Sugar Beets, Sweet from Coast to Coast
Sugar beets provided a portion of Canada’s need for sugar, and have been tantalizing the country’s tastebuds since the 19th Century. The industry is still strong today.
Sugar. The delicate crystals are used in food preparation to sweeten, cut tangyness and tantalize the taste buds; it has been used as a preservative, a meat tenderizer and an aid to fermentation. Without sugar, the yeast in bread and beer would not rise to the occasion. The sweet ingredient comes in many well-used forms – Confectioner’s, yellow, brown, syrup and white granulated. The sweet stuff is virtually an essential in every Canadian home.
And yet, sugar cane, the world’s main source of the sweet element, is not grown in Canada. The climate is just too cold for the tropical plant. While sugar cane has, and still, provided the largest portion of the country’s sugar needs, another plant grown in Canadian soil has supplied the rest – sugar beets.
The first Sugar Beet refinery in Canada
In 1747, German chemist Andreas Margraff determined that sugar beets were of quality equal to the sugar cane imported by ship from tropical countries. As Canada’s young population and their sugar requirements expanded, La Compagnie de sucre de betterave de Québec in Farnham, Québec, built the first sugar beet refinery in 1881 to fill that need. The refinery was constructed specifically to extract the sugar from the beets grown in Québec.
The need for Canada’s sweet crop was great. Two more refineries began production in the province of Québec in that same year. Before long, Ontario farmers were growing the beets for sugar. Four refineries sprung up to process the crops by 1902, with Chatham and Wallaceburg the Ontario sites of two large sugar processing plants. Prairie farmers also grew sugar beet crops, and with crops came the need for local manufacturers. Several processing plants were built in and Alberta, including Raymond and Picture Butte, plus one near Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Refineries were already in place to process raw cane sugar in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and Saint John, NB., but required a different method of extraction. Cane sugar required two processes, whereas beet sugar required only one process.
Processing the Sugar Beets
Planted in spring, sugar beets are harvested in the fall. Leafy tops cut off, the beets are stockpiled for processing over the winter, before warmer temperatures affects the sugar content. Sugar beets are root plants; they must first be well-washed before the refining process can begin. Cut into thin slices, the beets are dropped into hot water in a diffusion tank for an hour, where the sugar is pulled out into the water. After soaking in the diffuser, the beet slices, heavy with water, are squeezed under screw presses to extract more sugar. The remaining pulp is dried and formed into pellets fot animal food.
The raw sugar water is filtered to clear out large clumps and unwanted residues. Next, the sweet liquid is placed in an evaporator to remove much of the excess water. Transformed into syrup, the thick liquid is poured into a huge pan – holding up to 60 tons of syrup – and boiled until sugar crystals begin to grow. On completion, the crystals and remaining syrup are separated by centrifugal force. The syrup, now called Beet Molasses, is mainly used as cattle feed. (It does not have the same palatable flavour as Cane Molasses, which is used in rum.)
The white sugar crystals are given a final hot-air drying and packaged, ready for use in the home and in factories.
Since the construction of the first sugar beet refineries in the 19th century, the Canadian sugar industry has undergone many struggles and changes: crop damage, plant closures, mergers, tightly-regulated rules, and volatile markets. The Canadian Encyclopedia notes that the sugar beet industry continues to supply approximately 10 % of Canada’s sugar requirements.
Read more about the sweet beets: sugar beets