The sugar beet harvest: from the field to the factory

Nov 28 2019

With the sugar beet harvest in full swing, we have taken the opportunity to explain the process – putting words alongside pictures of a recent sourcing trip – so that you can see the journey that sugar beet goes through before we source it as refined sugar.

From the field

In the UK, the sugar beet harvest gets underway in October every year. It takes approximately seven months from planting to harvest beet, and lots of work goes into those seven months for the grower. However, for this blog, we will avoid discussing the preparatory work that beet farmers undertake and concentrate solely on the operation from the field to the factory.

We manufacture our range of pure sugar products from both sugar beet and sugar cane. Therefore, we need to regularly visit our suppliers to ensure that the sugar we source meets our strict quality standards. Honest and transparent relationships are the cornerstone of our sourcing arrangements, and there is no better time to visit than during the beet and cane harvest.

Concentrating on sugar beet, to ensure that the beet is ready to be harvested, a random sample is taken from the ground and checked for its sucrose content. This confirms that the crop is ready for gathering and will not be harvested prematurely. Once this test is complete, the combine harvester is prepared and taken out onto the fields.
The ingenuity of a sugar beet combine harvester is that it undertakes three crucial jobs simultaneously: as it cuts the top of the beet that contains the leaves, it collects the ripe beet and also prepares the field for next year’s crop.

As the harvest is carried out across acres and acres of farmland, the combine harvester can reach capacity quickly, often miles away from the central factory. Fortunately, it has a conveyor belt installed which transports the beet from the combine into a separate trailer, pulled by a tractor. This tractor then transports the beet to the farm, and tips the beets into conical piles, before being loaded onto a lorry for delivery to the factory.

The lorry unloads its cargo at the factory before returning to the farm to pick up a new load.

To the factory

From the conical pile, the beets are gradually moved onto the factory conveyor belt, where they are thoroughly cleaned and separated from any unwanted material, such as stones and soil, which are returned to the land.

Then the extraction process can begin, with the first step being the slicing of beet into thin strips, increasing the surface area from which sugar can be extracted.

The strips then enter a diffuser where the beet is kept in contact with hot water for approximately one hour. Sugar is subsequently extracted through an agitating process, whereby the sliced beet moves from one end of the tank while the water moves in the opposite direction. The longer this process goes on, the stronger the solution it creates, and what remains is referred to as juice, illustrated in the cylinder below.

After diffusion, the wet, processed beet is pressed to squeeze out any additional juice. This is an important step as it maximises the raw sugar that can be extracted from the beet. The remaining dry pulp is compressed into pellets for animal feed.

Lime and carbon dioxide are added, and insoluble non-sugar materials are settled out and then filtered before the liquor is evaporated in a multi-stage evaporator.

The multi-stage evaporator vaporizes the natural water and produces a thick syrup juice. The boiling of this syrup under vacuum, removes more water, and syrup juice is seeded with sugar crystals which grow to create a super-saturated massecuite syrup. During this process molasses develops. At this stage, the crystals need to be separated from the syrup and it is therefore placed in a centrifuge for two minutes to separate the crystals from the adhering film of molasses.

After the crystals have been separated via centrifuging, they are placed in the horizontal drum rotating drier, depicted below, where they are dried and then sieved, metal detected and packed, ready to be shipped to our state-of-the-art factory near west London. From here, we can manufacture sugar into other crystallines, syrups and custom formulations, and the sugar beet journey, from field to factory, is complete.

Ragus’ ethical sourcing assessments ensure that our sugar is of the highest quality. View our product finder to explore our extensive range of products.

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How is sugar used over the holiday season?

Nov 21 2019

From Thanksgiving pecan pie to Hanukkah doughnuts, the winter is a period full of festivity and sweet treats. For this week’s blog, we’ve looked at how sugar is used in just a few of the season’s celebrations.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is known for being celebrated across the United States of America (USA) and Canada, and often best represented by the image of a dining table full of food.

Sweet potato casserole is made using soft brown light sugar to emphasise the flavours of the potato, rather than overpower them. If that wasn’t sweet enough, the casserole is then covered with marshmallow, made with white sugar, and baked to ensure a crispy, toasted top. Pecan pie uses soft brown light sugar and golden syrup to give a sticky, sweet consistency that holds together when cut into slices for guests.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival, celebrated to commemorate the victory and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after a battle against a formidable enemy.

