JEFFERSON, Ohio — “We’re really good at weird maple syrup things,” said Nate Bissell, owner and operator of Bissell Maple Farm in Ashtabula County.
His innovative thinking may have landed him one of the most unique products on the maple market — bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.
In 2015, Bissell purchased a 40,000 square foot factory, formerly a General Electric bulb factory, in Jefferson. In the factory, Bissell triple barrel ages maple syrup in bourbon barrels he buys from distillers in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
“The maple industry is such a niche industry,” said Bissell, who makes other craft maple creations such as maple candy and maple creme, maple barbecue sauce and maple mustard.
Making maple syrup has been a Bissell family tradition since the 1800s.
“I love the sight of a sap bucket and wood-fired evaporator,” said Bissell.
But while the original sugarhouse at the family farm in Rock Creek is still in use, a few additions and upgrades have been made to the Sugar Chalet, as Bissell calls it.
Today, a complex web of tubing and reverse osmosis equipment extracts sap from the trees on the farm and a wood-fired evaporator distills it into pure maple syrup.
“For me, it was a hobby,” said Nate’s father, David Bissell, who said he was making only three to four gallons at a time while his son was in high school.
“As soon as he (Nate) got involved, it became a couple hundred gallons,” said David, now retired from the business. Nate took over operations in 2011.
A growing business
Bissell Maple is comprised of three entities. Bissell Maple Farm buys maple syrup from local farmers and bottles and sells the product. Bissell Maple Supply supports maple farms with supplies and services such as taps, pumps and evaporators.
“I can remember as a little kid, reading maple syrup catalogs,” said Bissell. “Now I’m a Leader Evaporator dealer.”
The final component is Bissell Family Farms, where the maple is made — “the fun stuff,” said Bissell.
The family farm includes 60 acres and 1,500 taps and produces over 9,000 gallons of syrup for the business.
Last year, Bissell Maple produced 40,000 gallons of syrup and Bissell said business has doubled every year.
In 2012, Bissell had a unique opportunity to partner with Bill Roloff, property manager at the Beaumont Scout Reservation for Boy Scouts of America Lake Erie Council.
The camp sits on 1,200 acres and 140 acres are tapped for maple production.
The Boy Scouts help manage the 26 miles of tubing and 9,500 taps throughout the winter and collect the sap.
“I had this vision, but didn’t have all the pieces in place,” said Roloff.
He said harvesting and maintaining the maple trees gives the youth a sense of entrepreneurship while also teaching them about stewardship and developing a good work ethic.
“It’s the perfect concept for the Boy Scouts. They can collect the sap, have it bottled to sell (at Bissell Maple) and earn some money for their troop.”
It’s just an old ’69 GMC tanker truck, but to Bissell Maple Farms, it’s been affectionately named Sapsquatch.
The old fire tanker, captained by Fred Shelatz, can be seen traveling the countryside collecting sap from Ohio farmers.
“I’ve known Nate since he was a kid,” said Shelatz, who raised beef cattle and sold appliances until he retired. “He needed some help and I needed a part-time job.”
Shelatz has been working alongside Bissell, meeting different farmers to buy sap, and selling for Bissell Maple Supply.
Bissell Maple collects from farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Along with collecting and producing unique maple syrup products, Bissell wants to educate landowners who may not realized the untapped potential they have in their trees.
He wants to help them find the best techniques for harvesting their maple sap, while also earning them a little extra money.
“I love what I do,” said Bissell. But just like farming, it’s hard work. “We’re out walking tap lines at night. We’re out late fixing leaks,” he said.
But at the end of the day, Bissell is proud to provide his customers with a unique product that they crave.
(Reporter Catie Noyes welcomes feedback by phone at 330-765-9940 or by e-mail at email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/catie_noyes)