How we craft sugar

Why and how do plants make sugar?

Plants make sugar to store energy that they don't need straight away. Sugar cane, a tropical grass, produces large amount of sugar and is farmed in the tropics.

Plants make sugar through a process called photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide from the air is absorbed through the leaves, and water through the roots. These two substances are then combined to make sugar, using energy from the sun. The process is helped by a green substance called chlorophyll which allows plants to absorb the sun’s energy more readily and which gives them their green colour. You can learn more about photosynthesis here.

A quick history of sugar

Emperor Darius

It is thought that the first humans to realize that sugar cane tastes sweet lived in Polynesia, from where the knowledge spread to India. In 510 BC the Emperor Darius invaded India from Persia and talked at length about the grass that gives honey without bees.

How to extract this honey without bees, the product that we today know as sugar, was kept a closely guarded secret for over a thousand years and only the invasion of Persia by the early Arab people in 642 AD made the process known to all.

Sugar first arrived in Western Europe carried by knights returning from the crusades, who considered it a spice. The very first public record of sugar as we know it today dates back to the England of 1099.

 

A medieval sugar grater

Trade with the East, including the importation of sugar, grew throughout the next centuries. Sugar was available in London, England, at two shillings a pound in 1319 AD. This equates to about $100 per kilo at today’s prices, so it was very much a luxury. Poor people sweetened their food and drink like they always had, with honey.

When Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492 he took a number of sugar cane plants with him. The climate there was so advantageous for the growth of the cane that a large number of cane farms were quickly established.

 

A sugar clipper, around 1850

Finished sugar is difficult to transport because it dissolves in water and people soon moved the final production nearer to the final markets. Then as now, they shipped raw sugar across the ocean before creating the final product close to home. We know of sugar being made in 15th century Venice and in 1750 there were 120 sugar manufacturers operating in the UK, producing a combined harvest of just 30,000 tons.

Shipping sugar fit for human consumption in bulk is difficult to this day. That’s one of the reasons why we here at Redpath Sugar ship raw sugar from farmers in the tropics to Canada before crafting all the different sugars we make right here on the Toronto waterfront.

How we craft sugar

Raw sugar is made close to the farms that grow sugar cane. When it arrives by ship in our plant in Toronto we purify it and make it ready for you to use.

Raw sugar is a natural product, and like many natural products it needs to be cleaned up before it is ready for human consumption. Crafting sugar involves a series of steps designed to remove everything that isn't sugar, like plant residue and waxes, from the sucrose crystals.

First clean

First we soften and then remove a layer of residue surrounding the crystals with a process called "affination". The raw sugar is mixed with a warm, concentrated sugar syrup and then centrifuged to separate the crystals. This removes a lot of impurities there and then, leaving behind only some colour, very fine particles, gums and resins from the cane plant.

Filtering out the small stuff

Next we add tiny particles of natural chalk to the liquid sugar. These chalk particles then cling to the even smaller residue particles still left in the sugar, making them large enough to be filtered out by large cloth filters.

After the chalk has been taken out, we remove all remaining waxes by using even finer filtering methods, leaving behind nothing but pure, liquid sugar.

This liquor, as it is called, is now ready to be turned back into crystals.

Boiling sugar

The sugar syrup is boiled in our sugar pans until the Master Sugar Boiler decides that conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. To initiate crystal formation, we add some very fine sugar dust to the sugar pans. Once the crystals have grown, the resulting mixture of sugar crystals and liquid is spun in a centrifuge to separate the two, similar to washing being spin dried. The crystals are then given a final dry with hot air before being packed.

Different Sugars

We craft many different sugars, from granulated white to ultra fine icing sugar and dark brown sugars. Once we've packed them all up, they will be delivered to their final destinations.

Home and professional bakers as well as food and drinks manufacturers all over Canada use the sugars we craft.