How Beet Sugar is Made – the Basic Story

How Beet Sugar is Made – the Basic Story

White beet sugar is made from the beets in a single process, rather than the two steps involved with cane sugar.

Harvesting The beets are harvested in the autumn and early winter by digging them out of the ground. They are usually transported to the factory by large trucks because the transport distances involved are greater than in the cane industry. This is a direct result of sugar beet being a rotational crop which requires nearly 4 times the land area of the equivalent cane crop which is grown in mono-culture. Because the beets have come from the ground they are much dirtier than sugar cane and have to be thoroughly washed and separated from any remaining beet leaves, stones and other trash material before processing.
Extraction The processing starts by slicing the beets into thin chips. This process increases the surface area of the beet to make it easier to extract the sugar. The extraction takes place in a diffuser where the beet is kept in contact with hot water for about an hour. Diffusion is the process by which the colour and flavour of tea comes out of the tea leaves in a teapot but a typical diffuser weighs several hundred tons when full of beet and extraction water. The diffuser is a large horizontal or vertical agitated tank in which the beets slices slowly work their way from one end to the other and the water is moved in the opposite direction. This is called counter-current flow and as the water goes it becomes a stronger and stronger sugar solution usually called juice. Of course it also collects a lot of other chemicals from the flesh of the sugar beet.
 
Pressing The exhausted beet slices from the diffuser are still very wet and the water in them still holds some useful sugar. They are therefore pressed in screw presses to squeeze as much juice as possible out of them. This juice is used as part of the water in the diffuser and the pressed beet, by now a pulp, is sent to drying plant where it is turned into pellets which form an important constituent of some animal feeds.
 
Carbonatation The juice must now be cleaned up before it can be used for sugar production. This is done by a process known as carbonatation where small clumps of chalk are grown in the juice. The clumps, as they form, collect a lot of the non-sugars so that by filtering out the chalk one also takes out the non-sugars. Once this is done the sugar liquor is ready for sugar production except that it is very dilute.
The next stage of the process is therefore to evaporate the juice in a multi-stage evaporator. This technique is used because it is an efficient way of using steam and it also creates another, lower grade steam which can be used to drive the crystallisation process.
 
Boiling For this last stage, the syrup is placed into a very large pan, typically holding 60 tons or more of sugar syrup. In the pan even more water is boiled off until conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. You may have done something like this at school but probably not with sugar because it is difficult to get the crystals to grow well. In the factory the workers usually have to add some sugar dust to initiate crystal formation. Once the crystals have grown the resulting mixture of crystals and mother liquor is spun in centrifuges to separate the two, rather like washing is spin dried. The crystals are then given a final dry with hot air before being packed and/or stored ready for despatch.
 
Product The final sugar is white and ready for use, whether in the kitchen or by an industrial user such as a soft drink manufacturer. As for raw sugar production, because one cannot get all the sugar out of the juice, there is a sweet by-product made: beet molasses. This is usually turned into a cattle food or is sent to a fermentation plant such as a distillery where alcohol is made. It does not have the same quality smell and taste as cane molasses so cannot be used for rum production.
Power One of the big differences between a beet sugar factory and its cane sugar counterpart is with respect to energy. Both factories need steam and electricity to run and both have co-generation stations where high pressure steam is used to drive turbines which produce the electrical power and create the low pressure steam needed by the process. However the beet factory does not have a suitable by-product to use as fuel for the boilers, it has to burn a fossil fuel such as coal, oil or gas. This is partly because the pulp will not burn properly and partly because the animal feed business has been built from the availability of the pulp.Fine that’s how they do it commercially but How can I make my own Beet Sugar!?

How to Make Sugar From Sugar Beets

Home made sugar from sugar beets is not the same product as commercial sugar. Commercial sugar is chemically treated and spun in vast, powerful machines to make the white grains we’re used to. You may like your own home made sugar better or you may not like it at all.

First, plant a sugar beet. I’m not kidding. If you want to make your own sugar, you will probably have to grow your own sugar beets. You can’t just go to a grocery store or even a farmer’s market and buy a few sugar beets. They are either grown commercially or in someone’s backyard as a novelty with hardly anyone growing them for any other purpose – why should they? Sugar is still less than a dollar a pound and a lot easier to buy than to make.

But if you’re one of those people who like to see how things work and want to make your own to taste or see or experience the process, you will need to grow your own sugar beets.

Sugar beets grow like other beets and the greens are edible just like other beets. The beets themselves grow much larger, though, and much, much harder. Chopping them is the hardest part of making sugar, so you’ve been warned. A sturdy food processor will help.

But back to growing beets. Plant the seeds in good soil in mid to late spring and keep them moist until they sprout. They prefer cool weather to get started but can handle hot weather as long as they have enough water. Don’t overwater them, though.

They will sprout and grow like other beets, as I’ve said. Harvest a few leaves from them for the table, either raw or cooked like spinach, but don’t take too many from any one plant.

Wait until a frost, and ideally, two or three frosts, to dig the large, very firm, white beets. This is when the sugar goes to the roots (beets) and this is what you’re after. Scrub them very thoroughly, as it’s not practical to pare them. Cut them into pieces, the smaller the better. You may need some help. Use whatever clean tool feels right to you. I have used a meat cleaver, a hacksaw and one time, a small hatchet.

When you have the beets cut or hacked into small pieces, put them in a pot with just enough water to cover by an inch or so. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. And simmer. And simmer. After quite some time, the beets will soften. Simmer another hour or so after they seem “done,”, then lift the beets from the liquid. The liquid is sugar water and that’s what you’re after, so drain the beets over the water to get every last drop. Put the beet pulp on the compost pile or feed it to the chickens or pigs.

Continue to gently cook the sugar water down until it tastes very sweet, then remove from the fire and let it cool for a half hour or so, then pour it into a shallow container. It will thicken as it cools, but will probably not harden. That’s okay. Let it set, uncovered, until you can see crystals around the edges and/or the center has cooled and hardened completely. This could take several hours. If it doesnt harden, put it back on the heat and cook a little more. Be careful not to scorch it.

When it’s cooled again and hardened, break off pieces and put them in a cloth bag and break it up into small pieces with a hammer or use a strong blender to break it up. You won’t get perfect little white crystals. You’ll get brownish and sometimes pinkish chunks that will dissolve in hot liquid like coffee or tea.

Homemade sugar is that simple.

To Summerize the cooking process:

1) Slice the sugar beets into cubes or large thin slices
2) Boil the beets in the water until the water looks the consistency of tea
3) Strain the beet chunks out of the water
4) Boil the beet tea-like water until the consistency of honey
5) Remove from heat and let cool
6) The sugar will crystallize on the bottom of the pan
7) Poor off the water to allow the crystals to dry
8) Break up the sugar crystals and store or use them
9) The syrup can also be used directly instead of waiting for the sugar to crystallize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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