Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

a white dish full of dark molasses with a wooden spoon

A few months ago, I tried out a new recipe that called for molasses. Growing up, a jar of this thick, dark brown syrup with the yellow label was always resident in the pantries of family members. My uncle preferred it on his pancakes. I have no idea what my dad and grandmother used it for.

Securing a bottle of molasses for my recipe experiment, I turned it around to read the ingredients list. To my surprise, there was only one word: molasses. That got me wondering what exactly molasses is, and I went down a rabbit hole of research and discovery.

In short, molasses is a byproduct created – to the tune of 55 million tons per year globally – in the refinement of sugar beets and sugar cane into those sweet crystals we love to eat. Molasses is the reason brown sugar is brown and moist. As a catalyst in history and products of the future, however, there is so much more to the story.

Molasses from the English sugar plantations on Caribbean islands was an important ingredient in many food and beverage items of colonial Americans. These include Boston baked beans, shoo-fly pie, and small beer, a low-alcohol beverage that was safer to drink than water and provided some nutrition benefits.

When the English sugar colonies started using up all the molasses to make rum in the early 1700s, the mainland colonists began trading with the Dutch and French Caribbean sugar colonies, who were making rum. The molasses trade grew, with the foreign colonies providing markets for lumber, livestock, and manufactured goods produced on the mainland.

Fearing that mainland colonials would begin distilling rum themselves, the English Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1733. This act imposed a heavy duty on every gallon of foreign molasses. To the mainland colonists, the Molasses Act meant that the king was playing favorites, shoring up the failing English sugar island colonies at the expense of the continental colonies.

The Molasses Act was almost entirely ignored. In 1764, however, as England tried to raise revenue to recover the expense of the French and Indian War, it was revised into the Sugar Act. Although the new act halved the duty on molasses, it imposed taxes on many other important colonial goods and stimulated the beginning protests of taxation without representation from the American colonists. The taxes and trade restrictions kept coming. With the Tea Act in 1773, the colonists staged an act of protest, dumping 92,000 pounds of British East India Company tea into the Boston Harbor, staining the waters brown.

Nearly 150 years later, Boston Harbor was again stained brown. In 1919, a giant steel holding tank in Boston’s North End failed catastrophically, rapidly discharging over 2 million gallons of industrial-grade molasses. Starting as a 15-foot high wave, it moved at 35 miles per hour down the street, sweeping over people and horses and crumpling some buildings while ripping others off their foundations. Some of the molasses reached the harbor before cooling temperatures slowed and thickened the mass. The rest was washed into the harbor during the rescue and recovery efforts of the next several days.

Modern sugar refining processes have improved since colonial days, drastically reducing the volume of molasses by-product, as well as the sugar content. This type of molasses is only suitable for industrial use. Microbial conversion processes have converted molasses into biofuels, organic acids, and other products. Current work is focused on synthesizing biodegradable plastics from molasses.

Wouldn’t that be sweet?

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