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Sweet Sorghum

Sweet Sorghum: Intro

My introduction to sorghum syrup came about in a very roundabout way. I was living in Washington, DC. and converted four lots and two houses into an urban farm. As a result, I was always falling afoul of the law... I had Illegal chickens, contra-band bees, renegade greenhouses, concealed pigeon coops, and worse. At a point, I realized that I either moved to a farm, or risked jail time on some poultry offense. So, I found a small farm 14 miles from town, bought it, and like a reverse Beverly Hills Hillbillies story, packed my truck with plants and animals, and moved to the “country”.

Sorghum canes are so rich in sugar, chewing one a chunk like eating candy.

Once situated on my mini-farm, I had all this repressed farm energy that burst forth ….and decided to grow and raise everything. I quickly found this online source of exotic poultry eggs, my chicken porn site ( . On that fabulous website, you can buy all kinds of rare heirloom poultry, and have them sent to yourself via the US mail! Birds of a feather flock together and I quickly made friends. Indeed, I met this one really cool woman, a duck breeder, who was a wealth of good ideas….or trouble, depending upon your perspective.

My duck breeder friend asked me if I was making my own sugar. I said no, that sugar cane did not grow this far north. She then informed me that sorghum, a big annual sugar cane like grass would grow in my area, and that I could make sugar! This “sugar” was called Sorghum syrup. It had never occurred to me that I could produce my own sugar and I was electric with excitement. Party time. As a person who loves to make his own stuff, this was very big news. I already made my own jams, but, the fact that I could make my own sugar to sweeten them, that was a whole new level of self sufficiency!

Any who, my online friend sent me a little packet of sweet sorghum seeds. The next spring I planted them and up sprang this huge corn like grass, twice my height. It just sort of stood there, looking big, and once it reached what I thought was its maximum hugeness, I decided to sample it. I cut down a stalk, peeled back the green skin of the cane, and chewed on the stick like a dog does a dried pig ear. Sure enough, as I chewed, the taste of pure sweet rolled down my happy throat. I peeled more, chewed more, peeled more, and proceeded to get a very clean sugar high. Having tasted the delicious sweet, I vowed to plant a crop of sorghum the next year and actually make my own sugar.

Being an impatient soul, I did not want to wait a whole year to sample the sorghum syrup I would be making. So, like any obsessive person, I found this really cool online supplier of sorghum syrup and ordered some. In a few days a jar of sorghum syrup arrived. It looked like light colored molasses but tasted like fruity honey with a touch of molasses. I began using sorghum syrup in all kinds of recipes in place of store bought sugar and had amazing results. Having tasted this brand of sweet, I was really excited to make my own the following season. Later we will get to my own personal adventure with sugar making, but first, let’s talk more about sorghum syrup in general.

Sweet Sorghum: History

To start the sweet sorghum story, and for it to make any sense at all, we have to turn back the sweet time machine 160 years. In 1850, the average American had access to sugar cane syrup or molasses. Only the super rich could afford white refined sugar. Sugar cane syrup was made by pressing sugar cane for its sweet juice, and cooking that juice down into a thick, heavy, sweet syrup. Molasses, on the other hand, was the byproduct of the sugar refining process. When cane sugar was refined, the pure white sugar got pulled out, what was left in the pot was molasses. Sugar cane syrup did not take much work to make, and molasses was an industrial by product. Both sugar cane syrup and molasses were the cheapest sugars available and what 90% of the population used as sugar.

All that to say, in 1850, most people got their sweet in the form of a thick, heavy sugar syrup.

The Sorghum Syrup Story

North America boasts two unique additions to the menu of healthy sugars; maple syrup and sorghum syrup. Most have tasted maple syrup, but, sorghum is something new to many. Like Maple syrup, sorghum syrup is made on this continent and on this continent alone. More specifically, it is produced in America. So in fact, it is a sugar unique to America. It is a bit odd that America’s most American sweetener is unknown to many Americans, but, with a little luck that will be changing. Because, sorghum syrup is as interesting in flavor and use as "the other" North American sweetener, Maple syrup.

It is made from the pressed juice of a very large grass, scientifically known as Sorghum bicolor, and in particular, a variety known as sweet sorghum. Sweet sorghum is a very tall, statuesque grass that stands many feet higher than the average man, and its seed head makes it even stand taller. If you were not told otherwise, you might mistake it for corn on steroids. It is a close relative of sugar cane, though it differs from its relation in two main regards. Firstly, it is an annual grass, whereas sugar cane is a perennial; secondly, it grows in places too cold to support sugar cane production.

Its wide, corn like leaves extend into the sunlight, where they practice the ultimate plant miracle, using sun energy and water they create sugar. The sugar produced in leaf is then shipped to its thick, succulent stem. If you break off a piece of sorghum cane, and chew it, the sugar concentration makes its self known. The sugar content in the cane ranges between 10% and 20%, and, when you chew a length of stem, you taste the sweet. It stores as much or more sugar in its cane than its relative sugar cane, as sugar cane stores on average 10% sugar! Its large canes are pressed, the juice collected, and cooked down to remove excess water, concentrate the sugars and vitamins and minerals. The result is a rich, fruity, complex sugar syrup with endless uses and endless appeal.

