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The Maple Water Fad Could Be a Boon to North American Forests

It seems counterintuitive that any kind of natural beverage could have a positive effect on its environment, but that’s exactly the case with maple water, the newest $5-per-bottle drink to grace hipsters’ refrigerator shelves.
Photo via Flickr user oldonliner

Often, when a fad drink reaches tipping point-level popularity, the implications are somehow bad: think of how the rapid ascent of coconut water has failed to lift Filipino coconut farmers out of poverty, or how the ubiquity of almond milk is worsening drought conditions in California, where most of the world's almonds are grown. It seems counterintuitive that any kind of natural beverage could have a positive effect on its environment, but that's exactly the case with maple water, the newest $5-per-bottle drink to grace hipsters' refrigerator shelves (right next to that artichoke water).

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Maple water is exactly what it sounds like: the precursor to maple syrup, it's the liquidy, slightly sweet sap that's tapped from a maple tree but not boiled down for hours and hours. And though it might not have yet appeared at your too-expensive corner store, chances are it will soon: at least three US brands currently produce it, likely hoping to cash in on the $18 billion market for "functional" food and drink. But unlike the aforementioned beverages, maple water is actually having an overall positive effect, helping to preserve Native American forests as well as providing an income boost for small-scale tree farmers who already have maple trees at the ready.

Tapping a tree for sap is "a minor intrusion" and doesn't hurt the tree, Michael Farrell, a Cornell University maple specialist told Civil Eats. The fact that trees don't have to be harmed or felled was the inspiration behind the name Vertical Water, one of the brands currently producing the sweet stuff. Valentina Cugnasca, Vertical Water's creator, is also the co-founder of Feronia Forests, which raises awareness of responsible timber practices. Because maple water needs to be tapped from tall, healthy trees, selling it could create an incentive for small-scale tree farmers to maintain more of of their forests instead of chopping them down.

"Vertical Water is a new form of conservation," the product's website reads. "At its most fundamental level, our sustainable maple water requires healthy trees and abundant forests; so for every sip of Vertical Water taken, there is more reason to conserve and care for our forestland."

If maple water really catches on, it has the potential to create jobs for those that would grow and tap maples, as well as process, pasteurize, bottle, and market the drink. Such an industry could be crucial for upstate New York, which is full of maples but not so full of jobs—current unemployment statistics hover around six percent.

Farrell, the maple specialist, sees the potential that the success of maple water could bring to the state. It's "not going to save upstate New York," he told Civil Eats, "but it's going to create a lot more jobs and opportunities."