Bisson’s Sugar House is three generations of sweet maple goodnessBy BARBARA LEECH
Special to the Union Leader March 15. 2017 12:41PM
Third-generation sugarhouse owners Lucien and Muriel Blais have mastered how to blend tradition and history with modern technology. The sweet success of their business, Bisson’s Sugar House in Berlin, combines time-saving innovations with knowledge handed down to them through two prior generations.
Muriel and her husband took over her uncle’s business back in 1986. Together they have found innovative ways to save time and energy, but create the same amazing products.
According to Muriel, for generations people have come to the sugarhouse store, nestled on the southern slopes of Cates Hill, seeking everything from maple syrup to maple butter, from maple taffy to maple sugar candy.
Each year, New Hampshire’s Maple Sugar Weekend typically brings about 600 to 700 visitors to their operation. Guests get to step back in time into a sugarhouse that has stood for 64-plus years, but is updated with the latest processing technology and equipment.
“We are kind of a museum in a way. Tapping and making maple syrup has evolved so much over the last 30 years,” Muriel said. “Today, with our reverse osmosis machine, 75 percent of the water is removed from the sap before it’s boiled. The time required to make the same products is drastically reduced.”
Saving time is beneficial to the couple, especially Lucien, who learned the business first-hand working with Muriel’s uncle Armand Bisson. Though the couple hires part-time help during the four- to six-week season, Lucien sometimes puts in 20-hour days overseeing the operation’s 3,000 taps.
The tubing system is intricate and involves many man-hours to oversee.
Beginning in the early ’80s, Bisson’s started replacing buckets with plastic tubing. This was followed by the introduction of vacuum pumps, which greatly increased yield. With more sap came the need for more efficiency in the sugarhouse which, in 2010, resulted in the purchase of the reverse osmosis machine.
The most recent introduction is new thinner tubing to tap the trees. Lucien said researchers at the University of Vermont discovered that by reducing the diameter of the tubing, a natural vacuum is created when the sap is flowing — increasing sap yield without the use of pumps. Bisson’s has installed more than 5,000 feet of the new tubing.
“This has allowed us to add on some of the more remote trees that were inaccessible before,” Lucien said. “Additionally, conditions for sap to run requires 20-degree nights and warmer 40-degree days. But, a vacuum system means sap continues to flow once it starts — even when temperatures don’t always cooperate.”
The sweet history
Started back in 1921 as a primitive operation, Bisson’s Sugar House was created by Lazarre Bisson, who moved to Berlin from Canada bringing with him the craft of making maple syrup and taffy.
Several family members helped with the work, including his 10-year-old nephew, Armand. Lazarre and his wife Amanda took Armand and his siblings after both of his parents had passed away.
Armand mastered the art of maple sugaring and eventually took on the responsibilities of the sugarhouse. Many years later, after Muriel’s father passed away, Armand and wife Juliette took Muriel and her siblings under their wing. Muriel also learned the business at age 10, and when she started dating Lucien, he went to work with Armand.
“The business has been a good fit for us,” Lucien said. “I worked as a self-employed carpenter and in the off-season I have had this to keep me busy and provide for us. It is not for everyone, it is hard work and year-round job flexibility is needed. But, it has been worth it.”
Muriel agreed. The former kindergarten teacher said the hours that maple sugaring demands can be exhausting, but it is not something they are ready to give up anytime soon.
“Our children have established careers and lives in other states, so this is not likely to be handed down again. The only reason it worked for us is this is where we lived and our careers allowed flexibility,” she said.
Visit Bisson’s Sugar House during New Hampshire Maple Sugar Weekend on March 25 and 26, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
where Muriel and Lucien will explain the maple sugar process to guests and offer a crowd favorite, complimentary maple sundaes.
The store will be stocked with fresh maple syrup, maple butter and maple sugar candy and one of the most popular products, maple taffy.
“It’s a product few producers make, basically concentrated maple syrup that we sell in 12-ounce cups,” Muriel said. “Popular in Quebec, Lazarre began making it when he first opened this business in 1921. It’s called ‘tire’ in French and many still refer to it that way.”
Visit www.bissonssugarhouse.com to learn more.