The sweet sorghum syrup story is a complex as the flavor of the syrup itself, and like the flavor, the history is worth knowing. But, first a short informational detour.

It is really fascinating how different cultures will breed the same plant or animal for different purposes and end up with an almost entirely different plant or animal. Take dogs. The Mexicans bred the wild dog into the tea cup sized Chihuahua and the Danish took the same wild dog and developed the horse sized Great Dane! Here is an example from the plant world. American’s bred watermelons to be seedless because we like watermelon’s sweet flesh. As a result of years of breeding, our watermelons are now seedless or virtually seedless. On the other hand, the Chinese love eating watermelon seeds and have bred watermelons that have little meat and are mostly seed. The same plant or animal, in the hands of a different culture, with different needs or tastes, over generations, can end up looking very different! This is the case with sweet sorghum.

Sorghum bicolor, as a plant, has four potential uses. Its leaves and stems can be used as a food for grazing animals(silage sorghum); its seeds can be used like wheat or rice(grain sorghum); its dried seed head can be used to make brooms(broom sorghum); and lastly, its sweet canes can be used to make sugar. Some cultures bred it for use as green fodder for animals, other for grain production, others for broom making, and in America, we alone bred it for sugar making. As I said, America is the only country that makes sugar out of sorghum. If you want to sample sorghum sugars deliciousness, you will have to do it in America! And, as you will see, we bred up its sugar making potential as a result of our unique history.

Though an American product, the sweet sorghum story starts in foreign lands. Research reveals that sweet sorghum bicolor is originally from Sudan and Chad and spread from northern East Africa to southern East Africa thousands of years ago. Villages between those two points grew the plant for the grain it produced and for the sweet cane that could be chewed both for pleasure and nutrition. From East Africa, sweet sorghum spread to China, Korea, Burma, and India. Early in history, sweet sorghum made its way to Europe, via Asia. The plant appears in European botanical literature in 1542 and is referred to as Sorghi, the name used for it in India.

A sorghum grower with his sorghum crop during the heyday of sorghum production.

Mid 19th century Europeans experimented with squeezing the sweet canes and making sugar with the resulting juice, but, it did not really catch on. Europe had sugar cane sugar rolling in from the Caribbean Islands and they really did not need another source. Let us just say that they were not very motivated to find another source of the sweet. But they did briefly fool around with it, and, that happened in the year 1851.

In 1851, the French consul in Shanghai sent a collection of “the sugar cane of the North of China”, sweet sorghum, to the Geographical Society of Paris. The seed was planted in the garden of Toulon where a single seed germinated. However, that single seed produced enough seed for a second generation.

In 1853, William Prince, a Flushing New York nurseryman received some seed from the Toulon garden and produced a crop of sorghum in New York. He sold the seed to farmers around Northern America to trial as a potential new sugar crop.

Independent of that, J.D. Browne, a US patent office agent, travelled to France where he observed sweet sorghum growing and experiments being conducted making those sweet canes into sugar. He noted that this potential sugar producing crop was growing in places and climates where corn flourished, and, suspected it would grow in America’s corn belt as well. We are speaking, of course, of the American North and Midwest, places that had to buy sugar. Browne collected seed and sent them back to the US Patent office. The patent office in turn grew the seed and produced a sufficient supply to distribute seed packets, in 1857 and 1858. Farmers were made aware of the seed through the help of several northern congressmen and the magazine “American Agriculturist”.

The varieties of Sweet Sorghum introduced by William Prince, and JD Browne, were to be known as Chinese Cane, as they made their way to America by way of France by way of China. Chinese Sugar Cane was also known as Eusorghum.

In a separate universe, A Calcutta, India sugar planter, Leonard Wray, visited eastern South Africa and collected several varieties of Sweet Sorghum growing along the coast. Wray developed sixteen varieties and introduced them to Europe under the name Imphee, or sweet reed. Once again, sweet sorghum did not catch on in Europe. But, in 1857, Wray, working with South Carolina governor Hammond and Mr. Redmond, publisher of the magazine Southern Cultivator, introduced the African sweet Sorghum to farmers in the Southern United States. In 1859, some African sweet sorghum seed was given to the US patent office, or stolen by the US patent office, depending upon who tells the story. The US Patent Office in turn propagated the African variety and distributed its seed to farmers in Northern America.

The African sweet sorghum was called Imphee, and was thought to be a stronger cane, better able to withstand strong hot prairie winds. Chinese sugar cane was thought to be more fragile, but better able to thrive in cooler climates and produced a superior syrup.

One might ask the question, why was the US Patent office so involved with the identification of sugar producing plants, their study, and their distribution to Northern farmers. The answer is simple. The North was dependent on sugar and molasses made on southern plantations run on slave labor. War between the north and the south was looming and it was possible that the southern sugar supply would stop flowing north. The United States government wanted to create a sugar industry in the north to reduce dependence on southern sugar, and, sorghum was one of the candidates.

Sorghum syrup was money in a jar. It could save the farmer from buying sugar and besold for extra cash.

Moreover, Cane sugar was a cash crop for the South. Sugar was valuable, whether sold to the north or to Europe. The southern sugar industry added money to the southern economy and in turn money to their war budget. By stimulating northern sugar production, southern sugar plantations incomes would e reduced. Today we talk about developing alternate fuels to end our dependence on Arab oil; in those days, people spoke of reducing dependence on southern sugar.

