A visit to Bisson's includes maple sundaes

Special to the Union Leader
March 13. 2014 12:04AM

Bisson's Sugar House, a third-generation maple sugar farm in Berlin, will be open for New Hampshire's Maple Sugar Weekend, March 22-23, as it has for many years, offering visitors a look at how syrup is made and offering a complimentary maple sundae.

The long, cold winter season could delay a little the start of the season this year. This North Country sugar house hadn't started collecting sap yet, when owners Lucien and Muriel Blais talked with a visitor on March 8.

"The state sets the date for the maple sugar weekend to try and accommodate everyone," Lucien 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.

The Blaises say they always welcomed at least 500 visitors over that weekend.

"We can tell by the number of sundaes we serve," Muriel said.

Bisson's sugar house began in 1921 when Lazarre Bisson began tapping his maple trees. He was a farmer, the spring was a slow time and sugaring complimented his farming business.

Lazarre's nephew, Armand Bisson, helped him. The work was hard in those days as it was all done with horses and buckets hung from each tree by hand.

Lazarre died in 1936, and Armand and his wife Juliette took over the business. In the 1940s a tractor replaced the horses, making it possible to haul three 125-gallon tanks instead of just one. In 1953 the first sugar house, really just a shack, was torn down and the present sugar house built. In 1979 the conversion from buckets to tubing began.

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.

"Back then many of the roles were gender-based," Muriel said. "Lucien and Armand did the boiling and Juliette taught me the packaging of the product. But it worked."

In 1988 Lucien and Muriel took over management of the operation. Juliette died in 1990 and Armand in 2004.

In 1979 the conversion from buckets to tubing began.

"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, a lot of 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 helping with sugaring as they were before.

Tubing also helped reach trees they hadn't been able to 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 is very light, helps keeps 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 has done for the ski industry," he said.

The next major breakthrough in the industry 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.

For much of the history of the sugar operation, 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 sugar house. 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 will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, March 22-23. 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.

EntertainmentGeneral NewsLifestyleBerlinManchester

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