Quebec's maple syrup producers seeking global domination

By Robin Levinson-King & Jessica Murphy
BBC News, Toronto

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Martin Picard looks at a test batch of his maple syrup at his sugar shack

Maple syrup isn't just for pancakes anymore, thanks to a group of maple syrup producers in Quebec who are trying to turn a cottage industry into a global empire.

Montreal chef Martin Picard says maple syrup runs through the veins of Quebecers like the sap that flows from the trees each spring in sugar bushes across the countryside.

In an annual communal gastronomic ritual, Quebecers flock to sugar shacks - casual restaurants where maple syrup is also produced - to fill their plates with pea soup, meat pie, baked beans and crispy pork rinds, all served with ample amounts of maple syrup.

"When we taste the maple syrup we taste all our souvenirs (memories)" says Picard, who opened a sugar shack nine years ago. It remains one of the toughest reservations to get in the region and was voted one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada.

Image caption, Sap being turned into syrup at the Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack

He says people who have never tasted the golden syrup might be surprised by its unique flavour, which can have hints of toffee and spice, herbs and flowers.

"But this is the best sugar in the world," says Picard.

The idea that maple syrup could indeed be seen as the world's best sugar is the driving ambition of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

The Federation and its efforts have helped turn a provincial cottage industry into big business.

Prior to the 1930s, maple syrup was made mostly in the United States, says Michael Farrell, director of Cornell University's maple syrup research centre. It used to be that every farm in the US northeast and Canada would tap their own sugar maples and produce syrup - some to sell, some to keep.

Widespread industrialisation in New England and the rise of cheap white sugar meant that maple production in the US fell into decline. Meanwhile in Canada, production stayed relatively stable, in part because of local governmental support of the industry, Mr Farrell said.

But things really took off in the 1990s, about the same time that the Federation got the go-ahead from the Quebec government to start selling their syrup together.

The decision by Quebec producers to work collectively, and later to establish the global maple reserve, gave them more market power, said Federation spokeswoman Caroline Cyr.

"Since that time they were able to develop new market, to make an industry of maple syrup," she says.

"Before that, it was something they did on the side."

Image caption, Quebec's maple reserve contains thousands of barrels like this one

By the end of the millennium, Canada would be the reigning king of maple syrup, producing about 80% of the world's supply. Over the next two decades, Canadian maple syrup production would triple, largely due to the increasing demand worldwide spurred by the Federation's intense marketing efforts.

About 85-90% of all maple syrup produced in Canada comes from Quebec, or about 70% of the world's supply, depending on the year.

The Federation controls nearly every aspect of maple production in the province, assigning quotas to the province's 13,500 farmers and selling the syrup to licensed wholesalers.

It is a fine-tuned machine, with the Federation backed by provincial legislation.

Having a lock on the industry in Quebec has allowed the Federation to establish the strategic maple reserve that contains upwards of 78 million pounds of syrup at a time and allows them to prevent production-based annual price fluctuations.

The Federation also sets prices and quotas for the product that all commercial Quebec sugar bush owners must follow.

Image source, Andreane Williams
Image caption, Angele Grenier has been fighting the Federation for years to freely sell her syrup

Its executive director Simon Trepanier says control over supply is important given that maple production can swing massively from year-to-year, from "swimming in a big pool of syrup" to barely meeting market demand.

By establishing prices, the Federation helped boost production not only in Quebec, but in the rest of Canada and the US as well, Farrell says.

Maple became a more reliable crop, and that encouraged farmers all over to invest in equipment.

Not all Quebec producers support the Federation. Some, like maple producer Angele Grenier, see it as a bureaucratic cartel.

Grenier is involved in a long-running legal battle with the Federation over whether she can independently sell her syrup to other provinces.

Last year was the Quebec maple industry's biggest year on record, producing more than 11.2m gallons of maple syrup worth more than C$435m (US$327m/£262m) total.

A large portion of that was shipped abroad in 2016, to places like the UK, Germany, and Japan.

UK-based marketing firm Liquid is helping push maple in Britain with "We Love Maple", a multi-pronged campaign geared towards getting the product in kitchens across the country.

The firm's research suggested that older Britons knew little about the product while younger demographics saw it as "something big fat Americans put over pancakes at breakfast", says Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, Liquid's chief executive.

They decided to rebrand it instead as a healthy and versatile alternative to white sugar. It is natural and, unlike honey, vegan.

It contains minerals like manganese and zinc, unlike trendier sugar alternatives like agave. The campaign began sponsoring two women's soccer teams as part of their health and wellness pitch.

The maple campaign has also been courting the country's top chefs, and the Federation is the first foreign organisation to be named an associate member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Art.

Media caption, 'It becomes illegal syrup': Battling the maple syndicate

Exports to the UK jumped 36% in 2015.

"We've been really surprised at how the British public has embraced maple," says Lewis-Jones.

Quebec is now ramping up production, adding five million taps in the next two years to meet the growing appetite for the syrup worldwide.

The Federation has been spending about C$5m (US$3.7m/£3m) a year promoting maple in the UK, India, Japan, and the US.

And they are preparing for it to continue growing in global popularity. The Federation wants Quebec to study how much maple could be produced in the province if the trees were tapped to capacity.

They believe production could be doubled.

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