And, in addition to this, the abolitionists were encouraging consumers to boycott slave made sugar. more specifically, consumers were made to feel guilty about buying slave made sugar. Here is a good quote from Sugar expert Elizabeth Abbott, ” Abolitionists urged all Christians to shun the sugar and rum that orphaned slave children by murdering their parents through excessive labor and cruel treatment”. As Abbott says, cane sugar “was literally polluted with slaves blood and sweat, clearly no reasonable person could eat it.” In fact, grocers started looking for sources of sugar not made with slave labor and that had “not produced by slaves” on the product!

With the full support of the federal government, and abolition inspired consumer interest, Sorghum caught on in the north, indeed, by 1858 it was being planted in every state in the Union. By 1860, nearly 6.75 million gallons of syrup were produced in twenty five states. Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri produced over half of that syrup. The product sold for fifty to sixty cents a gallon. Bear in mind that was 150 years ago, the equivalent in today’s money would be $14 a gallon.

So, the US government’s motivation for distributing and encouraging sorghum syrup production was political; they wanted to stick it to the southern sugar producers. But, the early American farmer was equally interested for their own reasons. Firstly, there was the moral issue of slave made sugar. Secondly, cane sugar was the only sugar readily available to the average American, and, it cost money. Sorghum, on the other hand, grew just about everywhere, and, pressing it and creating sugar was something you could do at home, with a minimum amount of equipment. The money usually spent on buying sugar could be used to buy sorghum sugar making equipment, and the homesteader could then make their own sugar for the rest of their life. Bearing in mind sugar was one of the most expensive items a homesteader bought, the idea that they could make their own sugar, and maybe even produce a little extra to sell made it an exciting crop.

Books were written and distributed to the northern farmer teaching them how to plant sorghum and convert it into table sugar.

An 1859 book, “Experiments with Sorghum Sugar Cane”, was written to encourage the northern farmer to think they could be sugar independent almost immediately. Here are some interesting quotes from that “inspiring” little book, “The profound interest awakened, not many months since, on the subject of the introduction among us of a new sugar producing plant, the Chinese Sorgho and African Imphee canes, seems destined to ripple yet further the current public sentiment. No event of modern times has produced a sensation more intense amongst agriculturists, and judging from the success which has attended the experiments of the past season, crude and imperfect as they necessarily were, nothing has fallen under public observation which has yet, or is likely to confer such permanent benefit upon the community at large.

Sugar, once a rare and costly luxury, has in these latter times become a sort of general necessity, although the short crops of year or two past, together with inordinate speculations in that which was produced, have made men of moderate and restricted means feel as if it was receding again to its old place amongst the luxuries.

Our object here, however, is not to indulge in general speculation, but to lay before the public, in the plainest manner possible, such facts as have fallen under our observation, or have been brought to our attention, and which bear upon the subject of growing this new sugar cane, expressing the juice there from, and boiling the same into sugar and molasses, We will therefore as a proper preface, consider the general success of the past season, to show the base upon which we build our hopes of still more flattering results in the future."

The results of the year are flattering in the highest degree. Sirup, of a beauty and flavor and consistency equal to the finest sugar house molasses, has been made to a considerable extent in nearly every Northern State, and in quantity sufficient yield a good profit at the lowest price New Orleans has ever sold for in our markets. Samples have been shown us by various parties, which were as transparent and pleasant almost as honey, though there had, doubtless been unusual care exercised in their manufacture. They show, however, that these results were not impossibilities, and go far to prove the cane a success. But, in addition, to all this, and still better, SUGAR, of various grades, from the darkest brown to the finest loaf, has been produced by various parties and at various points, sufficient to prove conclusively that the manufacture of sugar in this latitude is not only possible, but easy of accomplishment."

With a bag of free sweet sorghum seeds from the US patent office, a copy of this book, and a small amount of equipment, the 1850′s northern farmer has sugar stars in his or her eyes. No more trips to the general store to buy expensive slave made cane sugar. This appealed to the cost conscious early American and worked for US government too.

But, there was still another factor. Self reliance was a core value amongst the American pioneer. They liked being able to take care of their own and produce their own necessities. Part of this was practical; many lived in locations far removed from a general store. But, the bigger part was the value of self reliance itself. They liked being able to fend for themselves. Making their own sugar made them more independent.

For all these reasons, sweet sorghum planting, and sorghum syrup manufacture, throughout the North, caught on like wild fire.

Though the US patent office had sowed the seeds of northern sugar independence, and authors such as the one just quoted helped stir the so called sugar pot, the Civil War did its part to stimulate northern sugar production. Let’s just say the war, which specifically targeted sugar plantations, resulted in a disruption in the production and distribution of southern cane sugar. As the war raged on, the sugar flow slowed to a trickle. The northern states did not have access to southern sugar they had before. If you wanted to get your sweet on , planting and producing sorghum syrup was the answer.

At that crazy time in US history, an Iowa agriculturist, Wayne Rasmussen, made this statement, “It is fair to conclude that if a king providence should bless us with a favourable season, another year we will not be compelled, as a State, to contribute to the expenses of the war in the shape of high prices for sugar and molasses.” In other words, northern sugar production meant less money for the south to fight their side of the civil war.

