Photo by Debra Thornblad
Lucien and Muriel Blais stand outside their sugarhouse in Berlin (click for larger version)
March 19, 2014NORTH COUNTRY–Three local sugarhouses will participate in the annual N.H. Maple Sugar Weekend, March 22-23; Bisson's Sugarhouse in Berlin, Tilton's Sugarhouse in Groveton and Fuller's Sugarhouse in Lancaster. All three are family operations.
The long cold winter season has delayed the start of the season this year. North Country sugarhouses haven't started collecting sap yet.
"The state sets the date for the maple sugar weekend to try and accommodate everyone," Lucien Blais, who owns Bisson's Sugarhouse with his wife Muriel, said. "But for the North Country that's almost too soon."
But they were confident that perfect day would come, when the March sun would become strong enough to start the sap running during the day, and cold enough at night to stop it. They hope enough sap will be flowing by that March weekend to be able to show visitors how syrup is made.
Bisson's Sugarhouse began in 1921 when Lazarre Bisson began tapping his maple trees. He was a farmer, the spring was a slow time and sugaring complemented his farming business. Lazarre's nephew Armand Bisson helped him and he and his wife Juliette took over the business when Lazarre died in 1936.
Muriel is the niece of Armand and Juliette. Lucien became involved when he was dating Muriel and Armand hired him to help. That was in 1971 and they were still attaching a bucket to each tree.
As time went on Lucien and Muriel learned the business from Armand and Juliette and they began taking over more and more of the tasks. In 1988 Lucien and Muriel took over management of the operation.
For much of the history of the sugar operating, the farm tapped from the sugar bush they owned. But in January 1998 a devastating three-day ice storm damaged most of those trees.
Today they lease sugar maple trees from stands that survived in two other locations.
The former sugar bush is right across the street from the sugarhouse. Today it is mostly birch trees. They are sun tolerant trees and they will need to grow up to offer shade in order for the shade tolerant sugar maples to start growing.
It will be 100 years before that site can possibly become a sugar bush again, Lucien said.
Bisson's Sugar House is located on Cates Hill Road in Berlin and will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23. They will be serving complimentary maple sundaes. Tours will be available and the process of making maple syrup will be going on. Maple products will be available and everyone will get a complementary maple sundae. Call 753-1298 or visit bissonssugarhouse.com for more information
Tilton's Sugarhouse is owned by Stephen and Brenda Tilton. The Tiltons started their sugarhouse in 2000 with 140 taps.
Stephen said they purchased his aunt's farm 15 years ago and sugaring was something he had always wanted to do since he was a child.
Like most in the business, sugaring is not a full time job. Stephen works for a Vermont power company and one year there was a big storm that got him many hours, and extra money. He decided he was going to follow his dream finally and purchased a small evaporator. Brenda is a school teacher at Groveton Elementary.
The business has grown since then. They now have 1100 taps with a tubing and vacuum system. They have modernized their evaporation system with a reverse osmosis and sap collection system to be more efficient. Recently they constructed a 23 x 20 foot sugarhouse. and boil their sap on a 3 ½ by 12 wood fired evaporator.
Stephen said they are hoping to increase to 4-5,000 taps.
"This is going to be my retirement someday," he said.
Tilton's Sugarhouse will be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Maple Sugar Weekend and will be serving hot maple syrup over ice cream. They are located at 67 Silver Road in Groveton. Call 636-2720 for more information or visit www.tiltonsugarhouse.com.
Fuller's Sugarhouse in Lancaster was started in 1972 by Dave and Patti Fuller. It too is family operated with staff including Dave's brother Edward and son David Jr., Dave's parent's Albert and Gloria and grandchildren Alicia and Isaac.
The family has a state-of-the-art sugarhouse that incorporates maple production, packaging and sales, all in one building. They tap maple trees in four "sugar bushes" in the Lancaster area consisting of more than 9,500 maple trees. Over 160,000 gallons is boiled, which produces 4,000 gallons of maple syrup.
The Fuller Sugarhouse, located at 267 Main St. will be open Maple Weekend from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will be offering free sugar-on-snow.
Call 788-2719 or visit www.fullerssugarhouse.com for more information.
Maple Sugar Business Today
Of the three North Country sugarhouses, Bisson's has been open the longest and Lucien has seen the many transitions and changes the business has experienced. When he started they were still collecting syrup by buckets.
In 1979 the conversion from buckets to tubing began at Bisson's.
"Tubing saved the sugar industry," Lucien said. "But what we put up then would be considered ancient now."
Tubing saves labor, he explained, and by then labor had begun to dry up. Before that, many people were farmers and with spring a slow time, they were able to help out in the sugar industry. But as farms closed, people got full time jobs and weren't available to help any more.
Tubing also helped reach trees they hadn't been able to before with horses or tractors.
The next major change in the industry was putting vacuums in the lines.
Putting a vacuum in the line tricks the tree, Lucien explained. The vacuum, which he said is very light, helps keep the sap from retreating back into the tree at night when it gets cold. While the cold/hot cycle is still important, it's not as important.
"Vacuuming has done to the maple industry what snowmaking as done for the ski industry," he said.
Next came the reverse osmosis evaporator, which cut the amount of wood needed to boil down the syrup. For the Bisson Sugarhouse it was cut from 20 to six cords.
The next major breakthrough in the industry is related to the spouts put into the trees.
Researchers discovered when the sap does retreat back into the tree, bacteria in the plastic tubing helps heal the hole the tap makes. Sterile spouts that have a feature that doesn't allow sap to go back into the tree have prolonged the season by one or two weeks, Lucien explained. These spouts cost 45 cents each and are thrown away at the end of the season.