Sweet chemists: Friends working together for small-batch sorghum

Story and photos
by Callie Sterling

A small group of friends and family in Bee Branch decided to keep the art of sorghum syrup production alive by learning the cooking process and putting an abandoned mill to use.

Keith and Robin Hensley learned about the process online and invited their friends and family to their home in Bee Branch to help with the sorghum making process for the first time last fall. Pam Nacke, Tim Nacke, Tommy Hutto, Don Hensley and Jim Holland have assisted the Hensleys in their sorghum production.

“It all started when I was cleaning a house and found a jar of sorghum in the back of a kitchen cabinet that had been there since the 1980s,” Robin said. “Keith quickly finished the jar off, and we decided we wanted to make sorghum of our own. We get our seeds from Jimmy Crockett in Rose Bud and plant the sugar cane seeds in June each year. We wait until the fall arrives and then begin to cut down the cane.”

The process is lengthy and requires several people and a lot of patience. “It took 25 hours for me to strip the cane for the first batch,” Keith said. “It used to be a community activity. The sorghum was traded to people who helped make it. You can’t make sorghum with only two people.”

Once the cane is stripped, it is then processed through a sorghum mill. “We found this abandoned mill on some property that I bought,” Hutto said. “It is a three roller Golden’s sorghum mill.”

The sorghum mill separates the juice from the sugar cane, and the juice is filtered through a strainer into a barrel. “Ten gallons of juice from the cane makes approximately one gallon of sorghum,” Pam said.

The Hensleys strain their sorghum four times total. Next, the juice is transferred from the barrel to a simmering pan that is over fire. “For our pan, we used an old stainless steel sink and had the hole in the bottom professionally plugged,” Keith said.     A new simmering pan can cost upwards of $600. The sorghum must be stirred constantly while cooking. In addition to being constantly stirred, it must be skimmed and filtered for debris and certain proteins that coagulate. These proteins must be removed in order for the process to be effective.

Timing is everything when making sorghum. If left on the fire too long, the risk of scorching the batch is high. If removed from the fire too soon, the batch may need to be re-cooked. The sorghum is cooked over the fire about three to four hours.

Sorghum can be used in many food items, including barbecue sauce, baked beans, cookies, molasses cake, popcorn balls, candy and on hot biscuits.

“Since last year was our first year, we want to make improvements every year,” Tim said.

In the past, sorghum and honey were the only available sweeteners. The Hensleys and their friends are doing their part to preserve a piece of history while keeping their sweet tooth satisfied.