Sorghum Syrup Revival
A Texas family is fueling the sorghum syrup revival one bottle at a time
Kids heading off to college often bring a taste of home with them—a shoebox filled with Mom’s chocolate chip cookies, perhaps, or some other nostalgic treat. When Morgan Weber left his family’s farm in the south-central Texas ranching community of Yoakum to attend Baylor University two hundred miles to the north, he packed his suitcase with two flavorful items he couldn’t live without: a bottle of sauce from his favorite barbecue joint and a quart of sorghum syrup from his neighbors, Kenny and Judy Anderle.
“It was the first thing I remember putting on biscuits when I was little,” says Weber, now the co-owner of the Houston--based regional foods emporium Revival Market. “Sorghum syrup is a staple for me. I couldn’t imagine not having some in the fridge.”
Until recently, sorghum was a largely forgotten grain throughout much of the South, left to just a handful of farmers to grow, harvest, and press into foodstuffs. Now demand is growing, thanks to heritage-minded home cooks, local food purveyors, and chefs such as Linton Hopkins and Richard Blais who have rediscovered the virtues of sorghum syrup. Purer than molasses and more Southern than maple syrup, it’s a soulful alternative to honey or agave.
In Texas, the Anderles are among a small group of producers still cooking sorghum syrup—or “molasses,” as they call it—the old-fashioned way. Each year, they set aside a quarter acre of their cattle ranch to grow and harvest willowy stalks of sweet sorghum cane. Like generations of Anderles before them, Kenny and Judy and a crew of family and friends cut the mature cane right around the Fourth of July. They feed the six-foot-long stalks through a press and boil down the celadon-green extract in a kiddie- pool-size pan set over a wood fire. After throwing off copious amounts of foam, the sweet juice eventually reduces to about two dozen gallons of mahogany treacle. This once-common Southern food practice takes a lot of hard work for a modest yield, which helps explain why it has all but disappeared outside of small communities. But thanks to Weber, people beyond Yoakum are now getting a taste of the Anderles’ sweet labor of love.
In early 2011, Weber, a former manager for the Houston transit authority, opened Revival Market in Houston’s Heights neighborhood with chef and business partner Ryan Pera. Their goal for this boutique grocery and café was to focus on local Texas products, such as fresh dairy milk and the heritage-breed pork that Weber was starting to raise on his family’s ranch. As chance would have it, the Anderles had just produced a bumper harvest of sorghum syrup, so Weber offered to sell the surplus in the store and by phone order. The result? An immediate hit.
“It has become a staple in my cooking,” says Revival customer David Leftwich. “The flavor is kind of a cross of brown sugar and honey, but it has this dark richness that’s really unique.” Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner of the Pass and Provisions in Houston uses it in everything from a Manhattan-style bourbon cocktail to a gastrique sauce for wood-roasted foie gras to soft-serve ice cream. “It’s nice finding ingredients that are indigenous to Texas and are really good,” he says.
Southerners have been making sorghum syrup since the 1850s, when the old-world crop was first widely cultivated. By the turn of the century, the country was producing more than twenty million gallons annually. That figure fell dramatically over the next century as glucose syrups made from corn and other starches became readily available. Now Americans make fewer than one million gallons each year.
“It blows my mind how few people in Houston are familiar with it,” Weber says. But word of his sorghum stash is starting to get out. “Some older people who grew up in the South and moved out get really nostalgic for it,” he says. “This one guy who lives in Portland ordered two bottles, then talked to me on the phone for thirty minutes about syrup.” Now Weber is working with the Anderles to help them gradually increase their sorghum harvest with staggered plantings and different cultivars.
Judy Anderle, for her part, can’t contain her amusement that her family’s sticky elixir has become a must-have ingredient for an increasing number of Houston’s top chefs and mixologists. “I didn’t know we had anything like that before,” she says, laughing. “It was just molasses. But I guess Morgan is making history.”