Maple syrup is on the rise in Britain, thanks in part to Bob Clark, whose Canadian brand taps into the desire for healthy alternatives to sugar
It is the best part of a decade since Beyoncé went on the maple-syrup diet in a bid to lose more than a stone for her Dreamgirls film. It was a starry moment in the life of this syrup, previously confined to a fleeting appearance each year on pancake day. And that appearance itself was largely confined to Canada, a country that has a monopoly on maple-syrup production. But Beyoncé is nothing if not a global pop star, and for a brief moment maple syrup had its place in the international sun – enough of a moment to intrigue the entrepreneurial Bob Clark.
Clark started his career at Cadbury, then after a stint at Chivers Hartley (the jam makers) launched his own business in 2008 in Newport, Wales, importing and bottling maple syrup. ‘No one else was doing it here,’ he says. ‘It was the right time.’ Clark had also worked out a way of making maple syrup cheaper – by blending it with carob. He produced the first batch in his kitchen and sold it to Asda, which put it in 200 stores. ‘We packed it all by hand,’ Clark says now, ‘pouring syrup into bottles and doing all the labelling and wrapping. The whole family helped over Christmas.’
In February the following year Asda took all Clark’s maple syrup for pancake day. ‘Every last drop,’ he explains. ‘We had a container in port with more syrup but we didn’t have enough money [for the import duty and clearance taxes].’ Eventually he secured its release, and began supplying Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. ‘It was a very speedy growth,’ he says. ‘It was the blend that started it all – the fact that I could do a cheaper bottle of maple syrup was what had powered the initial surge – 50 per cent of the growth came from people who were buying maple syrup for the first time.’
Six years on, Clark’s maple syrup is well established, both in its blended and pure forms. Indeed, one of the most surprising things about the company is the fact it’s so young; you imagine it has been around since the early 1950s. And although maple syrup is still only purchased by 6-8 per cent of British shoppers, its presence and, Clark hopes, its increasing popularity, will be helped by the current anti-sugar movement, which has made sweeteners such as agave syrup and jaggery more sought after. ‘Maple syrup is a good alternative to sugar,’ he says. ‘It’s full of vitamins and minerals. The Japanese take a dose of it every morning, and there’s some research going on in the UK into the health benefits. But people here just don’t have a passion for it – yet.’
They soon will is the underlying message. And apart from its possible health benefits, maple syrup has several other things going for it: in an era that rates all these things highly, it is a historic industry that is organic, seasonal (the harvest lasts four to eight weeks in early spring) and still operated almost entirely by hand – harvested by small, often family-run, companies working in the Canadian wilds just north of Quebec. Clark gets nearly all his maple syrup from this area, importing it in bulk and bottling it in his factory in Wales.