“Good sap makes good syrup.” If there’s one thing Nate Bissell of Bissell Maple Farm wants people to know, that’s it. But like his farm in Jefferson Ohio, Giant Eagle is a family business. We care about more than just selling our supplier’s products, we want to learn about the people behind them and why they do what they do. So, we spent an afternoon with Nate to learn about what makes his maple farm so remarkable.
Nate’s a sixth generation maple farmer. Following in his family’s footsteps was originally a hobby — albeit a serious one — until about two years ago when he left his corporate job “making paint stick to metal” as a chemical engineer to focus on maple full-time.
“I haven’t really thought about it since,” Nate said. “I’m doing what I was born to do.”
And he’s doing it in a way no one else is.
Bissell Farms produces a variety of maple products, including candy, mustard, barbecue sauce and traditional maple syrup, but one of their most popular items is their triple bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.
To produce this fan favorite, Bissell sources bourbon barrels from Pappy Van Winkle’s, one of the most sought after, premium-quality bourbons. Then he ages the syrup in those barrels for roughly nine months to give his syrup a rich, oaky flavor.
Bissell Farms isn’t the barrel’s final stop, though. When Nate’s done with them, he sells the barrels to craft breweries where they’re used to produce maple bourbon barrel-aged brews, some of which are among the top-rated craft beers in the country.
This degree of innovation and dedication to product development shows that Nate truly loves maple. It’s a necessary affection given the nature of Nate and his 15 employees’ work.
“We tap trees. We put snow shoes on and go out in the woods. It’s a 24/7 job during maple season because Mother Nature determines when sap runs. It comes out of the tree whenever the tree feels like it.”
Contrary to what some may think, maple season doesn’t consist of pleasant fall days. It’s in the early spring when northeast Ohio is still in the grips of the winter weather that blows in over Lake Erie: a fact that’s just fine with Nate.
“We’re in the maple belt. Without winter, there is no maple. You need the sap to go down into the roots and come back up during the spring. When everyone’s complaining about the weather, I’m happy, because that means maple season is going well.”
There’s a lot of science behind it, but essentially, cold weather helps make sap sugary. It also contributes to when and how much the sap flows. Once that happens, syrup production can truly begin.
Bissel extracts sap from the tree by using the old-fashioned, manual tap-and-bucket method, and also by pumping it through tubes to a holding tank. Then it’s taken by tanker truck — the aptly named Sapsquatch — back to the production facility where water is extracted using reverse osmosis and evaporation. From there it goes into the barrel, then the bottle and ultimately to your table.
What starts with sap and a tap requires considerable work before you can buy it. But for people like Nate and his team at Bissell Farms, it’s a labor of love; one that’s all worthwhile to create flavors you’ll love.