A Vermont-Made Energy Gel With One Ingredient: Maple Syrup

Mar 16, 2015

Compressors running. Hammers flying. Maple sugaring season is ramping up on the Cochran’s land in Richmond. The family started producing syrup in 2010, and it’s quickly becoming tradition. But now, with a twist.

It’s an energy gel called UnTapped. Like other energy gels, it comes in palm-sized packets with an easy rip-top. Unlike other sports supplements, though, it has only one ingredient: pure maple syrup.

Tim Kelley, a world cup ski racer and Cochran family member who’s in on the UnTapped venture, says the product helps his performance on the slopes.

“Recently, especially with the UnTapped packets, I've been firing down a shot of maple syrup about 15 minutes before my second run and it's actually been working pretty well,” he says. “It's pretty awesome. You get a good energy boost, you don't get really jittery.”

The first time Kelley used UnTapped, he says he won his race. Then again. And again.

“I had a little winning streak going with the UnTapped packets,” he says. “It is over now, unfortunately. But it was fun while it lasted.”

"It's pretty awesome. You get a good energy boost, you don't get really jittery." - Tim Kelley, world cup ski racer and UnTapped founder

Kelley and his three cousins run Slopeside Syrup at Cochran’s Ski Area. Last year they teamed up with professional cyclist Ted King and former Middlebury College Nordic ski coach Andrew Gardner to launch UnTapped.

“The business started because all three of us – the Cochrans and Ted and me – had an interest in maple syrup and had all come to this conclusion separately: that packing maple syrup in sport-related packages would be a good idea,” Gardner says.

Combined, the group has raced in the Tour de France and many World Cups. So far, they appear to be onto something with UnTapped.

The business launched last July on the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo. The campaign essentially allowed people to pre-order the syrup-jug shaped packets. Despite aiming to raise $35,000, they brought in more than $50,000. This allowed for an initial run of 100,000 units – more than half of which are already gone.

But whether people are buying the athletic fuel idea is unclear.

“Some people are definitely using it as energy fuel, but I think there’s a strong novelty effect going on there. I think they tapped into that well,” says Jeremy Dowdy, a product buyer at the Outdoor Gear Exchange on Church Street in Burlington. The store is one of UnTapped’s top retailers.

Tim Kelley, a member of the UnTapped team, prepares to tap a maple tree at Slopeside Syrup in Richmond. UnTapped launched last July on the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo.
Credit Amanda Swinhart Photography

“The packaging has got like plaid on it – it’s branded very much as a Vermont product – and people love it. It just flies,” Dowdy says.

Customers have used the single servings of syrup for everything from managing diabetes to stuffing stockings at the holidays.

Nutritionally, though, it’s mainly sugar. And some dietitians question whether it’s really of much benefit. Kimberly Evans of Whole Health Nutrition is among the skeptics.

"I would love to see more real evidence-based research working with athletes in a lab, testing blood sugar levels, in response to using maple syrup as a source of fueling." - Kimberly Evans, Whole Health Nutrition

“Maple syrup is not unlike 'GU' or other sports products in that they don't typically tend to contain enough sodium or potassium for an athlete,” Evans says. “I would … certainly entertain that this has a viable place with our athletes. But I would love to see more, real evidence-based research working with athletes in a lab, testing blood sugar levels, in response to using maple syrup as a source of fueling.”

Science aside, Tim Kelley will continue to rely on UnTapped to power himself to the finish. And as a cure for homesickness.

“As a Vermonter, it kind of calms me down, you know, because it's kind of a taste of home,” he says. “Even if you're in the Austrian Alps or something, it's still a nice taste of home and it's got that calming factor, which is nice.”

But with ski season turning into sugar season, Kelley should be able to get his fix straight from the tap.