Bree Breckel and her business partner and fiancé Eric Weninger both came from farm families. They knew they wanted to be involved in farming but had been close enough to dairy farms to know that that life wasn’t for them. “Our 85-year-old neighbors took their first vacation when they sold their cows – and that was not a life we were up for,” says Breckel.
With a strong connection to the land around them in Cashton, Wisconsin, and a passion for preserving an area and supporting themselves by working the land, they had an idea to start a maple syrup farm. They were able to get a beginning farmer loan through the Farm Service Agency, purchased their first parcels with those funds, and got set up for “mapling,” working alongside four other families initially.
That all happened in 2012 – which happened to be the worst production year in history. “It was the lowest tap yield that anyone had ever seen in our area,” recalls Breckel, “so right off the bat, we knew that selling bulk commodity market syrup wasn’t going to be able to keep the farm going.”
She and Weninger decided to pivot their business model to create a one-of-a-kind product that would allow them to have more influence on the sales and pricing, and ultimately be able to support the farm they were working so hard to keep going. That product turned out to be bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup from their newly formed company, B&E’s Trees.
How Maple Syrup is Made
If you’ve ever scoffed at the price tag of real maple syrup compared to supermarket imposters, such as Mrs. Butterworth’s, an explanation of the maple syrup process will help you to understand the great difference in quality (and price).
Through slowly building their farm over the last eight years, B&E’s Trees now has 184 acres of maple trees in total, with about 120 of those acres in production. The maple syrup harvest takes place in early spring in very specific weather conditions. Sap only flows when it’s below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, explains Breckel. To say trees are “tapped” on their farm means they are connected via a series of tubes that carry sap to collection tanks in the bottom of the valley. This system is better for the environment than manually moving buckets up and down. “With the slope of the hills, carrying buckets across would create erosion,” Breckel says, “so the tubing system helps to hold these steep hillsides in place.”
Sap harvest can be as long as two months or as short as a little over a week, as it was in 2012. That’s one of the greatest challenges of having a maple syrup farm. “It’s up to the weather – it’s not up to you,” says Breckel.
After the sap is collected, it goes into the sugar house, which has a giant stainless-steel evaporator that looks like a steam engine. The sap comes in the top of the machine and is gravity-fed through a series of channels, with a heat source at the base, explains Breckel. As the heat rises, it heats the sap, cooking it into syrup. The process itself is loud and long – some nights during sap season, Breckel and Weninger will burn the midnight oil until 3 a.m. or so cooking syrup – but the experience is incredible.
“When you have [the evaporator] going, the air itself is sweet,” says Breckel. “It’s spring outside, so you have those fresh earthy notes and the first green smells of the year. You’re seeing winter break.”
A Focus on Sustainability
B&E’s Trees is located in an area with a unique topography of deep valleys and steep hills that have never been glaciated, says Breckel, so it creates small, microenvironments. While their side of the valley is abundant with maple trees, for example, the area where her parents live on the opposite side has few. Logging practices over the last 150 years also play a role in the land today. That’s why Breckel and Weninger feel so strongly about operating their business sustainably in a way that’s as environmentally and socially responsible as possible.
“We’re selling maple syrup, but a big part of it is creating the world we want to live in,” says Breckel. “We’re doing everything we can to be a part of our community, to take care of this piece of land, to provide a habitat [for animals] and to support the farm through mapling and not have that land logged.”
At the 2013 edition of The Energy Fair, put on by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to bring together like-minded producers focused on sustainability, Breckel and Weninger met the team behind Central Waters Brewing Company in nearby Amherst, Wisconsin. The two businesses turned out to be a perfect match. “They’d always wanted to do a beer aged in maple-soaked bourbon barrels, and we were looking for something different to do with maple, so we ran a pilot batch with them,” explains Breckel.
It was the beginning of a partnership that’s been going strong ever since. B&E’s Trees ages their maple syrup in freshly dumped charred white oak barrels for a full two years, which gives the syrup a smoky, vanilla flavor over time. Once they take out the syrup, they send the barrels to Central Waters. There, the barrels get repurposed for a third time to age imperial stout. “They’re drawing both [oak and maple] flavors into the beer – it’s like dessert, really delicious,” says Breckel.
Paul Graham, president of Central Waters, says the brewery is expanding its beers from the maple barrels this year, adding a butter pecan and a coffee version of its top-selling Maple Barrel Stout. The brewery will release a limited number of bottles in December, but visitors to the brewery will be able to sample the new goods starting Dec. 15.
Maple Syrup for the Holidays
The holiday season is one of the biggest sales times of the year for B&E’s Trees. Their barrel-aged maple syrup comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from mini 1.7-ounce bottles (perfect stocking stuffers!) to family-sized pint jars. A top seller for Christmas is the Flight of Fancy ($35), which includes three bottles of syrup, each tapped at different points in the season: early harvest, which has a light, delicate flavor; late harvest, which is full-bodied and rich; and bourbon-barrel aged.
B&E’s Trees’ website also has an archive of recipes they’ve developed that incorporate maple syrup. It’s not just for pancakes and waffles; try it in maple-glazed salmon, sweet potato streusel or a maple old fashioned cocktail, all perfect for the holiday season.
See more: Shop Local: Wisconsin Holiday Gift Guide
Beyond giving a unique (and delicious) gift, Breckel emphasizes the impact of buying local maple syrup over commercial brands. “When you’re buying syrup from a producer, you’re supporting a family, keeping a piece of land intact, supporting the habitat,” she says. “There’s a quote that I really like: ‘When a person makes food, it’s imbued with their history, their hopes and their dreams. And when you eat, you take part in that story.’ That really captures what we’re doing.”