Sugar Beet - The Sweet Alternative

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This is a reprint of an article of mine, printed in Grass Roots magazine back in 1997.

The basic idea of being self-sufficient is to produce everything that you consume from your own resources. In many cases true self-sufficiency is just not possible due to lack of time, land, or excess of work, but in any case there is more to it than just fruit and veggies. So I decided that in my back yard I wanted to produce some of the staples that we use such as sugar, oil and flour, just to see if it was possible.

In Sydney where I live the climate is not hot enough for long enough to grow sugar cane and get a decent yield of sugar out of it. However, in Europe they have been producing sugar for almost two hundred years using the humble sugar beet. So I decided to try the same trick.

Cultivation

The seed was available from Phoenix Seeds in Tasmania and according to the blurb sheet included with the seeds the beets can yield up to eighteen percent sugar and grown as for standard beets. I sowed the seed much as I do for beetroot and into a similar position, but it seemed to me that the sugar beet took longer to grow to a harvestable size. I made no special provisions for the sugar beet, just sowed the seed and left them to it, but I think that a higher percentage of sugar would be obtained if the beets were nurtured.

Photo from the original article

According to the books, beets can be grown on most soils but do best on soils that are deep with good structure and are moist but well drained (what wouldn’t?). The soil pH should be between 6 and 7. The seeds should be sown 12mm deep with a spacing of seven to ten centimetres between plants and twenty to thirty centimetres between rows. This is for commercial production, but in a truly fertile organic garden I think that some poetic license could be used with these distances.

Extracting the Sugar

The beets need to be harvested b pulling them out of the ground then cutting off the green leafy tops which can then be composted, fed to livestock, or eaten by yourself if you have a mind to. Now that you have your pile of freshly harvested beets, the next job is to clean them up to remove the outside dirt.

To do this I first washed the beets off then scrubbed them with a toothbrush to remove as much dirt as I could. It was an interesting way to kill an evening, but it would get a bit tedious if a large amount were to be cleaned. An alternative way would be to peel them but I knew it would be a few days before I would be able to process them so I elected to use the scrub method so that they would keep longer.

This is what the stuff looked like!

When the beets are squeaky clean the extraction can be started in earnest. Each beet is cut into slices about three millimetres to six millimetres “across the grain” and then thrown into a pot, my four kilograms of beets filled a stainless steel four litre pot to just overflowing. Then I poured in one litre of cold water, covered the pot and applied the heat. The whole mess then proceeded to simmer for about an hour. While it simmered it gave off the penetrating odour of cooking beetroot, small surprise in that, but it did prompt complaints from some members of the family so be aware of possibilities in this area.

Once the beets had finished simmering I attacked them with a potato masher to release the juice, I poured off 750ml of juice and added another litre of water and reboiled the whole lot. In retrospect I would say that the second litre of water was not needed, it would be better to squeeze out any remaining juice immediately. I then poured off the second lot of liquid, getting about a litre back. I then scooped out the beet mush onto a fine cloth and squeezed the remaining juice out into the rest of the liquid. The entire lot of liquid (about 2.4 litres) I then poured back into the pot through four layers of cloth to act as a filter so I could boil off the excess water.

At this point the sugar beet solution gives a passable impression of muddy water and as such came close to being poured down the drain. Fortunately, my wife is well aware of some of the less palatable aspects of my projects so she thought she better ask first, thus saving herself from learning some new words.

The 2.4 litres took a couple of hours to boil down to about 400 millilitres with a sugar content of close to fifty percent. This concentrate is dark brown to almost black in colour, tastes very sweet but with a raw sugar/”beety” aftertaste and still has that distinct beety aroma. I left it to stand for a week to let any vegetable matter that passed through the filter settle out. The sugar syrup could probably be used in this form if you didn’t mind the aftertaste, particularly cooking, or processed further.

The syrup can be made more palatable by mixing in some activated charcoal (available from chemists). “Homegrown” charcoal would have a similar effect if ground up finely enough but would be less efficient so more would be needed. I added activated charcoal at a rate of three grams per litre of syrup then left it for 24 hours, then filtered it out. No mean feat as the commercial carbon is very fine and some particles got through several layers of the even the finest cloth. There was a definite reduction the “beety” aroma and aftertaste though.

Improving the Product

It never ceases to amaze me how information on how to do something always turns up after the project is finished! Last night I was reading John and Sally Seymour’s book, appropriately enough entitled “Self Sufficiency” (Faber and Faber, 1984). On page 167 they say the following about sugar beet: “To make sugar yourself, chop the beet up as small as you can, boil the pulp, run the water off, and boil the water away, first mixing lime with it and passing carbon dioxide though the solution. Unrefined sugar will be left as crystals”. Well there you have it!

In hindsight and bearing the above comments in mind, I think the following ideas would improve the quantity and quality of the end product:

  • Provide the best growing conditions for the beet.
  • Don’t cut the beets up, grate them.
  • Add only the minimum amount of water so there is less to remove during later processing.
  • Don’t heat the sugar solution up too much, warm it rather than boil it, I think that too much heat caramelises some of the sugar, darkening the product and introducing a hint of bitterness.
  • Try the lime/carbon dioxide method recommended by the Seymours.

So I suppose that’s it until next year when I’ll have another go and see if I can manufacture a product that CSR would be proud of!

Alas this is still on the list of things I am yet to get to.


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