Sweet Sorghum–From Stalk to Syrup

SorghumSyrupSorghum syrup — most widely known for being poured over hot biscuits circa the mid-twentieth century — is undergoing a resurgence. As chefs, product developers and home cooks have taken a keen interest in the nostalgic product, many are taking a closer look at how it gets from stalk to syrup.

Matt Heckemeyer, a farmer from Sikeston, Missouri, eats, breathes and lives sweet sorghum. While his family farm has grown sweet sorghum as silage for cattle feed over a number of years, he has spent the last five years perfecting their production methods for food consumption.

Sorghum syrup, made by essentially evaporating the water from extracted juice from sweet sorghum stalks, is nothing new to the United States.

“We have been handling sweet sorghum and boiling it down as a sugar for more than 200 years,” Heckemeyer said. “It was a standard sugar back before World War II. It has been a novelty for the last 50 years, and now, it’s coming back.”

Among a number of reasons, Heckemeyer began growing sweet sorghum because of its tough nature. Sweet sorghum is comparable to grain sorghum in the fact that it can grow in the same droughty, more harsh climates while yielding well. Unlike sugarcane, sweet sorghum has the ability to grow outside tropical climates, providing Heckemeyer another means of increasing his profitability by contributing a unique product for a growing marketplace.

From the time sweet sorghum is harvested from the field to when it becomes a tasty syrup, Heckemeyer said it is a fast and complex process. Due to this complexity, his years of research and experimentation have helped him refine the process and equipment down to a fine art.

“On our farm, sweet sorghum becomes syrup between 12 to 20 hours after harvest,” he said. “We handle it quickly because otherwise it will ferment.”

Harvest is timed critically around sugar composition, also known as brix, which are optimal around the soft dough stage of growth. Sweet sorghum is generally harvested either by a cane harvester or by hand. Once harvested, the stalks are ran through a roller mill, resulting in the extracted juice as well as a co-product known as bagasse.

The juice is then filtered and placed into a settling tank where specific retention times are required to remove impurities before being transferred to an evaporator. Upon removal of excess water, sugars are then concentrated into sorghum syrup.

For Heckemeyer, his typical 200 acres of sweet sorghum will yield approximately 200 gallons of syrup per acre in average growing conditions, upwards of 300 and beyond in a good year. Looking to achieve an industrial level, Heckemeyer said he has the capacity to bottle or sell by truck load, giving him the option to service a number of markets.

While he is striving for large-scale production, flavor and quality are not compromised. Heckemeyer said he eats sorghum syrup every day and enjoys its unique taste.

“Sorghum syrup’s flavor is not harsh, it’s not smooth - it has an aroma and taste that is more earthy,” he said. “ I’m addicted to it.”

Due to sorghum syrup’s one-of-a-kind essence, it’s gaining interest. Heckemeyer said he has had contact from soy sauce producers, cookie manufacturers, those interested in its use as a table syrup, and many others. However, due to the immense fermentability of sorghum syrup, the most popular request is from craft distilleries for use in premium spirits. Heckemeyer said he is also investigating sweet sorghum’s use in green chemicals.

Inclusion of sorghum syrup expands common boundaries and is also a great addition to barbecue marinades, salad dressings, granolas and so much more. Plus sorghum syrup is lower in fructose levels than other sweeteners and is high in potassium. Heckemeyer said sorghum syrup is a wonderful sugar that can provide for a variety of needs.

“Sorghum syrup speaks for itself,” Heckemeyer said. “It is a very distinct sugar, and it isn’t something that can be copied. In the food world, the sky is the limit.”