Market inefficiency of the day, Maple syrup edition

By Felix Salmon
November 9, 2011

Maple syrup is made by boiling down the sap of maple trees. Early in the season, there’s lots of sugar in the sap and it only takes 20 or 30 gallons of sap to generate a gallon of syrup. Because it hasn’t been boiled down very much, that syrup lacks intensity. Later on in the season, however, there’s less sugar in the sap and it can take as much as 60 gallons of sap to generate a gallon of syrup. And that syrup is much darker and more flavorful.

Obviously, more effort is expended generating each gallon of dark syrup than is expended on making the early-season light syrup. And the dark syrup tastes better too. So you’d expect it to be much more expensive.

And you’d be wrong.

Nick Rizzo went to Whole Foods in Union Square last night to get the numbers. The most expensive maple syrup on the shelves was, interestingly, the Whole Foods own brand — the 365 Organic line which ostensibly offers cheap, everyday prices. But the 365 Organic Grade A light maple syrup sells for $7.99 per 8oz jar — that’s $64 per half-gallon.

And “Grade A light”, remember, means the early-season stuff with the least maple taste or flavor.

If you stick with the 365 Organic line, the next one down is Grade A medium, at $9.99 for a 12oz jar, or $53 per half-gallon. Then there’s Grade A dark, where a 12oz jar is just $7.99. That’s $43 per half-gallon. And finally there’s Grade B — the tastiest of the lot, and the hardest to make — which comes in a 32oz jug for $19.99, or $40 per half-gallon. For good measure, it’s labeled “cooking”, just to hammer home the idea that this stuff isn’t designed for direct ingestion.

Other Grade B maple syrup at Whole Foods is even cheaper — a different 32oz jug was selling for just $11.99, or $24 per half-gallon. That’s just 37% of the price of the top-end stuff. I’ve been to Vermont; everybody there told me to buy Grade B if possible. Not because it was cheaper, but rather because it was better.

And some purveyors are working this out. At Amazon, the Shady Maple Farms Grade B is $32.89 for 32oz — a whopping $66 per half-gallon — while the Grade A is slightly cheaper, at $30.08.

But more generally, the trend is very clear: the lighter, cheaper-to-make, and less tasty maple syrup is also the most expensive, being presented lovingly in small glass jars rather than being moved in bigger plastic jugs.

And the maple syrup industry seems to be entirely complicit in this, happy to slap a “cooking” label on the really good Grade B stuff, which by rights should be its premium product.

This weirdly inverted state of affairs won’t last forever — under “new standardized grades and nomenclature”, the grading is going away. But for the time being, now’s your opportunity to take advantage of a curious historically-driven arbitrage. Grasp it!

Update: Apologies for betraying my European roots by not knowing how many ounces there are in a gallon. I originally was giving prices per gallon here; in fact, they were prices per half-gallon. Oops.

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