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Sugarin' with Bissell Maple Farm

April 2, 2019

With spring on the horizon and warm days with cold nights becoming more frequent, sap tapping season is in full swing. We asked local sugarin’ expert Nate Bissell of Bissell Maple Farm from Jefferson, OH to fill us in on the collection process and how they’ve become one of the finest maple syrup producers of our time.

 

The Bissell family farm has been producing maple syrup since the late 1800s, but at first was done just for the enjoyment of family and friends, as the original Bissell farm was mainly known as an apple orchard, dairy and dahlia farm. How did the shift to commercial production occur? 

Nate:     Once we started getting more efficient in production, we had to find more trees.  Once we had more trees, we needed to get more efficient!  Maple syrup production is a sick addiction.  It is part farming and part foraging.  If you are industrious, like to tinker, enjoy fire, have some trees - have I got a hobby for you!   

 

Can you talk about your sap collecting process?   

Nate:     Our woods work starts in the fall.  We go out to the woods in three important circuits.  First, we start to clear sap lines of branches and trees - repairing lines from major damage.  Then we go out in the late winter and tap trees at our farm and Camp Beaumont - a Scout Reservation.  We want the temperature to be about mid-to-high 20's.  That way we can drill a nice round hole to make a good seal with the spile.  Lastly, we repair leaks to improve the efficiency of the tubing system. (The squirrels are the worst!!  They chew holes in our lines.)  .... Then we wait.... The sap starts running on the first warm days of the year.   We try to catch the January Thaw - something we didn't do 15 years ago.  Now, we make it a critical part of our harvest.  We have several sap storage tanks and remote woods (sugarbush) we pull sap from.  Once the sap tanks get full, we haul sap from the sugarbushes to our facility in Jefferson by tanker truck.  Our syrup production (raw sap-to-syrup conversion) is very efficient.  We repurposed an old GE factory for maple syrup production.  We have room to work and access to great utilities most maple farmers dream of.  We use natural gas fuel to produce our maple syrup - which Dad and I found out - is cheaper and cleaner than firewood.  City water and sewer is a huge plus for an operation our size.  Plus, we make the whole village of Jefferson smell like maple sugar!

 

In simple terms, how does the sap turn into the finished product we are accustomed to after collection? 

Nate:     We remove water.  It is that simple.  One way to do it is with pressure and filtration, a process called reverse osmosis (RO), where we take raw sap and turn it into pure water and concentrated sap.  We basically use a water filter backwards - the "reject" is our sugar and the "waste" is pure water.  The final step is the evaporator, where we caramelize the maple sugar and give the syrup flavor.  Maple syrup has one ingredient: maple syrup.

 

A key contribution to the farm on your part was the idea of combining modern practices with traditional methods. How do the two work together? 

Nate:     The basics of making maple syrup has not changed in hundreds of years.  It all starts with careful selection and stewardship of the trees.  If I didn't learn how to find and care for a maple tree from my Dad - who learned from his Dad - who learned from his Dad - we wouldn't have the opportunity to enjoy the technology and efficiency we have today.  Yesterday, Dad and I made a drum of maple syrup every 30 minutes for 5 hours.  Then we shut down and went home by 5PM.  10 years ago, we would boil around the clock for 48-60 hours.  It was brutal!  I didn't see my family for 3 months a year.  At least now I can focus on being a father and husband a couple days a week during maple season.  That wasn't possible with old technology.  Now we only work 80 hours a week instead of 100 (Laughing).

 

Does Ohio maple syrup differ from other regions, and if so, how? 

Nate:     It does.  As Michael Symon* said, "It makes the people of Vermont weep!"  We are fortunate to have Lake Erie to keep our part of Ohio cool.  We are also fortunate to have the growing season our maple trees enjoy.  You don't see maple trees like Ohio's up north.  Our trees are massive compared to Canadian maple trees.  Their trees look like a shrub compared to Ohio's.  The truth is, every maple syrup farmer makes maple syrup a little different.  We are fortunate to have a maple heritage in Ohio that is old - older than Vermont's.  Plus, the most valuable maple syrup in the world is made in Ohio!  No one else has the opportunity to fill a 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrel with maple syrup.  Dad and I are pretty proud that our family's maple syrup plays so well with the Van Winkle's bourbon barrels. 

