Sugar from Beets

A big technological advance in sugar making came along in 1747, when German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf discovered a method for extracting sucrose from beets. That was a good thing for several reasons, chief among them that beets grow in a temperate climate, so sugar could be made close to home. Also, the sugar in beets doesn’t ferment as quickly as sugar in cane, so harvested beets can be stored for long periods before processing. Even so it took a while for his innovation to catch on. A big reason, because agronomists needed to breed beets with enough sucrose in them to make the process economically viable. That finally happened around 1800.

And that was just in time, at least from Napoleon’s point of view. In 1807 the British, as part of their war with France, began a blockade. Sugar from the Caribbean could no longer get in. Here I should say that by this time sugar had become a lot more than a good-tasting luxury in Europe. It was an important food preservative, and Napoleon needed preserved food to feed the armies that were waging his continuing revolution. So, he turned to the sugar beet. He expropriated a million francs to spur development of the technology and in 1812 the first French beet sugar factory opened.

Napoleon’s glory days were behind him by that point, unfortunately for him. The disastrous Russian campaign happened that year, and things only went down hill from there. The French beet sugar industry, however, went on. In fact by 1837 the French were the world’s largest producer of sugar beets, a title they held up until 2010 when the U.S. edged them out.

Which raises a question: when did farmers in the U.S. start growing sugar beets? Not until 1890 if you can believe it. However these days they’re grown in 11 states, from California up through the Great Plains and the upper Midwest. And while a lot of people say they don’t like beet sugar compared to cane sugar (I can’t tell the difference myself), the beet has propelled the U.S. into the number six spot of world sugar producers behind Brazil (cane), India (cane), China (cane and some beet), Mexico (cane) and the EU (beet).

But don’t let the increasing production of beet sugar get you down, cane lovers, sugar cane is still the world’s number one planted crop and is likely to remain so.

2 thoughts on “Sugar from Beets”

  1. As long as we’re talking white sugar, I can’t tell the difference between beet and cane either, at least not based on flavor. Beet sugar does, however, have a distinctive smell. I remember it well from my childhood in Michigan, where we always bought beet sugar. For a couple of decades after that I couldn’t figure out why I associated that odor with sugar, but figured out why after I took a job in a Belgian town known mainly for its (beet) sugar factory. Not only does their sugar smell exactly like the sugar I remember from my childhood, but when I leave work in the autumn I can smell the beets cooking — the whole town has that beet sugar odor.

    Brown sugar is another thing, though — it’s not just the smell, but the flavor and even the appearance that are different with beet sugar. Something about not getting molasses from beets, I think….

    1. Great comment, Jimma. I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow…thank you for the inspiration!

      – Joe

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