Without sugar cane, there is no rum. While some rums are made directly from fresh pressed sugar cane juice, the overwhelming majority of rum comes from molasses, one of the outputs of sugar cane processing. An extremely simplified description of sugar cane processing is:
Input: Sugar cane stalks
Output 1: Sugar crystals – The primary output, traditionally.
Output 2: Molasses – A thick liquid with several types of sugar.
Output 3: Bagasse – Finely shredded cane stalk material.
While most stories about how rum begin with molasses, they overlook the fundamental agricultural processes that turn stalks of sugar cane grass into dark brown molasses.
What transpires in a sugar cane factory is just as relevant to rum making as a whisky distillery’s milling and mashing grain is to whiskey making. The key distinction: What whiskey distilleries do in-house is typically done elsewhere for rum. In either case, the end result in either case is fermentable sugars in a liquid solution.
While it’s now relatively easy for rum tourists to find themselves among the stills at a distillery, opportunities to visit operational sugar cane factories are far harder to come by. If you have the chance, do it without hesitation!
Such was the case for me during a visit to Guyana to see the facilities of Demerara Distillers Ltd, aka DDL. While their main operations and distillery are at the Diamond Estate near Georgetown, the company still ages rum at its Uitvlugt (pronounced “eye flot”) facility, which was the site of DDL’s second distillery till 1999. During my visit to the Uitvlugt aging warehouse, I spied the Uitvlugt sugar factory next door to the distillery. Luckily, Shaun Caleb, DDL’s Master Distiller made a phone call, and once we finished sampling rums directly from the cask, we visited the sugar factory.
Although rum enthusiasts associate Uitvlugt with the now defunct distillery, Uitvlugt is much more than that. In the Dutch and British colonial sugar estate era of the 18th and 19th centuries, Uitvlugt was a large sugar estate along Guyana’s northern coast, comprising about 4.6 square miles. Within the original estate boundaries is the village of Uitvlugt, current population of around 2,000 people.
At the village’s edge is the Uitvlugt sugar factory, which started operations in 1871. In 1921 the Demerara Company acquired the estate. In time, it came under the umbrella of Jessels Holdings, one of two large holding companies with significant assets in British Guiana. (Booker Bros., McConnell was the other.) in January 1981, Uitvlugt estate merged with the adjoining Leonora estate.
Uitvlugt is also known by an acronym: ICBU. It refers to Ignatius Christian Bourda Uitvlugt, an early owner of the estate. Or perhaps it’s Ignatius Charles Bourda Uitvlugt. Or maybe it’s Isaac Christiany Boody/Uitvlugt. Available sources are quite inconsistent. The GuySuCo site says:
The Estate is named after a Dutch Planter, Ignatius Charles Bourda Uitvlugt. During the Dutch colonial period, he was the original owner of what was then a plantation. Many of the older folks also used to refer to the village as ‘bodah’, which was really meant to be Bourda: they could not have pronounced the name correctly.
Traditionally, sugar factories had an associated rum distillery. Uitvlugt is no exception. When the distillery was operational (up till 1999) its molasses come via a pipe from the adjoining sugar factory. Today, much of the distillery is in ruins, with the exception of the aging warehouse.
As part of a wave of government takeovers of industries in the 1970s, both the country’s rum and sugar industries came under government control. While the government eventually divested the rum industry i.e. DDL, back to private ownership by the early 1990s, Guyana’s sugar industry remains under government ownership in the form of the Guyana Sugar Corporation, aka GuySuCo.
Uitvlugt is one of a handful of sugar factories owned by GuySuCo. While the company’s web site lists five factories circa 2016, it appears that some of them; Wales, Skeldon and Enmore; have been closed since then. Guyana’s sugar industry has been struggling to stay afloat for years. It was not so long ago that Guyana processed so much sugar that it not only was able to supply all of DDL’s needs, it also exported to numerous rum-making countries. Now, even DDL has to import some of its molasses from foreign sources.
Sugar Cane Farming
The sugar factory at Uitvlugt is surrounding by cane fields, as you can see by zooming out in the map below. The majority of sugar cane fields in the country or owned or leased by GuySuCo.
The GuySuCo web site has a succinct overview of Guyana’s cane farming:
The traditional layout of sugarcane fields in Guyana has required a manual system of cutting and loading cane. The manual operation has the advantage of being relatively independent of soil moisture status but it does require large numbers of cane cutters. All cane is burnt before harvest. Cane is transported in small barges (punts) with a capacity of 6-8 tonnes cane which are towed in trains of 25-30 units by a 45 hp tractor. The principal difficulty with the punt transport system is haulage in wet weather when unsurfaced roads rapidly become waterlogged and punts have to be hauled by paddle-tugs.
Although cane field burning isn’t ecologically desirable, when it comes to manually harvesting, it solves two problems. First, it makes navigating the fields and cutting the cane fields much easier. Second, it chases out or kills the poisonous snakes that reside within.
Upon arriving at Uitvlugt, the punts, filled with cut cane enter the factory in an unusual manner. The entire punt is tipped up, elevated, and tipped on its side, spilling the cane onto an entrance into the factory. You can see this happen in the video below.
Inside the Factory
The workings of a sugar factory are both simple and complex. I shall not attempt a detailed explanation here. However, a simplified version goes like this:
- Cut cane stalks into short pieces
- Crush the pieces between grooved rollers to squeeze out all the juice
- Heat the cane juice evaporate water from it. This thickens the liquid and causes sucrose crystals to form
- Mechanically extract the sucrose crystals from the thick liquid.
- Optional: Repeat this boiling/extracting process several times to extract more sucrose crystals
- The thick liquid left behind is molasses, which still contains fermentable sugars
This video shows key highlights of the process within the Uitvlugt factory.
The photos below also show parts of the process with additional commentary.
The sugar cane can be removed from punts by way of a crane. However, its easier to hoist the punts up, tilt them sideways, and let the cane fall into an adjoining hopper.
After the cane stalks are roughly shredded, they’re fed through a series of ridged rollers positioned very close to each other. As the cane passes through, the pressure extracts the juice which is collected below.
This processes is repeated several times, with water added in subsequent passes to aid in juice extraction. The bagasse (cane stalk material) is collected elsewhere. After it dries, it can be burned to heat the boilers.
The end result of all the processing is two things: Sugar crystals and molasses. The sugar crystals are yellowish in color because they still have a small amount of molasses on them. This is commonly known as “brown sugar”. If desired, further treatment can remove the molasses to create white “table” sugar.