Though the US patent office had sowed the seeds of northern sugar independence, and authors such as the one just quoted helped stir the so called sugar pot, the Civil War did its part to stimulate northern sugar production. Let’s just say the war, which specifically targeted sugar plantations, resulted in a disruption in the production and distribution of southern cane sugar. As the war raged on, the sugar flow slowed to a trickle. The northern states did not have access to southern sugar they had before. If you wanted to get your sweet on , planting and producing sorghum syrup was the answer.

At that crazy time in US history, an Iowa agriculturist, Wayne Rasmussen, made this statement, “It is fair to conclude that if a king providence should bless us with a favourable season, another year we will not be compelled, as a State, to contribute to the expenses of the war in the shape of high prices for sugar and molasses.” In other words, northern sugar production meant less money for the south to fight their side of the civil war.

The Union Commissioner of Agriculture said this in his report of 1862, “The new product of sorghum cane has established itself as one of the permanent crops of the country and it enabled the interior states to supply themselves with a home article of molasses, thereby keeping down the prices of other molasses from any great advance over former rates which otherwise would have been a result of war.” The sugar shortage, that would otherwise have been the practical result of war with the south, was averted with northern sorghum syrup production . Northern farmers were now making their own sugar and had their own supply. And, often, they had enough to sell to their neighbors and city dwellers.

Sorghum production increased with each passing year of the war. However, its production stabilized in the 1870′s. Basically, with the end of the war, and with the renewed access to southern sugar, Sorghum had to stand toe to toe with southern cane sugar. Though Sorghum got northern folks through the war years, it was not without its problems. In the very northern states it did not always set seed. Where ever it was planted, it was labor intensive to convert the cane into sugar syrup. However thrifty, making sugar was time consuming, and if you had money to buy sugar, you did.

So, 1870′s saw a reduction of sorghum production in the north, but as production in the north declined, it increased in the northern parts of the south. The parts that were too cold for sugar cane to grow, but, still plenty warm for sorghum. This increase in southern sorghum syrup production might also have had something to do with labor. Though slavery was over, the south had a large number of former slaves accustomed to labor intensive agriculture, cotton, cane, and tobacco included, in need of work. Though freed, former slaves were available for the manual labor associated with making sorghum syrup.

As has been said, there are different sorghum varieties grown for different purposes, silage, grain, broom, and sugar respectively. Apparently the US Department of Agriculture decided this confused the American consumer. In one of the earliest cases of re-branding by the USDA, the USDA announced that hence forth, sweet sorghum would be called Sorgo and sorghum syrup would be called sorgo syrup.

Here is a humorous quote from one of their publications announcing “their” name change,

“Sorgo is called sorghum in many parts of the country, and until recently the sirup from sorgo was generally known as sorghum syrup. Sorgo is the name now preferred by the United States Department of Agriculture for the varieties of sorghum that have abundant sweet juice, as distinguished from the grain producing varieties”. Sadly for the USDA, no one was interested in changing sorghum syrups name, and, their effort failed. Then and now, sorghum syrup is called sorghum syrup and sometimes just plain old sorghum.

Sorghum syrup production reached one its peak in the 1880′s where states, southern and northern included, produced a total of 30 million gallons of syrup. At this time, there were over two hundred different varieties of sorghum planted in North America. Each location tended to have its own variety that performed best in that locale.

American desire to produce sugar in the north led to the development of high sugar content sorghum varieties.

But of all those local varieties, four varieties dominated the scene due to their high sugar contents and those included early amber, Orange, Sumac, and gooseneck. The different varieties produced juice with different sugar contents; as an example, in Biloxi, these varieties had the following sugar contents; sumac 11.44%, Gooseneck 13.09, early amber 14.55% , and Orange 14.20. Through selective breeding, Americans were breeding higher and higher sugar content sweet sorghum varieties, varieties much higher than those that arrived in America from Africa and China. Americans had taken this particular wild dog and turned it into the sorghum version of a Great Dane.

By 1890, nine southern states were responsible for over half the sorghum syrup produced in America. This would be a complete reversal from the statistics of 1860 when half the US crop was produced in northern states.

At this time, there was hope that sorghum syrup could be refined into a white, solid sugar. Because, refined white sugar, the former luxury of the super rich, had caught on with the average man, and, everybody wanted the pure white solid sweet.

However, this was not to be. A USDA bulletin had this to say on the subject, ” At one time it was believed that sorgo had value in the production of sugar(solid) and from 1860-1890 much experimental work, both on a small scale and a factory scale, was one in the attempt to develop this industry. As compared with sugarcane and sugar beets, however the yield of sorgo and sugar per acre is low in most localities the sugar making season would be short; and the crop is relatively unreliable and perishable from the standpoint of sugar production. Sorgo juice, moreover, contains gummy materials, starch, and comparatively large quantities of sugars other than the ordinary sugar of commerce(sucrose), which retard and sometimes prevent crystallization. Although improved methods of clarification have been developed , the yields of crystallized sugar have usually been found too small to justify establishing this as a separate and independent sugar industry.”

