Tapping trees for a new brew: Middlebury-based SAP! makes maple drinkable
ADDISON COUNTY — Cousins Chas Smith and Nikita Salmon, both 28, are bottling seltzer and soda with a unique Vermont twist.
Their beverages, produced out of the Woodchuck production facility on Exchange Street in Middlebury, are made with pure, sweet maple and birch sap — most of it tapped right here in Addison County.
“We saw an opportunity collectively to hopefully bring some change to the industry in a positive way, have a positive effect on the industry as a whole, diversify the market and also get maple into everybody’s daily life,” said Salmon, who with Smith, founded SAP! in 2015.
They’ve seen the company grow consistently since then.
Smith and Salmon source their maple sap from Addison County sugarmakers and from maple aggregator J. R. Sloan in Franklin County (over half their maple sap comes from Addison County). They source their birch sap from three producers in Addison County only: the Heffernan Family Sugarworks, Shaker Maple Farm and Bear Cobble Sugarworks, all in Starksboro.
The two eighth-generation Vermonters got the idea for their beverage out of a series of “experiments” conducted over the past decade or so by Smith’s dad, Charlie, who “hobby taps” about 50 to 100 trees in Underhill, and is a partner in the SAP! enterprise.
“He had a little shack, and he would cook it down and cook it down and then transfer it to the stove in the house to make a little syrup,” said Smith, now a Burlington resident. “My mom wanted nothing to do with it at all, so we would do it together during some of the seasons.”
“After a while, he started canning the sap in mason jars at these different concentrations — very light sap out of the tree versus slightly concentrated. Then we started to carbonate some of it a little bit and experiment with that. Over the last six, seven years we started bringing it to family parties to try the different sap drinks on people as a beverage.”
The family recipe grew into a business when Chas Smith decided to leave Washington, D.C. (where he’d been working in Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office) and return to Vermont to earn an MBA from UVM’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship program.
While Smith had been away at college and then in Washington, Salmon had pursued his own path being self-employed, first as an arborist and then as a maple sugarmaker. At 20, he leased his grandparents’ 12,000-tap sugarbush and then purchased it at 21. He resides in Underhill.
The two joined forces.
“For me, maple sugaring is a heart business. I love the land. I love my family. I love being there and being a part of it,” Salmon said. “But Chas coming back and us teaming up was an opportunity for us to bring our minds together and do something creative with an industry that I’d already been in love with my entire life.”
A lucky break came when they connected with Dan Rowell, who then was CEO at Middlebury’s Woodchuck Hard Cider.
“We had heard that they’d worked with other small brands to help them get off their feet,” said Salmon. “So we met with Dan Rowell, and he’s just a very open-minded accommodating guy. He had confidence in the process and helped guide us in how we could do this.”
The Vermont connection was key, Smith said.
“When people talk about doing business in Vermont it is very true because people like Dan come in and actually help you versus a lot of other people who might look at their bottom line and say, ‘Why am I ever going to work with these young guys?’” he said. “I don’t know that a lot of CEOs would have been as open minded about working with two young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing yet, back in 2015.
“Dan took a chance on us and really believed in the product.”
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Because tree sap is a living substance that needs careful handling, the cousins knew that first season that they had a small window of opportunity in which to make their product: the 30 to 40 days of maple sugaring season, to be exact.
During the sap-running months of early 2015, they made their first 12,000 cans of SAP!
In 2016, the cousins increased SAP! maple production to 400,000 cans and added a small, 14,000-can run of a beverage made from birch sap. This year, they increased maple production to 700,000 cans and birch production to 200,000.
After initially selling SAP! through Burlington’s City Market, they now distribute it throughout the Northeast, from New York to Maine.
Both just 26 years old when they launched the business, the company was too small in the beginning to go to banks, Smith recalled. A testament to the brash confidence of the young entrepreneurs, they have raised over $500,000 through various funding sources, including the first Vermont Small Business Offering Exemption organized on an online platform.
While the business continues to grow, the cousins have focused on keeping its inner workings lean. Smith does most of the marketing, planning and fundraising side, while Salmon heads up production.
The two are clearly pleased with the venture’s success and also hope the beverage industry might offer yet another opportunity to strengthen the state’s working landscape, by offering new markets for maple sap and introducing birch sap to a wider audience.
“Here we use maple all the time, but outside of New England people use maple syrup on pancakes. It’s a breakfast condiment,” Salmon said.
“Creating a beverage can allow people to consume it all day.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
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