Ben Eastick Written by Ben Eastick

The sugar beet harvest: from the field to the factory

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.