The taste of the nation was heading towards solid purified, white sugar and the difficulty in converting sorghum syrup into a simple, albeit dangerous chemical, was a major factor in its disappearance from the American table.

But, the death nail in the coffin of commercial sorghum syrup production came in the 1890′s. Round about then, the USD experimented with extracting solid white sugar from sugar beets and had excellent results. Sugar beets, like sorghum, grew in the north, but, acre per acre, produced more of the white stuff than sorghum and produced it more easily. Even more significant, there was a commercial production issue. Sorghum had to be cut and processed into sugar immediately. The sugar in its canes, once cut, quickly converts to starch. It is a perishable product. Sugar beets, on the other hand, could be harvested and stored, and processed into sugar whenever it was convenient. Weeks, even months, after they were harvested.

To make matters even worse, technologies developed that could extract glucose syrups from corn. Corn syrup, though another unhealthy substance, was cheaper to produce than sorghum syrup. Sorghum could not compete with cheap beet or the cheap corn syrup, and, its commercial production went into a steady decline. A rich, complex, healthy sugar was sidelined by two very simple, and not so healthy purified sugars.

Here are some US census figures that show the rise and fall of sorghum syrup in America. The figures shown are in gallons.

So, you are probably thinking it was straight down hill for sorghum to the present, when we find sorghum syrup almost obscure. Almost but not exactly. Interestingly, there was a surge of production of sorghum syrup between 1920 and 1933. What explains this bump in production? Prohibition! It seems that during the first part of the “dry years”, sorghum syrup was used to make alcohol. Apparently it was fairly easy to make sorghum booze and as such, it regained popularity amongst the American farmer. The honky- tonks, speakeasies, and moonshine parlors popping up all over the country needed something to serve, and, sorghum derived booze was one such beverage. When the depression hit in 1929, production plummeted to 9,256,000. Nobody had any money for food let alone booze, and, Sorghum syrups revival went down the tubes along with the wealth of the nation.

After this temporary upswing, sorghum syrup resumed its slow descent to the bottom of the sugar list. After the second world war, more and more people moved away from the land, and, from country ways. Sorghum production suffered along with all the other country traditions lost in the movement from country to town. Moreover, it was always a labor intensive crop, and following the end of the second world war, a lot of the American men were dead. Let’s just say there was a war caused shortage of farm labor and this took its toll on sorghum syrup production.

Sorghum: Alive and Kicking

Though Sorghum lost the commercial war with corn and beets, its cultivation and manufacture did not stop all together. From the 1930′s to the 1970′s, its production continued on family farms and homesteads on a non-commercial basis. And the reason for this is hard for the modern reader to comprehend. Finances.

The simple technology required to produce sorghum sugar, a mill, a horse, and a cooking cauldron, kept sorghum production alive amongst American subsistence farmers. If they wanted sugar, they had to produce it themselves. Sorghum gave the poorest American farmer the opportunity to take part in the joy of sugar!

Many American farmers during this period barely earned enough money to cloth their families, and for them, store bought sugar was a real luxury. Buying sugar was buying sugar and these farmers did not buy that much of anything. Simply put, subsistence farmers could not afford to buy sugar. But, like when it was first introduced, Sorghum gave the small scale farmer the opportunity to produce a sufficient quantity of sugar the keep them the sweet for the year, at no cost apart from the labor it took to produce the syrup. An acre of sorghum produced between 60 and 400 gallons of sugar rich syrup, and most farmers had an acre to spare and a weekend to cook down the cane juice to rich sugar syrup! The art of sorghum syrup production was kept alive due to the economic necessity of poor American farmers.

In some cases, families had their own sorghum press and pressed and cooked down their own syrup. In some communities, one member of the community would build and maintain a press, and local farmers would drive their sorghum to be pressed at the “community” press. The press operator did his work in exchange for a certain percentage of the resulting juice or syrup.

A 1975 survey revealed that only 2400 acres of sorghum were planted on 165 farms. That is a far cry from the amount of sorghum planted in the height of the sorghum sugar days... in excess of 500,000 acres in 1880! That was a real low point.

The good news is that things are looking a bit better. At present, an estimated 30,000 acres of sweet sorghum are planted annually, and those acres produce 1 million gallons of syrup. The biggest portion of the syrup being produced in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. And, the really good news is that there are some producers that produce sorghum commercially! You can buy sorghum syrup over the phone and over the internet! The production may be down, but, the product is still available!

Making Sorghum Syrup

The reason that sorghum took off in the first place, and the reason that its production has continued on a homestead basis thereafter, is twofold. Firstly, it’s delicious. Secondly, its relatively easy to make. Yes, its labor intensive, but, with a press of some sort, and a large kettle, you can make sugar. With a little equipment, and some free time, you can be in the sweet.

It takes 200 sorghum canes to produce 7 gallons of sorghum juice.

So, how is sorghum syrup made? Well, the process is always the same. First, the canes are cut and striped of leaves. Next, the canes are passed through a mill that flattens the cane and squeezes out the sweet green juice. The cutting and the pressing needs to happen as quickly as possible, as otherwise the sugar trapped in the cane begins to convert to starch. The pressed green juice, which is by the way as sweet or sweeter than apple cider, is then placed in large pots or kettles, and boiled. As the juice boils, proteins, starches, and chlorophyll molecules float to the top of the pot and form a foam. Someone leans over the pot and continuously scoops off the foam. For some hours, the boiling and the scooping proceeds. But, more or less, when the pot stops producing foam, the syrup is done. 7 gallons of juice has been reduced to 1 gallon of amber colored sorghum syrup.

