By Steve Schwartz
Photography by Maaike Bernstrom
In the Green Mountains of Vermont, the transition from winter to spring means one thing: sugaring season, when the trees are tapped, the sap is boiled, and turned into some of the finest maple syrup in the world.
On a 500-acre piece of land in southern Vermont, Austin Felis II and Lauren Felis are drawing their life and passion from the land, quite literally. As the husband-and-wife owners of Dorset Maple Reserve, they’re producing 5,000 gallons of maple syrup every year, by hand, and operating the entire business by themselves. We headed north to pay their farm a visit and learned the secret to creating a top-quality product while also building a better life for generations to come.
“The quality of working in the woods, taking something from nature, and then refining it into a finished product is pretty rewarding, in my opinion. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction in it. It’s a different world from most and I prefer this one,” Austin said.
Starting in mid-January, he and Lauren clean out 137 miles of tubing around their land to prepare for tapping the trees, where they then strategically drill a 6/10th-inch hole to prevent harming the sugar maple. Then, they put the entire system under a vacuum, which triggers higher production from the tree throughout the tapping process. Then, after reverse osmosis, aeration, and evaporation, they come away with a finished bottle of Dorset Maple Reserve Syrup.
“It’s a different world from most and I prefer this one.”
As Austin explained, the beauty of the syrup doesn’t necessarily come from the process, but moreso from the trees themselves. Much like grapes to wine production, a sugar maple tree is the keystone of a syrup’s flavor, color, and richness. Dorset sits atop a natural marble deposit (it contributed materials for The New York Public Library and many monuments in Washington D.C.), as well as a limestone belt, which gives Dorset syrup a “very soft, almost buttery flavor.” A product from Ohio or Canada may be wildly different from one in Vermont or even neighboring New York.
In other words, every tree and every bottle of syrup is unique, and the same could be said for the people who make it. As for Austin, he opted to return to the farm, which has been in the family for more than 40 years and create the entire syrup operation from scratch. After earning a degree in Management of Technology from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and owning a custom motorcycle shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a severe motorcycle crash—along with the birth of his children—prompted Austin and his family to move to Vermont to enjoy a change. “As a younger man, I had zero responsibilities and a lot of freedom. I loved it. As I became a family man and had some real responsibilities when my children came along, my attitude shifted,” Austin said. “I wanted us to live basically a better quality of life.”
And now a decision for change is the foundation for Austin’s work at Dorset Maple Reserve, something that’s reflected in the product itself. Throughout the course of a season, maple syrup will shift from very light and sweet early on to something much darker and richer and more vibrant in later months. It’s never the same, always taking on more complexity and flavor. This personality and unpredictability is something that Austin and his family have fallen in love with over the years. You could say they’re maple evangelists at this point. One of their most pointed efforts: Giving maple syrup a place beyond the breakfast table.
“When we first started going direct to the consumer, I noticed that I was having a problem. I would always offer a sample and people would respond, ‘Oh, I don’t eat pancakes.’ My wife and I decided that in order to get to expand people’s ideas, we were going to have to come up with recipes and show people other ways to use it,” Austin said.
If you browse through Dorset’s website, you’ll see recipes for everything ranging from maple-roasted garlic to maple chia pudding and this incredible Cast Iron Bourbon Apple Crisp. They’ve even introduced a bourbon barrel-aged syrup and smoked and spicy syrup, which make up more than half of their total sales. Austin and Lauren see maple syrup as much more than an alternative to sugar, though. As something that’s loaded with zinc, magnesium, and riboflavin, maple syrup is a vegan-approved way to boost your immune system, much like honey. There are even some studies that link maple syrup with a reduction of heart disease and certain cancers, Austin said, and it all comes from a 6/10th-inch hole drilled into a tree.
It seems that the world at large is beginning to take notice, too, as Dorset has seen steady growth since opening its doors in 2013. Call it a farm-to-table movement or just people recognizing a great product when they see one, but a change for the better seems to follow Austin and Lauren. Now, with their three children getting older, Austin said he hopes this 500-acre maple syrup farm will be something he can share with generations to come.
“I want to build a future for my kids. This farm is one of the most beautiful pieces of property I’ve ever seen. I want my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren—I want everybody—to enjoy it,” Austin said.
Until then, they’ll keep drawing inspiration from the land. As of March, Austin and Lauren were hard at work, preparing their maple syrup for their growing customer base. Each bottle represents something new and unique, a flavor growing more rich and complex with each passing week, much like the lives of the people who are producing it. And soon, after hours of hands-on production and attention, people around the world will get a taste of this positive change for themselves, one bottle at a time.