What is Sorghum? Getting Sweet on Appalachia

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Real Life and Gardening

Sweet Sorghum..Getting Sweet on Appalachia!

Click to Read Sorghum Happens! A Story of Rebirth
Click to view Video Sorghum: Friends Drift Inn Episode 8 with Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods

Green Squeezins’ and Long Handled Spoons Sharing the Love

Sorghum I revel in it; not just as a sweet biscuit drizzle but as a wondrous companion to cheese, stir fries, and barbeque. I hear that sorghum is a “new” taste trend celebrated in the toniest of restaurants by the “Kings of Culinary World.” Frankly, I think they are late to the table. Where have y’all been?

What Sorghum is Not

Sorghum Syrup is not IS NOT is not molasses. Molasses are a by-product of cane sugar production. Sorghum Syrup it is the real McCoy, a first born of sorghum cane.

Grow Sweet!

University of Kentucky Ag Professor Todd Pfeiffer in sorghum field

Ever seen a cornfield? Sweet Sorghum grows like that. Sorghum seeds are small, growing in seed heads atop tall canes. he origin of sorghum seems to be from the African continent, making it’s way into the American agricultural lexicon by the late 1860’s.

There are many varieties of Sweet Sorghum. Here in Appalachia, two of the most favored are Keller and Dale. (We spell it “D-a-l-e” but we pronounce it “D-e-l-l”) Heirloom selections include Honey Drip and Sugar Drip. With a shorter growing season than our friends down south Keller and Dale makes sense for us. The crop is planted in late May or early June and reaches maturity in late September and early October just before the frosts roll in.

You can hear experts like the University of Kentucky’s Todd Pfieffer and producers Danny Townsend and Randal Rock talk for hours about the finer points of sorghum varieties. Some are known to “lodge” growing so tall that a puff of wind blows down the entire crop. Some have a higher tolerance to disease pressures. Depending on the growing conditions, some varieties produce significantly heavier yields. There are pros and cons to each selection.
In search of sweetness sorghum brix

But at the end of the day it all comes down to brix; the same indicator folks in Napa Valley use to measure the sweetness of their grapes. How sweet is sorghum? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Old-timers have their own way of determining when a crop has reached the pinnacle of sweetness, but a refractometer comes in handy too.

Sweet Harvest

Big time producers have fancy rigs that cut sorghum cane, crush it in the field, and collect the green syrup in a tank as they move along crop rows. That ain’t the way we do it down here in the mountains. We are small. We are artisans.

Sweet Sorghum Harvest Holbrook Brothers Morgan County KY

What we use are strong backs and sharp machetes. Out at Holbrook Brothers Mill in Morgan County the team moves with slow precision. One man slashes, two more get the stalks positioned on a wagon, and a lady steers the tractor on down the row. (Yes we hillbilly chicks can drive tractors – don’t mess with us) Giggles

The harvest is backbreaking work. But, it’s just the stalks; just the stalks m’am. We don’t harvest the grasses and weeds that grow up amongst the crop. I’m just saying the big boys reap more than they sow. Hmmph!

For every acre of sorghum planted, expectations are to produce anywhere from 200 to 300 gallons of pure sorghum syrup.

The Mill and the Evaporation Trays

Each producer has their own little secrets about running off sorghum squeezings. I’ve heard some pretty boastful claims. The sorghum community is a competitive one, full of mystery and intrigue.

Townsend's Sorghum Mill, a mule at Morgan County Sorghum Festival 2012

Since I was old enough to walk, I have witnessed the fall ritual of sorghum making, considered a community event. Some producers crush the stalks with mule power. Others crush with tractor driven power; attaching an unmanned tractor to the mill. It all works.

Once extracted and allowed to settle, the green squeezings are directed through a series of pans evaporating off water and concentrating sugars. In the Ohio River Valley, we called the pans “chases” as the liquid flows through the configuration like a pinball racing through a maze.

Danny Townsend Crafting Sweet Sorghum Syrup Morgan Co Sorghum Festival 2012

Cooking off sorghum is a hot, steamy process. Heat is generated by wood fires. As the syrup runs through the “chases” workers stir to keep the mixture from sticking. Foam, a shocking green color, is skimmed away to the delight of onlookers who eagerly wait to savor the sweet discards.

Mischievous boys with pocket knives cut slivers of cane stalk and dip into the green foam eating off the cane; a process I must confess I learned early in life. The trick is to avoid having knuckles rapped by long handled stirring spoons and skimmers! Giggles

The Finished Product

Sampling Country Rock Sorghum with Randal Rock Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show

Every producer’s finished sorghum syrup is a little different; sometimes wildly different. Terroir enters into the equation, the good earth. Current president of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors, Randal Rock, tells me the color and strength of flavor is directly related to soil nutrients. In crop rotations there are certain crops you do not want to plant before growing sorghum in that plot. The lighter color of some popular sorghums is achieved not by the cooking process, but by the intentional lack of a soil element.

You want trade secrets? Go talk to the growers and producers. Their confidences are safe with me.

Catch up with Appalachia and buy some sorghum syrup for your holiday baking .I cannot define sorghum for you; you need to experience sorghum for yourself! Giggles

I buy from a variety of folks including

Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods
Danny Townsend Sorghum Mill
Holbrook Brothers Sorghum

Click to Read Sorghum Happens! A Story of Rebirth
Click to view Video Sorghum: Friends Drift Inn Episode 8 with Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods

For more information The University of TN offers great insights

Disclaimer: Sorghum making is a mountain tradition accompanied by mountain hospitality. Holbrook Brothers gave me seed plumes to photograph and use on my television show. Danny Townsend and Randal Rock have let me sample their products. I have purchased products too. As for my friend Matt Jamie at Bourbon Barrel Foods, I have bought his products, have received swag at conferences and events, and he gifted me a stash of sorghum left over from what we cooked on my show. I have received no money for mentioning all this. Maybe I should declare this organization a non-profit. Giggles You might find links to Amazon and other affiliates where I do make a small commission. Help a farmer out.

©Friends Drift Inn Enterprises, LLC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Friends Drift Inn receives a small commission when you purchase through affiliate links.


Sorghum Recipes and Gardening Ideas
Recipes using Sorghum
More Appalachian Gardening

About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.