It takes 7 gallons of sorghum juice to produce 1 gallon of sorghum syrup.

My adventure with Sorghum Syrup

As proof positive that anyone with a small plot of land can make sorghum syrup, I will dive into my personal sorghum story.

I mentioned earlier that I first heard about sorghum syrup from an online friend and according to her I could make sugar at home. However, I needed a source of seed to plant my acre of sorghum, and, I went online to find a supply. Looking for seed, I came across a wonderful organization, The National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association. Spear headed by the Sorghum Saint, Morris Bitzer, I was able to obtain seed and planting instructions for a type of sorghum recommended for my area.

So, I planted an acre of sorghum and, within days the little corn like plants appeared. Within two weeks the little plants were flying towards the sky at kind of an alarming rate. The plant is vigorous and strong and just grows by the minute. In fact, the vitality of the plant is almost breath taking. I did not water it, treat it with fertilizer, or weed it. It just blasted out of the ground like a rocket, all on its own.

Honestly, while it was growing, I did not give a lot of thought to what would come next. Like, how would I actually turn the canes into sorghum syrup. I had been informed that once the plant set seeds, and the seeds were slightly hard but not entirely hard, the sugar content in the cane would be at its maximum, and it was time to harvest the cane. After that point, sugar content would begin to disappear.

Sorghum cane is harvested when its seeds are no longer soft but not yet hard. This is called the hard doughy stage. At this stage, the sugar levels in the cane are at their highest.

Well, I got busy with this and that, and before I knew it, I had semi-hard seeds hanging off my 14 foot sorghum plants. I did the only sensible thing. I panicked. How was I going to get the juice out of the canes? How was I going to press it? I went online and I looked at old designs for simple sorghum presses and they all involved a horse. Problem one. I did not have or want a horse. I did find some designs that could be modified to work without a horse but I did not have time to get one of those built. My sugar content was dropping by the minute.

But, then I remembered something. I remembered that Cuban restaurants in Miami had mini-sugar cane presses right in the restaurants. They used them to press fresh sugar cane juice, or Gurapa, as it is known in Cuba, to be served as a refreshing beverage. As an aside, where ever sugar cane grows, the people press and drink the fresh juice for health and pleasure. My sorghum was about the same size as sugar cane, just a little softer, and, I decided that if I could get my hands on one of these portable sugar cane presses, I could press my sorghum cane. I called restaurant supply companies in Miami in search of one of those portable sugar cane presses, and found one. . Shortly thereafter, a portable 2 horse power sugar cane press arrived at my door. Miraculously, I plugged it in, fed a sorghum cane through it, and out flew sweet green juice. What a relief. I could get the juice out of the cane!

Miraculously, I plugged it in, fed a sorghum cane through it, and out flew sweet green juice. What a relief. I could get the juice out of the cane!

About the juice. It is bright green like wheat grass juice served at juice bars. Like wheat grass juice, it provides a blast of b vitamins with the added benefit of super fresh natural sugar. All I can say is that if you drink a cup of fresh sorghum juice, you end up with a buzz you’ll not soon forget! It is tasty, in a deeply green kind of way, but wow does it get you moving! Good thing, because it was a lot of work chopping down the canes, pulling off the leaves, and shoving the canes through the juicing machine.

I have ridiculously large pots, like big enough to cook a couple of people in, and so I put the juice in the pots, and started cooking. True to the reports I had read, once the juice started boiling, foam came to the top of the pot, and my job was to keep scooping the foam off the boiling mass. It boiled, I scooped, it boiled, I scooped, and in two hours, 70 gallons of sweet green juice became 10 gallons of ultra tasty syrup.

And, I must say, pouring my sorghum syrup into mason jars, was one of my most satisfying moments. I had taken a plant, pressed out the sugary sap trapped within it, and converted that sap into sugar. An ancient practice, one that people around the world had practiced since the beginning of time, had been pulled off in my own home. I was officially sugar independent.

Ultimately, here was the most compelling part of the experience. I planted sorghum seeds and watched them grow with shocking vigor. I mean, the plant just looks healthy, exploding with strength and vitality. Then I pressed this vital plant and out came its essence, an electric, power packing green juice. A juice that just looks healthy. A Juice so packed with nutrition it makes a person, as in this person, buzz around like an energized insect. Then, I reduced this power packing punch, from 70 gallons, to 10 gallons, thereby concentrating all the goodness into a highly concentrated form. Looking at the jars of brown sorghum syrup, I knew on some primitive level, that I had before jars of concentrated power! And even better, it was beyond tasty.

I don’t say this in that, everyone thinks their kid is cute, no matter how butt ugly, kind of way. I have made more than one product on the farm and thrown it in the trash because it was nasty. This stuff is delicious.

