How sweet it is: Record-breaking year for Canadian maple syrup

Canadian maple syrup sits on a shelf in a store in Ottawa, Monday October 21, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

2013 was a record year for that most Canadian of industries – maple syrup.

For the first time since Statistics Canada began keeping track in the 1920s, production exceeded 10 million gallons, making this a banner year for pancake-lovers.

“It’s because of Mother Nature,” said Caroline Cyr, communication and promotion officer for the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. “The temperature is the only thing responsible.”

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Temperatures in 2013 stayed in the sweet spot of nightly lows between 0 and -10 degrees Celsius at night, and 5 or 6 degrees during the day, she said. Freezing nights and days just above zero are the optimal conditions to get sap flowing. And the longer the weather stays like that, the more syrup is produced.

Canada’s syrup industry really took off in the 1990s. Before then, the number of gallons produced was fairly steady, ranging between 1.4 and 3.9 million gallons, depending on the year. In 1992, the industry broke the 4 million gallon mark for the first time. Ten years later, Canada produced over 7 million gallons, and the volume’s still growing.

Cyr attributes the growth to increased demand, created in part by better marketing. “The producers have really decided to invest in promotion and research,” she said.

Part of that has meant new products, like “maple water,” first introduced in 2013, Cyr said. The water is essentially the sap straight from the tree – sterilized and sold in drinking boxes.

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Syrup is big business. This year’s harvest was worth about $408 million, according to Statistics Canada, which gets estimates from producers. And the value of the crop has been rising faster than production.

Syrup is precious enough to be a target for thieves: Thousands of barrels worth around $18 million were stolen from a distribution centre in 2011 and 2012. In December 2012, 18 people were arrested in connection with the theft.

Maple syrup hit a high in 1987 at $54.34 a gallon. This year’s value, $40.59 per gallon, is still high historically.

But the price of syrup is not tied to production: It’s set well in advance. The Federation acts as a cartel, negotiating prices with buyers setting the price before each growing season, said Director General Simon Trépanier. They also maintain a maple syrup reserve to make up for any production shortfalls, to keep the price relatively steady.

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“You never know when we’ll have a bad season,” said Cyr.

The reserve currently contains about 4.5 million gallons of syrup, packed into 46-gallon barrels. That’s enough to fill nearly seven Olympic-sized swimming pools. Most of it is kept in Laurierville, Quebec, about an hour south of Quebec City. But the Federation has a contract with the Citadelle maple syrup producer’s cooperative to hold some of the syrup elsewhere, just in case, said Trépanier. The cooperative is based in Plessisville, but has multiple locations.

“We don’t want to put everything at the same address,” said Trépanier.

Quebec is the global powerhouse of the maple syrup industry. It accounts for 90.4 per cent of Canada’s syrup production, and 70 per cent of the world’s syrup. There are 42.7 million taps in trees across the province, Cyr said.

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About 79 per cent of Quebec’s syrup was exported in 2012, mostly to the United States. Japan is the second-biggest buyer.

Notes: All data from Statistics Canada CANSIM table 001-0008 unless otherwise noted. Dollar values converted to 2013 constant dollars. According to Statistics Canada, the value of produced syrup is the average price declared by producers. It is an estimate only.

And in case you’re wondering how much syrup goes into taffy, here’s some extra information from Statistics Canada’s footnotes:

Conversion factors: 1 gallon of syrup equals 10.0 pounds of maple sugar. One gallon of syrup weighs 13.24760 pounds. One gallon of syrup equals 10.4 pounds of taffy. Maple taffy is reported by Quebec and Nova Scotia only and commenced reporting in 1965 and 1983 respectively. The conversion of maple taffy to syrup varies with the density of syrup that year.

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