Ben Eastick Written by Ben Eastick

How black treacle became a household staple

Black treacle is a household staple in the UK, known for its dark colour, viscous texture and instantly recognisable bittersweet flavour. But how did this pure sugar product become such an iconic ingredient? We explore below.      

Treacle definition

For clarity, it is probably best that we start by defining what treacle is.

Treacle is a dark, viscous and fairly bitter syrup that can be produced at varying strengths as a result of the cane sugar refining process, where it is a by-product of the crystallisation of raw juice. It is similar to molasses but, as it is removed from the boiling process earlier, it is sweeter.

To find out more information about the differences between treacle and molasses, visit this previous Ragus blog.

Treacle and popular culture, 1600s-1800s

Just like molasses, treacle has been traded into the UK market since the 1600s, though perhaps not always labelled as such.

However, it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that it truly started to take hold in British life. That is because sugar had become Britain’s most valuable import by this time, resulting in the growth of the market and domestic sugar refineries. Indeed, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there were over 300 sugar refineries in the UK alone.

Black and white drawing of Martineaus sugar refinery in London

Martineaus was one of nineteenth century London’s iconic sugar refineries.  

As a result, it is unsurprising that treacle was also well-established in British life by this point – and testament to this are countless references to it in contemporary popular culture. Referring to England’s ‘treacle mines’ was a common joke throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, for example. Such was the demand of treacle that some rather gullible recipients of the joke were led to believe that it could be mined.

Of course, there were other popular references to treacle during this period too. Treacle featured in much of Mrs Beeton’s work, for example, as well as in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, with the dormouse explaining to Alice that three sisters lived off the output of a ‘treacle-well’.

Treacle, therefore, has long been a celebrated British ingredient. But black treacle had not yet been invented at this point.

Refiner’s syrup invented, late nineteenth century

The next development in the history of black treacle was the creation of refiner’s syrup, having been first formulated in the late nineteenth century, around the same time as golden syrup.

Of course, refiner’s syrup is much like golden syrup. While it has a deeper flavour, it is also a partially inverted sugar syrup that is produced via a similar process, and therefore has identical structural properties to golden syrup.

And why is this milestone important to black treacle’s story? All will become clear soon.

Sugar refineries on the decline, early twentieth century

Fast forward to the first half of the twentieth century and treacle is as popular as ever, but the number of sugar refineries in the UK was falling.

Treacle’s popularity stemmed from many factors, but it is worth noting that treacle was – and still is in some regions – marketed as a health supplement to be taken daily due to it being nutrient-rich, with these nutrients including iron, calcium and potassium. In fact, in this recent Ragus blog we highlighted the prominence of the Merton Grove Refinery in Bootle, and on top of the factory reads a large sign with the strapline: “Treacle for heath”.

You can see the strapline in this newspaper article from 1963 – showing the sign still erect many years later.

However, consumers would soon be without sugar, syrup and treacle for long periods. The impact of the First World War meant supply into the UK was greatly reduced and sugar was therefore rationed. As a result, the market shrank, and many domestic refineries closed.

Following the war, the popularity of treacle endured, but the UK sugar industry sadly did not see much in the way of recovery compared to the heights of the previous century. To survive, some companies consolidated via way of mergers and acquisitions, whereas others, such as Ragus, proved resilient by focusing on innovating with specialist sugars for industry. You can learn more about our heritage by watching the below video.

Then, of course, the Second World War arrived, and sugar products were once again rationed until more stable times arrived.

Post-war to present: a new icon with wider commercial appeal

Fortunately, with the end of fighting came the start of a new era, and it was then that the market for black treacle appeared. How did black treacle differ from treacle? Well, it is at this point in the story that we need to refer back to the invention of refiner’s syrup.

Following the war, refiner’s syrup started to be blended with treacle at scale to produce ‘black treacle’, a sugar product with wider commercial appeal. This is because the refiner’s syrup acts as a means of sweetening, lightening and counteracting the slightly bitter taste of treacle so that black treacle has a bittersweet flavour. Black treacle still tastes strong, but the refiner’s syrup in it balances it and gives it a smooth and more rounded flavour.

So, during the post-war boom, black treacle quickly became an integral ingredient in liquorice sweets, treacle toffee and other industrial applications and, of course, it rose to greater fame as a commercial hit with consumers due to its instantly recognisable bittersweet flavour.

Side-by-side shot of liquorice sweets on the left and treacle toffee on the right

Left: liquorice. Right: treacle toffee. 

And this flavour is what makes it such a popular ingredient today – especially in this period leading up to Christmas where rich-tasting products come into greater vogue. Today, it remains a key ingredient in wintertime bakery products such as parkin, treacle scones and Veda bread – as well as taking on greater prominence in the modern sauces markets where it is often used as a glaze and marinade for roasting meats, for example.

Side-by-side shot of veda bread on left and meat marinade on the right.

Left: Veda bread. Right: marinade. 

Is black treacle better than treacle or refiner’s syrup?

Black treacle is undoubtedly a more popular ingredient for household use. Its bittersweet flavour enables it to gain greater commercial appeal, which is why it lines supermarket shelves and has a place in kitchen cupboards up and down the country.

But that does not mean it is a better pure sugar product.

As ever in the sugar industry, the suitability of a product depends entirely on the application. Treacle and in particular refiner’s syrup are less likely to be available to purchase from shops, but they are still widely used today – it is just that they are more often used in industrial manufacture. Indeed, treacle and refiner’s syrup are the ingredients that make end products look, feel and taste the way they do, but they are not the household staple that black treacle is.

Ragus manufactures pure sugars for industry. To find out whether our black treacle is the right pure sugar product for your application, contact a member of our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 215424 or enquiries@ragus.co.uk. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.