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Thứ Hai, 9 tháng 3, 2015

Sap goes beyond syrup - Albany Times Union

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Pittfield, Mass.

Some people use a mechanical filter as a way to get purer water. But what if that filter was a maple tree instead?

Maple sap, a lightly sweet drink that French explorers recorded Native Americans imbibing centuries ago, could be making a comeback as a beverage in New York state, where it is being marketed as a locally sourced, natural alternative to energy and fitness drinks, or other natural beverages such as coconut water.

New York City-based Vertical Water is entering its second year of buying maple sap — which is naturally sugary water collected from maple trees — and packaging it as a beverage, rather than the more common path of boiling sap into maple syrup.

Each spring, water is drawn from the ground through maple tree roots as part of a sap run caused by warming days and cold nights. The sap feeds the tree while it leafs out to gather solar energy for growth throughout the summer and fall.

"Drinking sap is an amazing part of our history, and it is a truly local product," said Paulo Cugnasca, who founded Vertical Water several years ago with his wife, Valentina.

Their company started selling the water last season, using sap purchased from farmers in western New York, and its product is now in about 1,300 locations, including a handful in the Capital Region, in 40 states.

Tasting faintly of syrup, the water is about 2 percent sugar, compared to 10 percent or more for soda or energy drinks, and contains trace amounts of Vitamin B and potassium, calcium, silicon oxide, manganese, sodium and magnesium. And no artificial chemicals, of course. A 16-ounce container has a suggested retail price of $3.19.

"Maple sap is not a new superfood, but it is a naturally healthy beverage," said Michael Farrell, director of Cornell University's Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station.

"Sap drinking in the spring, in the Far East, and particularly in Korea, has been popular for a long time," said Farrell, who helped the Cugnascas research the potential of acquiring, packaging and marketing sap as a beverage. "Native Americans and, later, the original settlers, also drank sap. It was an end-of-winter sweet treat and a long-standing tradition that most people have forgotten about."

At Mountain Winds Farm in the Helderberg hilltown of Berne, owner Randy Grippin added maple water to his farm store last year. "We sold about 30 cases of it," he said. "Myself, I find it quite refreshing ... and to me, 40 degrees is the ideal temperature for drinking it."

Grippin, who also runs his own maple sugar bush — a stand of maple trees from which he collects sap — and produces about 500 gallons of syrup, said he again will have the water among his maple products on Maple Weekends on March 21 and 22 and March 28 and 29.

"We think this new product has some potential," said Helen Thomas, New York State Maple Producers Association executive director. "Last year, all the sap came from New York state producers. We featured it at our booth last summer at the State Fair."

New York is the nation's second-largest maple syrup-producing state, behind Vermont.

Thomas said sap as a beverage could open a new market to maple producers in the state, where only about 1 percent of its available maple trees are tapped. "The water was concentrated in health stores last year, and we expect it to be much bigger in 2015," she said.

And there is room to grow. A search of the association's website, which helps customers find producers, found only one in the state, near Watertown, that was selling its own maple water.

The state has no standards on how maple water is packaged, but that could change. Vertical Water is pasteurized prior to packaging, and has a shelf life of about 18 months. But sap, because it contains sugar, can spoil if left unrefrigerated.

The producers association has asked the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to "develop a standard of identity for maple water, which would include standards on how food products should be made, types of ingredients, and composition of the product," said department spokesman Joe Morrissey. "Talks are preliminary at this point but we are looking into the possibility of creating such a standard."

Anyone with a sugar maple tree in his backyard can tap it and drink the water it collects, said Farrell. "Sap is sterile as it comes out of the tree. Just make sure the bucket is cleaned first," he said. Left out, sap can go bad in about 24 hours.

Vertical Water started as a outgrowth of the Cugnascas' forestry company, Pittsfield-based Feronia Forests, said Valentina Cugnasca.

The company owns timberland in the Adirondacks and the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and several years ago the couple was looking at potential forest products to market.

"We were speaking with a Williams College professor who owned forestland. He managed his land differently, and when we asked what it was worth as an investment, he gave an aesthetic, spiritual answer," said Valentina. "It was about sustainability, and not just a dollar amount. We thought about the social and environmental value of not cutting trees, and we changed our focus. We started looking at sustainable forest products, like maple, mushrooms, honey, and ginseng."

And since Paulo Cugnasca had first tasted maple sap about 40 years ago, when he was rabbit hunting in a Vermont sugar bush, the idea of sap seemed reasonable.

"The first written record of sap drinking in North America comes in 1551 from a French explorer, who wrote, 'You won't believe what the natives are drinking,'' he said.

In the spring of 2012, the couple did maple water testing using Nalgene bottles at a sugar bush in Geneva, on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes. They test marketed the water that spring in Massachusetts and were encouraged by the response.

In 2013, the couple shipped maple sap to a Texas bottling facility for testing and found that it could last safely unrefrigerated on a store shelf. The next year, they launched Vertical Water into stores.

"We think that we are a mission-driven company, with a mission that is also healthy and delicious," said Valentina Cugnasca. 518-454-5094 @Bnearing10

For more information about maple water sold under the Vertical Water brand, go online to

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