Molasses is a thick, viscous byproduct from the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into refined sugar. The English term, molasses, comes from the Portuguese word, melaço, which in turn is derived from the Latin word, mel, for honey. In the United Kingdom, molasses is often referred to as “black treacle.” Molasses contains notable proportions of fructose and glucose, and usually contains about half as much sucrose as refined sugar.

Until the 1880s, molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States, partly because it was much cheaper than refined sugar. It has a powerful and distinctive flavor and is often used in baking recipes such as gingerbread, fruitcake, cookies, toffee, baked beans, and more. Although molasses was once cheap, it no longer is, and now often costs twice as much as refined sugar.

Molasses originally arrived in the American Colonies when it was imported from the West Indies to make rum. High taxes were levied on molasses by the British via the Molasses Act of 1733. However, the duties were widely ignored by the American Colonists, allowing it to become the ubiquitous sweetener of the era.

Due to documented shortages in raw materials for brewing in the mid-1650s, molasses was also extensively used in Colonial beers. As a result, English authorities enacted beer purity laws in an attempt to limit the use of molasses in brewing. But, due to legal loopholes, molasses was still widely used as a brewing ingredient in the American Colonies through the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the most famous molasses beer recipe is the one that George Washington entered into his notebook in 1754. It is now preserved in the Precious Book Department of the New York Public Library. In a recipe titled “To Make Small Beer,” the man who was to become the first President of the United States explained (with spelling and punctuation of the original left intact):Take a large siffer full of bran hops to your taste—boil these 3 hours. Then strain our 30 gall[o]n into a cooler put in 3 gall[o]n molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot, let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of ye[a]st if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blank[et] let it work in the cask—Leave the bung open till it is almost done working—Bottle it that day week it was brewed.

Molasses is a key ingredient in the modern recipe formulation of Poor Richard’s Ale, a beer recipe developed by Tony Simmons, founder of Pagosa Brewing Company, for the (American) Brewers Association. See brewers association. Over 100 commercial breweries in the United States and thousands of home brewers across the globe brewed Poor Richard’s Ale in celebration in 2006 on the occasion of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary.