Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sorghum Molasses — The North Carolina Way

James Isaacs was hoping to get 15 gallons of sorghum molasses this year. Instead he got just 7.5. He can't be sure of the culprit but he suspects the DEA.

Frank Hopkins feeds cane-like stalks of sorghum into the press.
This year when he went to inspect his two-acre field he found half of his crop had been blown down and was broken, much of it dead.

The damage was  in different places — not uniform like storm damage.

Isaacs looked skyward.

"About the only thing that I can think of that could do this sort of thing," he said, "are helicopters.

Other than that, though, Saturday morning turned out to be a great day to make molasses in Rockingham County.

Dawn came gray and cloudy, just as a trailer loaded down with the cut sorghum was drawn up near an old tractor powered cane press, the engine turned on, and 81-year-old Frank Hopkins took his seat to begin a seven-hour stint of feeding in stalks one at a time.

As the press did its relentless work the juice flowed, first into a bucket, and then down a pipe and into a large vat above a wood burning fire where it was constantly stirred and skimmed as it thickened.
Steam rises from the vat of molasses. Care must be taken to prevent
the thickening syrup from scorching so it is constantly being stirred

Steam rose into the cool air. Gradually 75 gallons of sorghum juice boiled down to a creamy smooth brown syrup.

Sorghum molasses — especially the
slow-cooked kind like Isaacs and his partner, Jimmy Jones, were making — is subtler in flavor than the sugar cane molasses found in stores. It is also lighter in flavor and more suited for pouring on pancake and waffles — and is especially good on fresh-baked  hot-buttered biscuits.

And like wine it gradually changes as it ages, developing a more complex taste and is said to reach its peak only after about three to four years.

While it's cooking, judging when the syrup is ready to be pulled and canned is tricky. Too soon and it will have a "green" taste and will never fully ripen in the jar. Cooked too long and it can lose the subtle flavor that distinguishes it from its more robust cousin, sugar cane molasses, or scorch if the fire is too hot.

For some reason this year Isaacs' batch is taking a long time to cook.

A curious bystander watches.
"Last time we were done by three o'clock," he says. Now it is almost five and the light is fading from the sky.

There are reasons for the inconsistencies. Everything from how much rain fell during the year, to how much sun, to when it was harvested go into making each batch unique.

But finally, after much sampling it is pronounced ready.

From the cooking vat  it is drawn off into a larger container with a spigot, and from there canned sterilized pint, half-pint and quart jars. Samples are passed around.

"Good," is the verdict. "Worth waiting for," is another.

Isaacs smiles. Next year, he says, if the Feds don't terrorize his crop again maybe there will be more.


  1. Sounds great...I would love to taste it one day...I like the storebought molasses in things but have never had the kind he makes over pancakes, etc. YUM///

    Did you tell him that if he didn't plant the other stuff, they prolly wouldn't bug his crop? HAHAHA

    1. Thanks, Brian. I'll pass that on to him tomorrow. I'll also ask it there are any half-pints left he might be willing to part with. If so I'll send you one.



  2. Loved being able to watch the molasses making operation over your shoulder. :)

  3. John, thats too bad about the ruined parts of his field. This brings back so many memories! I can almost smell and taste the good sorghum mollasses my dad used to bring home from Kentucky. We lived and farmed in middle Illinois, but Dad & Mom were from over around Metcalfe county, Ky. and every year, after a visit, we brought home several tins of homegrown/homemade molasses. I'm sorry to say that they are extremely hard to find anymore. You are a lucky man. Enjoy! Linda