Temperatures were peaking in the high 60's on a Saturday this mid-February, not your typical maple-syrup-making weather, but Sam Wilson, of Wapello, was hard at it.
He had two propane cookers roaring when I pulled into his driveway. A small clutch of neighbors and friends were gathered, asking questions and trying samples of Sam's famous Iowa River Maple.
Nestled on the Iowa River, Wapello, in Louisa County, is not your typical maple-syrup-type of village. Fishing and farming are the more usual pursuits along this Highway 61 route. Vermont and the New England states are what comes to mind when you think of maple syrup. Sam just shakes his head at this type of thinking.
?If you have a maple tree, you can make maple syrup,? he tells the group of taste testers. He points to the one large tree in his back yard. It has three taps, with buckets hanging from the taps. ?This tree is a sugar maple. But any maple tree will work?silver maples, Norway maples, even box elders.?
You can see wheels turning in the heads of the onlookers. They are all thinking of the maple trees they have. They take off their jackets and hats to catch some of the sunshine that is blessing Sam's maple-syrup operation. No need for a bonfire and hot chocolate on this day.
?It's really too warm,? Sam continues. ?But you take what you can get. I usually start on Super Bowl Sunday, setting the taps and getting ready. A temperature swing of about 29 to 40 degrees is an ideal freeze-thaw for pushing the sap up.?
Sam only has one tree. But from this tree, he will get 40 gallons of sap, which will boil down to one gallon of maple syrup?a 40:1 ratio. It takes about 10 hours of cooking. Sam has one large turkey cooker boiling hard, and one smaller cooker, which is a pre-heater.
When the buckets on the tree get somewhat full, he empties them into his ?Water Buffalo,? a huge military ?Water Distribution Trailer? - the kind you see on television in Iraq for hauling water.
Another of Sam Wilson's hobbies is that he's a military-vehicle enthusiast. He also owns a six-by-six deuce-and-a-half. In fact, Sam had just hosted a meeting of the Quad City's Military Vehicle Preservation Association earlier that morning?another reason for the gathering of people for his maple-syrup cookdown.
From the ?Water Buffalo? (a barrel would work just fine), the sap goes into the pre-heater for warming. Once warm, the sap then goes into the larger cooker for hard boiling. The use of a pre-heater reduces cooking time considerably. Sam has a hydrometer for gauging when the syrup is ready, but he can pretty much tell by color and texture. When the syrup starts getting brown and thick, it's close to being done. He doesn't add anything, no sugar, or brown sugar, nothing. It's pure maple syrup.
On a warm day, like the Saturday Sam was cooking, he can't let the sap sit in the buckets too long because it will start to ferment. I tasted some of the sap coming directly from the tree. I thought it would be bitter, like pine-tree ?gum.? Rather, it tasted like a mild solution of sugar water. Some people drink it like this for health reasons, but it has to be kept refrigerated.
Sam started making maple syrup in 2009. He had been to Vermont a couple of times and witnessed maple syrup being made. Once he got the taste of the real thing, nothing else would do. He thought, ?This looks easy. I can do this. It just takes time and patience.?
Sam let me have a little jar of his Iowa River Maple. It has a distinct maple flavor, a little smokey, but mellow, like the Iowa River that flows lazily by Wapello. I may have to have pancakes or French toast for breakfast. Or maybe blueberry waffles.
Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm, in Mt. Pleasant, at 319-217-0526, email him at email@example.com, or find him on Facebook. Swarm?s stories are also read at 106.3 FM, in Farmington.