 

What are the advantages, if any, of buying maple syrup locally? 

Nate:     Oh my!  Where do I begin?  First of all, local maple syrup keeps an interesting loop of dollars refreshed in Ohio.  We buy from local maple syrup farmers.  We supply those farmers with equipment to improve their production efficiency.  It keeps an open line of communication with the farmers and emerging crop technology.  (We are like a John Deere dealer for maple). When we buy their maple syrup to take to markets - it keeps the dollars local.  It is a very barter-like system.  Freight is a big burden on the maple industry.  It is heavy at 11 lbs. per gallon.  Water is only 8.34 lbs. per gallon.  We have national customers that require out-of-state maple syrup and we give them what they want.  But the local maple syrup is every bit as good with less freight burden.  Buying local maple syrup keeps the dollar in Ohio and it turns over several times in your neighbors' pockets instead of Canada or New England.  That's important to us.

 

Two products you are best known for is your Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup and Rum Barrel Aged Maple Syrup. Can you describe the differences between these syrups and how they are made?

Nate:     First of all, quality rum barrels are really hard to find.  Most of them are old and don't hold liquid.  It is frustrating.  We are lucky that we connected with a good cooperage that values our process and quality.  A rum barrel is traditionally a whiskey barrel that is used to produce an aged sugar-sourced-spirit.  It has a milder flavor than a bourbon barrel - more of a butter-rum flavor when the maple syrup is aged.  Bourbon barrels are single-use.  So, there is a ton of vanilla flavor from the caramelized oak sugars that is imparted into our maple syrup.  While we produce more rum barrel aged maple syrup than anyone else in the world, we produce the best bourbon barrel aged maple syrup in the world.  Our competitors know it - some admit it.  The largest maple syrup companies in the USA consider our bourbon barrel aged maple syrup to be the standard.  We are pretty proud of that.  

 

Every year you welcome visitors wanting to learn about syrup production. Can you walk us through what people can except on one of these visits?

Nate:     Oh, man.  When I was a kid, we would go to my grandpa's apple orchard in Ashtabula.  I remember the excitement and energy during the crop harvest.  People would come from miles to pick apples at Bissell's.  What I remember most is the feeling and the smells of food cooking.  Aunts, uncles, cousins - all working together for a common goal.  I was in college when the apple orchard went up for sale.  I couldn't buy it.  A family tradition and business went up in smoke.  That's what drives me.  That's what I try to bring to our guests.  That feeling of warmth and the smells of great food in the air.  If you visit our facility during Maple Madness you will enjoy live music and tours by some of the most talented in Ohio's maple industry.  More importantly, we peel the facade back.  The maple Industry is so secretive about how it works - we think transparency has helped us.  Why lie and say all of the maple syrup is from your family?  It is impossible for one family to provide all of the maple syrup we sell.  We feel our relationships with farmers is not something that should be hidden from the public - but promoted.  Don't you want to know where your food comes from? 

 

In addition to maple syrup, you also produce maple products like mustard, barbeque sauce, sugar, candy and maple cream.  Which of these products is your favorite, and why? 

Nate:     Maple sugar.  Hands down.  The historical relevance is hard to ignore.  During the Civil War Ohioans made maple sugar because cane sugar was made with slave labor.  That's the reason we are called Sugarmakers and where maple syrup is made is called a Sugarhouse or Sugar Shack.  We now make syrup in a Sugarworks.  When we make syrup, we are "sugarin’ ".  This was common vernacular of the late 1800's and early 20th century. It wasn't called maple sugar back then, it was just called sugar.  In fact, any recipe that called for "sugar" in the late 1800's and early 1900's was referring to maple sugar.  Think about that the next time you muddle an Old Fashioned.

 

*Watch Michael Symon comment on Ohio's Maple Syrup 

 

Written by Marianna Marchenko