Inside the lost art of sorghum molasses production

From left, Bob Kelley hand feeds stalks of sweet sorghum into a homemade press built by Kevin Muench and his father years ago. The press squeezes sugary juice from the stalks as Viola Muench supervises and Diane Muench prepares to take another bucket of juice. (Alan Dooley photo)

Monroe County resident Bob Kelley and the Muench family from Randolph County have joined efforts to produce sorghum molasses for 25 years, and this fall was no different.

Kelley harvested sorghum from his half-acre plot last week and hauled it to Red Bud on Saturday morning to work alongside Kevin Muench, his sister Diane, and mom, Viola.  There, they employed old family methods to convert the canes into an increasingly rare delicacy.

The crop is sweet sorghum, which produces a tall, slender stalk topped by a seed pod that turns a deep, rich red at maturity. It is traditionally cut by hand, close to the ground, and then seed pods are removed and leaves are stripped from the slender head-tall or taller stalks.

Kelley demonstrated his harvesting technique to the Republic-Times last week, employing an old family knife specifically made for the task.

“I think the handle was originally from a hoe,” the 87-year-old farmer said.

He said his family has grown sorghum around the Tipton area since he was a kid in the 1930s.
Kelley carefully cut the stalks, laying them on two wooden sawhorses with brackets to keep the freshly cut stalks from falling to the ground.

“You don’t want the stalks to get dirt on the cut bottom,” he detailed.

After several stalks are cut and stripped of their leaves, they are bundled with coarse cord – which Kelley can break with his strong hands – and loaded onto his truck.

Saturday morning, Kelley and his harvested stalks headed for the Muench farm east of Red Bud. There, he and Kevin crushed their two crops of sorghum cane with a handmade press Kevin and his father built years ago. It is powered by a small, single-cylinder gasoline engine.

“Dad and I built it years ago,” Kevin said. “It didn’t work too well the first year, but we worked at it and the result is what you see today.”

It works quite well, shaking the wood deck it is bolted to as it operates.

Kevin’s sister took five gallon pails of the extracted juice and strained it several times.

“First, I want to get any stalk pieces out and then remove any traces of dirt,” she said while working.

Once the juice is cleaned, it is poured into a bulk milk tank where air bubbles dissipate. Viola supervised the process.

Once the juice is cleaned and bubble-free, a large and flat square pan is placed on top of a wood fire and the juice is heated to drive sugar out of it, thickening the resulting product into sweet, brown sorghum molasses.

Years ago, Diane said, the juice was cooked in large iron pots.

Kelley revealed a secret of the process.

“You don’t use good fire wood. That burns too hot and too long. Rather, you use old dry building wood – two-by fours or sixes are best. They produce exactly the right heat,” he confided.

The final product can be eaten on pancakes or biscuits, corn meal mush and grits. It is a staple of southern breakfasts.

Sweet sorghum cane became a major crop in the U.S. in the 1850s. By 1900, some 20 million gallons were produced yearly.  Today, that has fallen to less than a million gallons a year, including those produced by Kelley and the Muenches.

Sorghum is seldom refined for molasses today. Instead, it is grown as cattle feed in dryer areas such as Texas and the Plains states. It is becoming a staple crop for food, cattle feed and fuel in India and Africa.

If you think you have never encountered molasses, it is sold in grocery stores. It is a key flavor component of ginger snap cookies.

If you want to try it on pancakes or in hot cereal, you may want to start with milder versions, as so-called “black-strap” molasses is an acquired taste.

Still, some area farmers make a batch of their own each fall.

Kelley says this will be his last crop. But we wonder if he can quit after a life of selecting the best seeds each fall and saving them for next year’s planting, harvest and production.

There may just be a need for sorghum molasses in his blood.

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Alan Dooley

Alan is a photojournalist -- he both shoots pictures and writes for the R-T. A 31-year Navy vet, he has lived worldwide, but with his wife Sherry, calls a rambling house south of Waterloo home. Alan counts astronomy as a hobby and is fascinated by just about everything scientific.
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