafia. Well, it's more of a maple syrup cartel. Don't believe me? "Maple syrup cartel" is exactly what NPR calls the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, the organization that controls roughly three-quarters of the world's maple syrup production.
Intrigued? Follow me down the maple syrup rabbit hole and I will tell you stories of strategic maple syrup reserves, multi-million dollar heists, a maple syrup black market, and the shadowy federation that sells and stockpiles most of the world's sweet sticky stuff.
What is a Cartel?
'Cartel' is often used as a scare word, but it doesn't necessarily imply crime. A cartel is just an organization of sellers that cooperate to set prices on a specific product.
Here's a non-scary example. Suppose you and I both sell lemonade in the same neighborhood, and we're the only lemonade stands in town. We could keep trying to undersell each other until neither of us are making much money. Or I could call you up and we could agree to sell lemonade at a high price. If we agree to do that, then we are running a neighborhood lemonade cartel.
An imaginary lemonade stand via Wikimedia Commons
The reason cartels can become criminal is that when money is on the line, sometimes cartels go to extremes to enforce their agreements.
In the imaginary example, if you break our lemonade pricing agreement and start underselling me, you stand to make a lot of money. Supposing you and I just made a verbal agreement about the price of lemonade, I have no legal way to stop you from lowering prices behind my back.
If you break the agreement and I lose a lot of money, I have two options. I can take the loss, or I can turn to illegal ways to enforce our agreement. That is when cartels get scary.
Some products are easier to form cartels around than others. Products that can be made easily and cheaply with readily available materials are hard to organize cartels around, because it is too easy to break agreements.
That's why there are oil cartels but not, say, knit scarf cartels. Anyone can learn to knit from YouTube and then pick up some yarn at the store. Nobody can dig an oil well, pump oil out of it, refine and barrel it, and sell it to their local gas station as a side hustle. Instead, oil is extracted from specific geographical regions and then processed and refined via complex, resource-intensive methods.
This leads into my next question: how is maple syrup made? Is maple syrup more like knit scarves, or like crude oil?
How is Maple Syrup Made?
You can make maple syrup in your backyard, and some people do. However, if you want to make money off of maple syrup, the process is a lot more like refining oil than knitting scarves.
According to Britannica, maple syrup is traditionally made by drilling a hole in the base of a maple tree, draining the sap through a spigot, and boiling the sap down into a syrup.
A backyard maple sap harvesting setup via Wikimedia Commons
As this video by food YouTuber Adam Ragusea makes clear, making maple syrup by the traditional method requires a lot of hard work, know-how, and resources. You need to have access to the right kind of tree, tap it at exactly the right time, collect the syrup using special equipment, filter it carefully, store it with the same care you would store milk, and then boil it down for hours. The ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1, so the boiling step is no joke. The resulting syrup can be consumed, but for best results, you should probably filter it once more.
Making bulk maple syrup on an industrial scale is even more complicated and resource-intensive. In a modernized operation, trees are prepared using mechanized taphole-drilling equipment. Then, spigots connected to a network of pressurized plastic tubes are inserted into the tapholes. Those tubes draw sap into storage tanks which are trucked to central evaporator plants. In those plants, the boiling step is performed by precision equipment and the syrup is filtered and graded to produce a more uniform (and sanitary) final product.
Industrial maple syrup operations funnel maple sap into collection tanks using a network of pressurized tubes via Wikimedia Commons
Further complicating matters, the maple syrup harvest varies a lot from year to year. Maple syrup is best harvested in the late winter or early spring during a streak of below-freezing nights followed by above-freezing days. Some years, this weather happens a lot. Other years, there is a maple syrup bust.
Finally, almost all of the world's maple syrup flows from Canada and the upper east coast of the United States. A full three-quarters of it comes from Quebec alone. So production is confined to a relatively small region, and big operations rely on longstanding maple forests where the trees are at least 45 years old.
The Why of the Maple Syrup Cartel: The Syrup Must Flow!
For the above reasons, Maple syrup is a really easy product to form a cartel around. Most of it comes from a small region, a rogue maple syrup producing operation would be expensive to start and hard to hide, and unreliable harvests mean prices are bound to fluctuate painfully unless producers reach some kind of agreement together.