One of the most popular Hanukkah foods is doughnuts, known as sufganiyot. They are made using white sugar which ensures their light and fluffy texture by feeding the yeast in the dough. Their crisp outer layer is enhanced by a layer of white sugar and they are often filled with jams, made from coarse, white sugar, ensuring they are a deliciously sweet treat.

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice marks the day with the shortest period of sunlight and the longest night. It has long been a significant day for many cultures, marking the end of the lengthening nights and the beginning of the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.

A contemporary alternative to this fire is the edible, chocolate Yule log, which is a long, rolled, chocolate cake decorated to have a wooden texture. Its recipe uses light cane muscovado sugar which adds colour and flavour, with the fine texture ensuring the sponge has volume but is still able to be rolled.

Pancha Ganapati

This Hindu Family Festival of Giving spreads joy and harmony across family, friends, associates, culture and religion, taking place over 5 days and used to make amends and forgive. Each day a tray of sweet is prepared and offered to Lord Ganapati, Lord of culture and new beginnings. These sweets are also eaten at gatherings, outings and feasts that take place across the five days.

One of the traditional Indian sweets that is prepared and eaten at this time, and many others, is Gulab Jamun. This is made by frying small balls of khoya and flour and then serving them soaking in liquid sugar, which is often flavoured with saffron.

Christmas

A Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, this tradition has been adopted by much of the world as a time for family, gifts and food.

Warm, homemade drinks are popular at Christmas, with golden granulated sugar used to subtly sweeten egg nog, and dark soft brown sugar used to bring out the spices in mulled wine. It wouldn’t be Christmas without the traditional pudding, which provides a fiery spectacle, as well as a filling dessert. Christmas pudding is filled with fresh and dried fruit, all brought together and sweetened by dark cane muscovado sugar, with the well-known stickiness coming from black treacle.

Japanese New Year

New Year is regarded as one of the most important, if not the most important, holiday in Japan. Businesses shut and families come together for several days, decorating and cleaning in preparation. A traditional drink at this time of year is Amazake, served hot or cold and often referred to as ‘winter sake’.

When made with sake lees, known as sakekasu Amazake, the drink is less sweet and requires sweetening with white sugar. Another favourite at this time of year is a Japanese rice cake called mochi, a savoury snack or sweetened with fillings made with white sugar.

If you’ve been inspired by the wide range of festive foods that our sugars and syrups feature in, visit our product finder to choose your sustainably, ethically sourced ingredients.

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The sugar beet harvest so far

Nov 14 2019

The sugar beet harvest is underway across the world, and variant weather conditions have already made a significant impact on beet results.

 UK

Although many people believe we import all our sugar from sugar cane abroad, with over 3000 sugar beet growers supporting up to 9500 jobs, the sugar beet sector is certainly an integral part of the agricultural economy.

Mainly grown in the East of England, it is usually used in rotation with other crops such as wheat, barley and oilseed rape. It is used in rotation to help offset the loss of the agrochemical neonicotinoids, but growers have recently suffered a further setback going into 2020, as the herbicide desmedipham has also been withdrawn by the EU commission.

The good news for British farmers is that the early signs of the harvest appear promising, with initial lifting producing high yields. This has lead to predictions of a harvest greater than 2018.

Europe

The latest reports from the continent, however, are mixed. As of last Tuesday, the French agricultural ministry, Agreste, has raised its forecast for the country’s 2019/20 sugar beet crop to 37,161,941 tonnes. The latest reports from the German Sugar Association, though, have indicated a cut in its estimate of white sugar production in the 2019/20 campaign, as new data has highlighted that less beet was planted than first thought. The loss of neonicotinoids is considered to be the chief explanation for the lack of planting earlier in the year.

Across eastern Europe, the beet harvest has been underway for some time, and it is now refining season. The latest reports suggest that Ukrainian sugar factories have now processed 7.11 million tonnes of sugar beet into 1,054,400 tonnes of sugar. Ukraine has just under 50 sugar refineries, whereas in the UK, our total number of refineries is in single figures. Thus, the beet production in Ukraine is certainly positive news for the Ukrainian economy but needs to be considered in relation to the size of the industry.

