The Sweet Business of Maple Syrup

With the weather cool and the leaves of having erupted into colors, northern New England is right in the sweet spot of tourist season. During their annual trek to witness the brightness of nature, visitors roaming the highways and byways of New Hampshire and Vermont will fortify themselves with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and local maple syrup, the sweet liquid gold of the trees.

Maple syrup was discovered by Native Americans who lived in New England. Various myths surround the discovery of the syrup, including one about a chief who got his mohawk stuck in a sugar maple and whose wife cooked venison in the sap that leaked out. However it was discovered, British colonists learned of the nectar and farmers soon began to tap the trees every spring. It was a labor intensive process, as farmers had to haul buckets of sap to a barn where the water would be boiled away. After all, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

In recent times, maples syrup production has grown sophisticated. Tubes run from trees into large tanks with vacuums used to get every drop out of the trees. (Contrary to legend and a fantastic NPR April Fool’s Day report, sugar maples don’t explode if they go untapped.)

In 2011, New Yorker Robb Turner launched the upscale maple syrup brand when he introduced Crown Maple. The syrup comes with notes for each batch, and is served in New York restaurants. It was also served at President Obama’s second inaugural luncheon.

But while New York and Vermont syrup is popular, American production is dwarfed by a giant to the north: Quebec. The Canadian province accounts for 77 percent of the world’s supply. With the worldwide market for maple syrup at $500 million, Quebec has the proverbial maple tree by the branches. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s gift bag to foreign leaders even includes maple syrup.

The main player in this tasty industry is the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ). The organization plays a similar role to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the maple syrup world, setting prices and controlling output. (This kind of market control has drawn mixed reactions; while some advocate for a free maple market, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds under FPAQ.) Since weather plays a big role in the amount and quality of maple syrup that can be produced, FPAQ created an “International Strategic Reserve”: warehouses filled with millions of gallons of the stuff. In total, around 50 million pounds of maple syrup are stored across Quebec.

With so much syrup in a concentrated space, the legal cartel’s Strategic Reserve proved too tasty to resist. In December 2012, an audit found that thieves had stolen between $18 and $30 million worth of syrup from a warehouse. The theft occurred over the course of a year, with 6 million gallons of syrup drained from barrels and shipped to unknowing customers around North America. And even though arrests have been made — the conspiracy’s alleged ringleader, Richard Vallières, among them — there’s little that can be done about the syrup that has crossed international lines into the United States.

Read more about the heist in: TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and Businessweek.