In Quebec, that's exactly what happened. Since 1966, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Produces (I'll call it "the Federation" from now on) has been bringing maple syrup producers together to coordinate on how much maple syrup will be produced, and at what price.
The Federation operates by requiring all producers of bulk maple syrup in the province to go through them. Any Quebecois maple syrup producer selling containers larger than 5 liters is assigned a production quota. According to NPR, as of 2004, every seller also has to contribute to a strategic maple syrup reserve controlled by the Federation.
Barrels of maple syrup in the Laurelville branch of the Federation's maple syrup reserve via Wikimedia Commons
The quota system allows the Federation to control the supply of maple syrup, and in good harvest years they keep the supply artificially low in order to keep prices high. In bad harvest years, they draw on the strategic reserve to keep prices stable.
Generally, maple syrup producers like this agreement. They have to deal with red tape and follow rules that sometimes cost them money, but in return they get steady profits from their maple syrup instead of dealing with boom and bust. However, some maple syrup producers go rogue.
Maple Syrup Heists and The Maple Syrup Black Market
All big cartels have trouble with enforcement, and the Federation is no exception. The Foundation for Economic Education reported on one producer, Angèle Grenier, who secretly loaded a tractor with barrels of syrup and drove them to neighboring New Brunswick in an effort to escape the Federation's iron grip.
However, the Federation is a legal cartel backed by the full force of the Canadian government, so enforcement for them is easy. In Grenier's case, the Federation forbade her from exporting syrup and took her to court. There, a judge wrote an order that permitted the local sheriff to check in on Grenier's operation at will to prevent future violations.
Mess with the Federation, and you mess with the Canadian government via Wikimedia Commons
The Guardian reports that in 2011, a group of thieves pulled off a maple syrup heist that made Grenier's tractor full of barrels look like small potatoes. These thieves went straight for the strategic reserve and siphoned about 17 million Canadian dollar's worth of syrup from the barrels there.
Then, NPR claims the thieves took the stolen syrup to New Brunswick and Vermont where they repackaged and sold it, netting huge profits. In 2012, they were busted when a worker taking inventory in the reserve tried to stand up on a barrel that he assumed was full, and then fell over because it was empty. The thieves were subsequently arrested and the ringleader was fined heavily.
Who Benefits from the Maple Syrup Cartel?
Perhaps maple soda is rare, then, because of the drama around the key ingredient--maple syrup. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that in Quebec, there is a constant tug-of-war between maple syrup producers, the Federation, and the Canadian government. In this tug-of-war, there are winners and losers.
The Federation and the Canadian government benefit because the Federation skims off the top of every sale of maple syrup, and the Canadian government gets a steady stream of revenue from taxes on maple syrup exports. Those exports are consistent year-to-year because the Federation stockpiles in the good years, and draws on reserves in the bad years.
All this fighting over syrup! via Wikimedia Commons
The producers get mixed results. On the one hand, they have to deal with taxes and fees and have limited control over how much they produce and charge. Violators are also punished harshly with government oversight and police action. On the other hand, the Federation tamps down the boom and bust cycle of maple syrup harvests by paying producers from the reserve in bad years.
Consumers also win in some ways and lose in others. While the cartel keeps maple syrup prices stable, the prices as also always high. The Federation manipulates the market to raise prices, the Canadian government adds their tax to the price, and the Federation adds their fee on top of it all.
How Does Sprecher Navigate this Sticky Situation?
Sprecher brewery takes the high road in all this by sourcing all of our maple syrup from the good old U.S. of A. By dealing with local suppliers, Sprecher steers clear of the maple syrup cartel and puts money directly into the pockets of American maple syrup producers.
Locally sourced maple syrup makes Sprecher Maple Root Beer an affordable treat that you can enjoy without considering the ethical implications of supporting an OPEC-like organization's vice-like grip on the global maple syrup supply (a sentence I never imagined I would write for this blog).
Instead, as the bright wintergreen bite and woodsy caramel-like flavors of Sprecher Maple Root Beer waltz across your tongue, you can think of freedom. Support free syrup today! Click to purchase a 12 pack of Sprecher Maple Root Beer.