 

North America

Severe weather has decimated the North American sugar beet harvest. It has been stymied by wet weather throughout the planting phase, as the fields have been too muddy for production equipment to pass through, with this further compounded by recent frozen weather. Last week, in Alberta, Canada, Rogers Sugar Inc announced that the severe weather had been so extreme that a decision was made to terminate the year’s beet harvest.

Red River Valley, which forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota and is the chief beet growing region in the United States, has seen similar problems. This is the first time farmers in the valley have had to quit harvesting beet because of freezing temperatures. Such are the problems caused by the weather, American Crystal Sugar Company announced they would accept frozen beets for a lower price to help meet demand.

The effects on expected harvest have been drastic, with US sugar beet production now expected to total 4.588 million short tonnes, raw value (STRV) during the crop 2019/20 – a significant reduction of 466,000 STRV from last year. The beet harvest is one of the foundations of the economy in the northern states of America, and the effects of the weather on this year’s crop could have significant impacts in the future. Many farmers in the region are planning for the 2020 planting season by cutting off the tops so they can rot in the field, with hopes to plant a different crop and put 2019 behind them.

Beet as a raw material at Ragus

The beet harvest is particularly important to Ragus, as we produce sugar from both cane and beet, making sure we meticulously assess all our suppliers to deliver the best quality products.

It takes approximately seven months from planting to harvest beet, and a more detailed analysis of this process can be found in our learning zone, here. Unlike with cane it is easy to tell early in the beet harvest whether the yield will be successful or not.

So, when sourcing sugar beet, it is vital that we are in tune with the market and current trends. That’s how we form and develop relationships when sourcing beet from our partners in the European continent.

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Granular detail: soft brown sugar

Nov 07 2019

What is soft brown sugar?

Soft brown sugar is granulated sugar that is blended with syrup and treacle to create its brown colour. This means that it can be produced from either sugar beet or sugar cane.

During manufacturing, all our soft sugars must go through sieving and metal detection first before we send the sugar to the blender. Once it has completed this initial stage, the sugar is mixed with our distinctive syrup and treacle blend to coat the crystals.

At Ragus, we manufacture two soft brown sugars: soft brown light sugar and dark soft brown sugar. Their process is identical up until the coating stage, but this distinction results in different colours and flavours and means they are used for different applications.

How is soft brown sugar produced?

Once the sugar has been refined, soft brown sugar is produced with a finer caster-size crystal. This consistent particle size gives soft brown sugar its fine texture. We coat the caster-sized crystal with our custom blends of syrup and treacle to install the flavour of molasses.

The lighter blend of syrup and treacle produces soft brown light sugar, which has an amber colour and mellow taste. Whereas the increased blend of syrup and treacle produces dark brown soft sugar, which is a dark-brown colour and has a stronger and richer taste.

What products is soft brown sugar used in?

Soft brown light sugar is still largely used as a bakery ingredient to add depth to cakes, biscuits and pastries. As well as providing flavour, its high molasses content adds moisture to cakes which makes it ideal for baking, and partly explains why this sugar has such a long history in the baking industry. Furthermore, its fine particle sizes allow it to rapidly dissolve, which consequently lends itself for use in the manufacturing of toffee, fudge and caramel, as well as usage in dressings, sauces and marinades.

The biggest difference between these two types of soft brown sugar is flavour, and the rich taste of dark brown soft sugar means that it is well suited to use in fruitcakes, puddings, gingerbreads, pickles and chutneys. One such application is through our treacle flapjack recipe, which you can find here: http://www.ragus.co.uk/recipes/treacle-flapjacks/

Ragus’ expertise

The diverse range of companies that we provide soft brown sugar to is ever-changing due to new trends and different consumer needs. This means that our customers rely on our manufacturing expertise to ensure that their product is consistent in size, colour, texture and taste. And our state-of-the-art factory and strict quality control procedures allows us to do just that on an industrial scale.

90 years’ experience in the sugar industry means Ragus has a wealth of knowledge on the soft brown sugar you need for your application. Contact us now to order yours.

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