Posted in Kafevend Blog

Sweet beets

Following our look at sugar earlier this week, we've decided to carry on the theme today. Whereas the sugar brought to Europe from the West Indies was made using sugar cane, an alternate source exists in the form of the sugar beet. Join us then as we continue the history lesson!

It's sugar, but not as we know it

Research into the use of sugar beets started back in the middle of the 18th century in what was then Prussia. Andreas Marggraf led the way when he isolated sugar from beetroots, and then showed that the sugar extracted in this way was the same as that extracted from sugarcane. His student Franz Karl Achard followed this up with an exhaustive study of 23 different varieties of mangelwurzel- field beet. He then began selectively breeding the white Silesian fodder beet to produce the forerunner to all sugar beet grown today. Achard opened the first beet sugar factory in 1801 under the patronage of Prussia's king, Frederick William III. This news was of much interest to a man from nearby France- Napoleon himself!

It couldn't have come at a better time for Napoleon as festering relations between France and many European powers threatened to turn yet again to war. He sent a group of scientists to Achard's factory to investigate the procedure and subsequently built two factories near Paris. Rather than proving an economic success, they instead served as a testbed for future expansion- which wasn't far off.

In 1803, the Napoleonic wars began- a series of conflicts that would drag on for twelve and a half years. One of the results of the war was the comprehensive blockade of Europe established by the British Navy, which put a strain on the import of many goods- including sugar. A further blow to France's sweet tooth was the ongoing Haitian Revolution. Haiti had once been the source of a great deal of sugar, but the output was understandably low as the slaves who produced it called and fought for their freedom.

Beet the blockade

Napoleon capitalised on the newfound source of sugar in the face of shortages from abroad. In 1811, he invested a million francs in establishing factories and schools dedicated to researching and producing sugar from beets. He called on farmers to plant large amounts of sugar beets. In 1813, he went so far as to prohibit importing sugar from the West Indies. All this led to a rapid uptake in sugar beet production which was to continue after the war.

The advances France made led to sugar beet being taken up in countries all across Europe and even abroad in the USA. This had a detrimental effect on those in the West Indies and elsewhere growing sugar cane as countries once reliant on them turned to their homegrown supply. Circumstances changed again during WW1 as land given over to growing sugar beets was devastated in the conflict, prompting a resurgence in sugar cane. However, the balance is once again in question. With the deregulation of the sugar market looming in the EU, the freedom could see it go from a net importer to a net exporter. No doubt the preference for sugar cane or sugar beet will wax and wane as long as we have a hankering for the sweet stuff!


Sugar beet

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