Kentucky and Tennessee are today the leading sorghum syrup producing states, and neither are shy about the fact. The Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City, TN hosted a sorghum festival September 20, and over in West Liberty, KY the locals of that district celebrated their own 44th annual Sorghum Festival last weekend. Georgia has an official state sorghum festival in Blairsville, which opens October 11 and goes for a full week.
A poor-soil brother of the corn family, sorghum grows all over the United States and as far north as Canada. To mountain folk, in the days when they knew sugar only in liquid form, there just wasn’t any other sweetening like it. Sorghum meant a rich dark-brown molasses, just right for corn bread and unbeatable for hot-cakes. It is still used for seasoning beans and for making cookies. A sorghum “run-off” was the most enjoyable event of the old-time farm year. Sorghum—the ‘sugar plant’—was mostly a small farm product, but during the Civil War years about sixty million gallons of it were manufactured. Today sorghum has been bred into a dry soil plant for livestock feeding.
The beers mentioned in early American writings were in no way similar to beer as we know it—and such was southern molasses beer, made from sorghum. A first distillation of fermented sorghum juice, molasses beer was found on the tables of most mountain farms, often as a substitute for milk, and was taken by small children at every meal.
The typical Kentucky family had two acres planted in sorghum. Most of it was for syrup, part went for cattle fodder, and the seeds fed the chickens. The sheet metal pan for cooking the syrup was similar to New England’s maple sugar pan, but the horse drawn sugar mill originated in the South. Northerners usually preferred to do their “farm squeezing” with wooden screw type presses.
Squeezed sorghum juice exuded from the mill through a burlap strainer and into a barrel. It was then transferred to the cooking pan. As the juice began to boil, it was paddled and cleared of impurities, turning from green to muddy and finally to clear brown. Four gallons of juice produced about one gallon of syrup; as a substitute for store bought sugar, sorghum was an easily grown crop with very little waste.
Unlike today’s sugar with its nutrients refined away, primitive sorghum syrup was not as good to look at, but it at least contained food value. Sorghum joined corn as one of the staffs of early farm life; it even found its way into paints and dyes.
source: Once Upon a Time: The Way America Was, by Eric Sloane, Dover Publications, 2005