When you think of Vermont, you probably think of maple syrup. So when local New England couple Caitlin and Ian Ackermann decided to get into the maple business they went big—by buying an entire forest in Cabot, Vermont. Ackermann Maple Farm’s first sugaring season was in 2013, and they’ve since expanded to 76 acres of land with products ranging from traditional maple syrup to maple sugar and even maple cream. We got to chat with Caitlin and Ian about kitchen mishaps, Vermont’s farm-to-table movement and unique flavors like their Whiskey Barrel Aged syrup.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
C.A.: When Ian was a kid, his first job was collecting buckets and working for his neighbor, so he had a little bit of experience in the maple business. His brother bought a sugar woods and he saw how much fun it was. So when a woods came up for sale a half mile down the road from where my parents live, Ian jumped in and bought the woods. We started with just one farmer’s market in Woburn, and drove three and a half hours to be there but it was so much fun! After I graduated from college, it expanded from there and we now participate in 16 farmers’ markets here in New England!
I also do graphic design on the side for a freelance work, but it’s great because I also get to design our logo, website and all that stuff.
R.K.: Walk me through the maple syrup process… what does that entail?
C.A.: We have 6,400 maple trees, so we’re all set up on tubing and pipeline. It all starts in the beginning of the season in February, when Ian begins tapping all the trees. He goes around to each individual tree, taps the tree and makes sure there’s no leaks; he also gets the pipelines out of the snow and stuff like that. Sugaring season starts the end of February for us in Vermont, and ends about 35-40 days later, depending on the weather because it has to freeze at night and then thaw during the day. It’s wood-fired so we have to split all the wood, and burn about 32 cords of firewood. To put it into perspective, our family would burn like 8 cords of wood one entire winter so 32 cords is a lot of wood.
We then put it all into big barrels, and store it until I get the chance to bottle everything and make all the maple cream and maple sugar, which I do throughout the year. At the end of the season, we go and pull all the taps out of the trees.
R.K.: I know you make several different products and flavors. What’s your personal favorite?
C.A.: The maple cream is really good, and it’s probably our most popular product because people don’t know about it. It’s just whipped maple syrup, so it doesn’t have any dairy. My brother is type 1 diabetic and used to carry around those glucose tabs, but now he just carries around a bottle of maple syrup. It’s actually lower in glycemic index than other sugars, and it contains antioxidants!
We also have a rum, bourbon and whiskey barrel aged, and those are insanely popular! We get our barrels from a distillery in Florida, and it really changes the flavor; it’s so good on your coffee and on ice cream!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
C.A.: Oh man! The first time I ever bottled syrup, we were putting it into the canner and didn’t realize the valve on the other side was open, so as we were pouring syrup in, it was just dumping all over the ground. So always check the valves and make sure they’re shut before you put hundreds of dollars into it! One time we accidentally made candy instead of syrup because the heat was too hot and was hitting it in the wrong spot so we spent the entire night taking paint chip scrapers and chipping off candy from our giant evaporator.
RK.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
C.A.: Vermont in general is so well known for maple syrup that we really don’t have to push it! They try it and it sells itself. If we were from any other state, it wouldn’t be nearly as easy to sell since so many people know about Vermont syrup. We’re really lucky to be from Vermont!
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
C.A.: Being from Vermont, there’s so much of that going on where we are. There are a lot of people really into that healthy lifestyle. Vermont is really focusing on all farm-to-table stuff: restaurants, and co-ops and all of that. I think that Massachusetts is definitely equal to Vermont as far as how passionate they are about organic food, and buying locally.
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
C.A.: There are so many! There’s a bakery D’s Lectables out of Quincy, and she uses our maple syrup and maple sugar for all her products. Organic Buzz in Norfolk has a really awesome café and juice bar and she uses our maple syrup in stuff too! There’s also an awesome granola company, The Roasted Granola, who makes really good granola with our syrups. We do a lot of collaborating with other farms we see at the markets!
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
C.A.: Ian’s brother and my dad are both self-employed, so we have a lot of people who are role models and work for themselves. That’s what we wanted to do! Ian’s parents raised him to be a really hard worker, so his parents were a great influence. If you’re going to live in Vermont, it’s a lot easier to own your own business, whether you’re a dairy farmer or own an apple orchard. You kind of have to do that sort of thing to be successful here because there aren’t a lot of jobs.
R.K.: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
C.A.: When times get tough, I remind myself that at least I’m working for myself; I don’t have to go into an office and I don’t have to check in with anybody. It’s easy to forget that when you’re working for yourself and something goes wrong or you’re up until 11 at night, so you have to remind yourself.
I.A.: I could be working in a cubicle all day! We get to be outside 95 percent of our lives! I also mow lawns and have a landscaping business so I’m outside a lot.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
C.A.: I think we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, getting into a few stores every once in a while here and there. We’re not in a huge rush for that because we like being able to sell to the people who are buying from us! That’s really important for our business. So we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, participate in the farmers markets, and keep meeting people! We’re having a baby in three weeks, so it’s going to be crazy after that but hopefully we can keep working.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own local food business?
C.A.: Don’t be afraid to take risks! It’s really scary and it will be hard but stick with it… it’s worth it.
R.K.: Here at W.E.L.L. Insiders we like to say, “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
C.A.: Oh man! I know that Ian’s vibe is extremely personable and friendly; he’s a hilarious guy and people gravitate towards him. I’m much more shy and not outwardly funny.
I.A.: She’s just more of an innocent, quiet person but she’s easygoing, gets along with people and she’s easy to talk to. Plus she’s cuter than I am so that probably helps!
For more inspiring stories about local businesses in New England, make sure to check out our full Made In New England series.