Sugar Production

Seeding Sugar Cane Barbados, late 1800's.
Saccharum Officinarum.

There cannot be rum without first growing sugar cane. The main reason for growing sugar cane is to produce sugar. Most rum is made from the byproduct of this sugar production, molasses. Sugar is produced in about 120 countries worldwide, with total world production around 120 million tons a year. About 70% of this production is derived from the sugar cane plant, which is basically a tall grass, that is grown in the tropics. The remaining 30% is produced from sugar beet, which is a root crop that is grown in the colder temperate regions. Sugar is made by some plants to store energy that they do not need right away, just as animals store fat. 
The process that plants make sugar is called photosynthesis. The grass takes in carbon dioxide from the surrounding air through pores in the leaves and absorbs water through its roots. These are combined to make sugar using energy from the sun and with the help of chlorophyll inside the leaves.
Originally sugar was only produced from sugar cane in small quantities in warm, damp, tropical regions. It was the elite of Europe, where sugar was considered a luxury and could not be grown, who were responsible for the rapid growth of the sugar industry in the Caribbean.

Transporting Cane to the Sugar Factory.

Sugar Cane

Sugar cane is a type of tall sub-tropical and tropical grass that requires large amounts of strong sunlight along with abundant amounts of water for it to reach its full growth potential.

Over the centuries the sugar cane plant has been genetically altered for commercial crop farmers, so as to take full advantage of their particular growing environment.

Sugar cane looks similar to the bamboo plant, and it is in the similar stalk that the sugar or sucrose made by the grass is stored. In the right climatic conditions the plant can be fully mature in just 12 months. In some countries this takes up to 24 months. When the cane is cut it will re-grow again as long as the roots of the plant were not disturbed during the harvest. A sugar cane plant can last for many harvests before it is worn out and has to be replaced.

The sugar content of the cane varies from location to location, but a rough guide would be about 10% by weight. Of course the amount of cane produced in a particular field varies from farm to farm, but can be estimated to be about 100 tons per hectare, which equates to about 10 tons of sugar per hectare.

For a good short video of harvesting sugar cane and turning it to molasses click on this link.

A Cuban Sugar Worker with a Machette.
Early Photograph of Workers at a Sugar Plantation.


Sugar cane is harvested by chopping off the stems of the plant, but leaving the roots undisturbed so that it re-grows for the following season. The harvest is usually performed during the dry season and can last as short as two and a half months and up to eleven months in some areas. The cut cane is taken directly to the sugar factory or rum distillery while the sugar content is at its peak. The transport to the factory can be anything from a train, to a truck or donkey.

These day the harvest is usually performed by big mechanical harvesting machines (see the link to the video above). In older times the harvest was performed by hand using a cutlass or machete, usually be imported African slaves, and in later years by indentured labourers.

The end of the sugar cane harvest usually signals the beginning of Carnival in many countries. This goes back to the time of slavery where the slaves were allowed to party and used costumes to make fun at their colonial masters. Carnival has different names around the world and these days it usually consists of street parades of large groups of costumed dancers gyrating to steel pans or loud music.  

Harvesting Sugar Cane in Hawaii.
Mechanically Harvesting Sugar Cane.

After the sugar has been harvested it is transported to a nearby sugar mill where the freshly cut cane is crushed between a series of large rollers(see photo below). The pressure of the rollers forces the sugar cane juice from the cane. The juice comes flowing out of the crushed cane and is collected to be washed. Often slaked lime is added to the juice, which helps in the cleaning process of the cane juice by settling a lot of the dirt from the fields that remains on the sugar cane.
The remains of the crushed cane is called bagasse. The bagasse is often used as a fuel for the furnases that are used in the sugar mills to boil the cane juice (see photo below)
Once the juice is cleaned it is thickened into a syrup by boiling off the water using steam, in a process called evaporation. Sometimes the syrup is cleaned up before it moves onto the next step in the sugar production process, the sugar crystal making step.

The Sugar Cane is Crushed Between Rollers.


The syrup, that is left after the evaporation process, is placed into large pans for boiling, the last stage. While in the pan more water is lost through evaporation and the syrup is boiled until conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. Often sugar dust is added to the pan to initiate crystal formation. Once the crystals have formed the resulting mixture of crystals and syrup are spun in a large centrifuge to seperate the two, similar to a large spin drier. The crystals are then given a final dry with hot air before being processed for storage or transhipment.

Old Boiling Pans, St.Kitts and Nevis.


The raw sugar leftover from the processing is usually stored in large silos before it is transported to other countries for processing into refined sugar for the kitchen table. In its original state it looks similar to the brown sugar used in coffee.

There is a leftover product from all the sugar processing as it is not possible to remove all the sugar out of the juice. This is called molasses. This molasses by-product is often turned into cattle food or sold to distilleries around the world for making rum.

Sugar Piled High in a Sugar Warehouse, Puerto Rico
Abandoned Sugar Train Trucks, St.Kitts.
St.Kitts had an extensive railway system for transporting sugar cane.


The fibre that is leftover from the crushing of the sugar cane is called bagasse. Sugar factories and rum distilleries need electricity and steam to work all their equipment. Bagasse becomes a power source for the large furnaces that create steam. The steam is then used to drive a turbine in order to make electricity and create low pressure steam for the sugar making process.

Bagasse is often processed into bails for storage (shown below in St.Kitts). The bails are then used when the furnaces have to be re-ignited after a shut down.

Recycling Bagasse for Furnace Fuel.
The Bagasse is Formed into Bails for Future Use.

Molasses, The By-Product of Sugar Production

Molasses is a viscous byproduct of the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. The word molasses comes from the Portugese word melaço, which ultimately comes from mel, the Latin word for "honey". The quality of molasses depends on the maturity of the sugar cane or sugar beet, the amount of sugar extracted, and the method of extraction. Sweet sorghum syrup is known in some parts of the United States as molasses, though it is not true molasses.

Sulphured molasses is made from young sugar cane. Sulphur dioxide, which acts as a preservative, is added during the sugar extraction process. Unsulphured molasses is made from mature sugar cane, which does not require treatment with sulphur. There are three grades of molasses: mild or Barbados, also known as first molasses; dark, or second molasses; and blackstrap. These grades may be sulphured or unsulphured.

Molasses pouring from a tanker truck.

To make molasses, the sugar cane plant is harvested and stripped of its leaves. Its juice is extracted from the canes, usually by crushing or mashing, it can also be removed by cutting. The juice is boiled to concentrate it, which promotes the crystallization of the sugar. The result of this first boiling and removal of the sugar crystals is first molasses, which has the highest sugar content because comparatively little sugar has been extracted from the source. Second molasses is created from a second boiling and sugar extraction, and has a slight bitter tinge to its taste.

Molasses truck at West Indies Rum Distillery.

The third boiling of the sugar syrup makes blackstrap molasses. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has been crystallized, but blackstrap molasses is still mostly sugar by calories. However, unlike refined sugars, it contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients. Blackstrap, often sold as a health supplement, is also used in the manufacture of cattle feed and for other industrial uses.

Old Boilers at a Sugar Mill.
Weigh Station at Sugar Mill.
Sugar Cane Growing Tall.
Truck load of sugar cane, Dominican Republic.
Native Sugar Cane Mill, Bahamas.
A Young Calf Stuck in an Old Boiling Pan, St.Kitts