I don’t say this in that, everyone thinks their kid is cute, no matter how butt ugly, kind of way. I have made more than one product on the farm and thrown it in the trash because it was nasty. This stuff is delicious.
To make sorghum syrup, the first step is to cut the canes, strip off the leaves, and chop off the seed heads.
Once the canes have been stripped and de-headed, they quickly go to the press. Once cut, the sugars in the cane start converting to starch so rapid pressing is important.
Sorghum canes, stripped and ready for pressing. Just harvested, the canes have a juicy green appearances.
The canes are passed through a press and the sweet juice is released. There are many different sorghum presses used, some are electrical and some are horse driven.
The Sorghum juice runs out of the press electric green and as sweet as apple cider. On closer inspection, the juice only appears to “run” out of the press. It actually comes out in droplets.
This has to do with the fact Sorghum juice is a really a dense liquid. The vital essence of a vigorous plant, sorghum juice is filled with sugars, vitamins, minerals, and health building phytochemicals.
100 gallon pots are filled 70 gallons of fresh juice and are ready for cooking. In the old days, the juice was cooked down in large kettles or cauldrons set over hot coals. Today, gas and electric heat is used.
The heat is turned on, and, in a hour or so, the juice begins to boil. Because the juice is so rich in sugar and other compounds, it takes longer to bring it to a boil than water.
As the juice boils, a foam forms around the edges of pot. This foam consists of chlorophyll, starches, proteins, and saponins and is removed as it forms. The constant scooping makes cooking down sorghum syrup a labor intensive process.
A handled strainer is used to remove the foam as it forms around the pot. The foam is quite nutritious and is added to animal food. Its just sweet enough to make it a popular treat with sheep and cows.
Over three hours of cooking, 85% of the water will evaporate from the pot. 70 gallons of juice will become 10 gallons of syrup.
With most of the water evaporated, you are left with the sugars and non-sugar compounds in the pot…..a vitamin, mineral, and phytochemical rich sugar syrup with a delicious flavor!

Sorghum and Health

Like all whole, unrefined sugars, sorghum syrup is an incredibly complex substance. Its color alone lets you know that it is filled with different sugars, vitamins, minerals, and assorted phyto-chemicals. Remember, that sorghum syrup is highly concentrated nutrition rich sorghum cane juice.

There is a variation in sorghum syrup content, as with most naturally occurring substances, no two fields produce the same sorghum cane, juice, or syrup. But, generally speaking, sorghum syrup contains 40% sucrose, 30% invert sugar, 3% mineral matter, 24% water, and 3 % organic non-sugars.

Nutritionally speaking, sorghum syrup is a wealth of vitamins and minerals. One cup contains 957 calories, but these are not empty calories.These calories come packing with loads of nutrition and phytochemicals which all work towards improving health. The percentages presented here represent the USDA recommended amounts per day.

Seeing Red

Most people are aware of the health advantages of red wine. What they don’t often realize is that the important word here is red. Compounds known as anthocyanins make red wine red, and two primary physiological activities. They strengthen the circulatory system, arteries and heart included, and they act as anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants neutralize free radicals that the body produces; free radicals cause aging, cancer, heart disease, and a whole long list of things you don’t want. Anthocyanins can be found in red raspberries, red grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, and a host of other red produce.

The sorghum produces a lot of anthocyanins, and these substances can be found (and seen) in the leaves, canes, and seeds. When the cane is pressed, and the juice concentrated into syrup, the syrup has a reddish caramel color…because it contains concentrated anthocyanins. Though the anthocyanins found sorghum have not been specifically studied, they should be. They may have more health benefits than those associated with anthocyanins.

The sorghum produces a lot of anthocyanins, and these substances can be found (and seen) in the leaves, canes, and seeds.

Ginseng in sugar syrup?

Ginseng is a well known health stimulator, used for centuries by the Chinese to insure vigorous strength and vitality. The compounds, at least in part responsible to this verve boosting action are called saponins. In this case, they are specifically called ginsenosides. Interestingly, several members of the grass family have been proven to contain saponins very similar to those found in ginseng. Oats, fed to race horses to insure a win at the track, contain avenacosides. Wheat grass juice, the popular brain and body booster served up at health food stores contains saponins. Sugar cane, contains saponins and has been proven to be as effective a vitality stimulant as ginseng! And guess what? Our old American sweetener, Sorghum, is also rich in saponins. These may explain why sorghum syrup was a traditional treatment for people feeling run down. As someone that has grown sorghum, I can tell you it is one of the most vibrant plants on the farm. It grows like a rocket and is the picture of vitality. It kind of makes sense that it would contain vitality compounds!

As a health care researcher, sorghum syrup has two clear cut benefits to the consumer.

Help…. I’m falling Apart Here!

The modern world works a person’s nerves. The simplest of chores, like getting the cable switched on or off, becomes a mental and nervous safari that can go on for weeks. Push 1 for this, push 2 for that, push nothing to get a real person on the phone. Nothing goes smoothly and we all have to be alert way too much of the time. The modern world is wearing peoples nerves out, and, to see this, just look around. Peoples’ nervous systems are worn out.

To make things worse, B vitamins are essential for proper nervous system functioning. People who don’t get enough of these vitamins end up with nervous and nerve problems. And, the processed food most people survive on has been stripped of most everything, including B vitamins.Oops. Our life is a nervous system work out and our food does not have the nutrients our nervous systems need. Let’s just say, bad combination. Here is the good news. Sorghum syrup is incredibly rich in B vitamins and a great way to boost your B vitamin levels. A tablespoon a day will give those fried nerves a dose of what they need.

