Beaumont family physician finds time for reflection making cane sugar syrup

If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, you may want Dr. Sidney “Sam” Marchand on speed dial.

The Beaumont family physician can prescribe the medicine you need and the sweet goodness to make it go down easy - pure sugar cane syrup.

“The majority of sugar cane mills (in the U.S.) are within 250 miles of here,” said Marchand, who grew up in Donaldsonville, Louisiana — the heart of cane country.

The closest of those mills now sits in his own backyard, spanning 1 acre of his 26-acre property on Pine Island Road just west of Beaumont’s city limits.

Marchand never planned on becoming a cane farmer.

Four years ago, he needed a front-loading tractor to manage the acreage surrounding his family’s new home.

He reached out to a friend in Louisiana who “shipped the tractor with ten cane stalks in the bucket,” Marchand recalled.

He laid them on the ground and covered the stalks with a layer of dirt — the planting method for cane, which sends up shoots of new growth from an earth-bound base stalk.

Soon, the first shoots sprouted, and they just kept growing.

The following autumn, when the tall stalks ripened, Marchand knew what to do.

He cut the cane — mashing it down to emit the sweet juice from the pulpy stalks, then boiled it for hours until the cane juice thickened into a dark brown syrup.

The sweet smell that filled his hometown during harvest and syrup-making season is ingrained in Marchand’s earliest memories.

When he made that first batch, it was like coming home.

“When I light this and I smell that smell, it’s like the cane mills back home,” he said.

His wife Haley’s memory of the inaugural batch isn’t quite so sweet.

“I came home one night, and he had this hand mill and was shoving in stalks one at a time. Juice and debris was flying everywhere,” she remembered. It was covering the kitchen of their brand new home.

“That was the excuse I needed to take it to the next level,” Marchand joked, who moved the process outdoors during next year’s harvest — milling the stalks at a barn through a cast iron mill built in 1920.

Mindful of its age and the cost limitations replacing parts, Marchand fashioned a new motor to function as needed without overtaxing its parts.

It’s worked perfectly as he processes up to 1,200 cane stalks a week to provide 120 gallons of juice, which in turn will yield roughly 15 gallons of syrup.

Those 1,200 stalks are harvested by hand three days a week during the harvest season.

Marchand can cut a couple hundred stalks per hour, or more when he has help from the workers who come once a week during the harvest. Marchand’s learned a lot from them, especially the value of using a machete versus the traditional cane knife to cut, then stripping the leaves before snapping off the tip like an asparagus.

The work is laborious, particularly in Southeast Texas’ early fall heat. And this year’s yield was made more challenging to harvest after being bent by tropical storms. But the solitary moments of repetitive motion provide a moment of reflection.

“I’m not a religious man, but everybody has their reflective side,” Marchand said, his gloved hands stripping cane leaves from a stalk during a recent harvest. “Doing this work kind of puts you in that state of mind.”

Marchand said he tries to process at least 60 gallons of cane juice during each run of his machinery.

He installed a kind-of pipeline leading from the milled juice storage tank at the barn to the poolside outdoor kitchen, which serves the syrup production part of the process.

During the harvest and syrup making season that starts in October and runs nearly to Christmas, the space is filled with large tanks and special hoses to withstand the highly-heated liquid as it moves from initial heating to filtration to syrup vats to storage kegs.

Taking it to the next level also meant Marchand needed to perfect the final product.

“That first batch was awful,” he recalled.

But he’s since figured it out — learning the hard way that “you have to get every bit of that green out, or it’ll taste real bitter.”

Marchand watched renowned syrup makers’ YouTube tutorials, studied the intricacies of boiling points and the ideal sugar percentage - 75%, or what is known in the industry as 75 brix.

It was three years before he made a syrup he was proud of.

Unlike most cane syrup makers, Marchand filters the cane juice multiple times before reducing it to syrup.

On a recent Sunday, Marchand, his father Sid and uncle John pulled out “several gallons of scum” — chlorophyll and plant material — during just the first boil phase. Heating the substance is necessary because some impurities only become solids at high temperatures.

It’s a lesson he learned by doing, just as the first syrup makers did.

“This is a process that’s been going on at least two thousand years,” he said.

Skimming continues as the juice heats to a rolling boil, which sends up constant layers of scum. Sid and John tend the vat tirelessly, dipping large mesh filters into the surface while remaining mindful of the large vat’s burning hot surface.

Once the initial vat appears clear, Marchand attaches a hose, which funnels the juice through a frame of thick fiber filters — it’s on to the next step in the process.

“This is a prototype,” Marchand said, hefting the wooden filtration tool into position.

It’s built off a grid structure that he designed after noting filtration was key to producing the best syrup.

“McGyver’ing” his way to a solution isn’t new to Marchand.

“Since he was a child, he’d make all kinds of things,” his father Sid said, recalling the elaborate stereo systems Marchand would create. “He was a physics major in college, but he always liked to tinker.”

It wasn’t surprising that his son would create innovative means to make his home syrup business work.

“There are some people who say I tend to take things too far,” Marchand said, his wife Haley interjecting, “It’s not a hobby, it’s an obsession.”

“But that’s the best way to be successful,” Marchand countered. “If you go all out, it just works out better.”

After the cone-filtered juice is pumped into a head tank, it is ready to move into the final stage — the evaporator tanks.

As the filtered juice bubbles, making its way to a 225 degree boiling point - 6 degrees above that required for maple syrup and Marchand’s personal standard - any remaining scum rising to the surface is skimmed.

As Marchand, his father and uncle await the transformation, daughter Tyler arrives with a basket full of eggs and biscuits — fortification for the hours of work remaining.

John pours syrup from a past harvest onto his biscuit, lapping up the reason why they are spending hours working since before dawn on a Sunday.

When the still-processing liquid hits its sustained heating point and has converted to syrup, Marchand hooks a final hose to the out valve, which drains the syrup into a sterilized keg.

That will sit for nearly a month - allowing any caramel that may have developed amid the boiling to settle. From there, the syrup is again reheated to at least 180 degrees in a small kitchen-top unit. It’s the state’s minimum temperature requirement to sell the product.

Marchand monitors its temperature before hand bottling and cork sealing his syrup.

Once cooled, the 12.5 and 25 ounce bottles are labeled. The design features a bucolic country scene painted by Marchand’s father.

The bottles will be ready to take to the next Beaumont Farmer’s Market or to fill a custom order recently placed for 75 bottles of syrup to be given as Christmas presents.

For the past three years, Marchand has spent two months annually harvesting, milling and making his own pure sugar cane syrup.

He’s added new strains of sugar cane to his field, which were planted this past August, to test for differences in quality and taste from the base strain that dominates his crop. That initial crop will expire soon, as cane has a three- to four-year rotation cap. Their baby stalks line rows alongside the towering cane that dominate the main crop.

While he enjoys the work, the Dr. Sam’s Cane Syrup business hardly turns a profit.

Milling and syrup making is at least 12 hours, preceded by a minimum 40 hours of harvest per week. And that’s not even counting the bottling, which Marchand says he can do with family or while the TV is on.

“When I’m done, I’m toast - mentally, physically. So you have to understand your limits, and you don’t want to make mistakes,” Marchand said, adding, “It’s like fishing — It’s a total waste of money if you’re doing it for food…but it sure is fun.”

kbrent@whlhjz.com