Stop the Destruction

Free radicals are chemical remnants that travel around the body damaging cells, skin, blood vessels, and more. Simply put, free radicals age the body and cause disease. Good news. Sorghum syrup is loaded with anti-oxidants, substances that sweep up these body damaging free radicals. Like red wine which packs anti-oxidant action, sorghum comes packing with a big dose of anti-oxidants. A regular dose of sorghum syrup may help retard aging and age related conditions.

Sorghum syrup is a highly condensed and concentrated food; all the sugar and nutrition trapped in 200 sorghum canes end up in a one gallon jar.

So what does it taste like?

What does sorghum syrup taste like? I would describe it as being a mix of honey, apple juice concentrate, and light corn syrup with a touch of molasses. I would definitely use the term fruity to describe it, and, apart from tasting very sweet, it carries a rich caramel flavor that is unique to sorghum. As devotees of whole sugars will tell you, each sugar is unique and unlike any other. Maple syrup tastes like maple syrup, and molasses tastes like molasses. This one is no different. The only way to know what sorghum syrup tastes like is get you a jar and dip in!

Where to get Sorghum Syrup

So, what we can derive from this sugar story? First of all, if you have some land to spare, you can make your own sorghum syrup. All you need is some seed, a press, and a pot.So, what we can derive from this sugar story? First of all, if you have some land to spare, you can make your own sorghum syrup. All you need is some seed, a press, and a pot.

That said, not everyone is willing to go to the bother, however satisfying as it might be! And, the good news is that a few people still make sorghum syrup and you can buy it from them! You can go to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association website to find a supplier ( That said, here are two suppliers I like. and

Not only should you order some sorghum syrup for your taste buds and your health, but, there is yet another good reason. It is really important for us to support the sorghum syrup industry. Bless the folks who are continuing this truly American sweet tradition. They will only continue doing it if we buy their product. Do your part to keep this American tradition alive, and, this is one good deed that actually tastes good.

Using Sorghum Syrup

Sorghum syrup is light enough in flavor to be useful in just about any recipe that calls for sugar. Unlike, molasses, which has such a strong flavor it blocks out other flavore in the mix, sorghum sweetens food, and contributes to flavor, without overtaking the food item in question. When thinking about using it, think that in the flavor department, its somewhere between light brown sugar and light Corn syrup.

When it comes to using sorghum in recipes, here is what you need to know. In recipes calling for honey, you can substitute one cup of honey for one cup of sorghum syrup. In recipes calling for molasses, you can substitute one cup of molasses for one cup of sorghum. That said, sorghum is sweeter than molasses so you may need to reduce the amount of sugar called for in the recipe by one third. When using it to substitute sugar, increase the amount of sorghum syrup by one third over the amount of sugar specified. Because sorghum syrup is a liquid, you will need to reduce the amount of liquid called for in the recipe by the same amount.

The following usage information comes to us from the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, “When replacing sorghum for sugar in baking recipes, some experience will be required. The exact ratios of substitutions may vary somewhat between different recipes. Also, it is not recommended that all sugar be replaced under most circumstances. Best results are obtained by replacing 50% to 75% of the sugar with the required amount of sorghum.”

Consumer Beware

Sorghum syrup is sometimes incorrectly called sorghum molasses. We need to clear this up. Syrups are made by cooking down plant sap to reduce the water content and increase the sugar content. You take 7 gallons of sorghum and boil it down to 1 gallon of syrup. No sugar is taken out, just water. It is a simple reduction process. Molasses, on the other hand, is the residue of refined cane sugar production. Cane sugar juice is cooked down, the sugar is scooped out, and what is left in the pot is “molasses”. So, sorghum syrup is concentrated sorghum juice. Molasses is the residue of cane sugar refinement.

Most importantly, Sorghum is a commodity, hard to produce, and valuable. Some less than honest merchants mix cheaper sugar syrups with a little sorghum syrup and call it “sorghum syrup”. To make certain you are getting the real deal, the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association has come up with a logo which can be found on certified Sorghum syrup. Look for this logo and you will know you are buying the real deal. Beyond that, when you pick up a bottle of sorghum syrup, read the ingredients. If it contains anything other than sorghum syrup, put the product down!

In Closing

Sorghum syrup is a uniquely American sugar, and though its production had been in decline, this is beginning to change. This upward trend needs to continue, and, this whole, unrefined sugar really needs every bodies support. And, in this case, supporting a good cause will not involve you going on some stupid walk. All you have to do is order some and enjoy it. Sorghum syrup is a national treasure and we need to make sure its always around.

But that said, it is a sugar we need to support because it is good for us and good for the planet on many, many levels. First of all, the Sorghum plant produces its own natural herbicide to keep competing weeds at bay. Its production does not require herbicide. It grows in all kinds of soil and as such and does not require chemical fertilizer. It grows so quickly and strongly, insects don’t effect it very much. It does not require the use of insecticides. And lastly, because of its drought resistance nature, it does not require irrigation. It uses less water! This is a very earth friendly sugar, and, the same cannot be said for the other sugars!

Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.