Inside the Uitvlugt Sugar Factory

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.

Sugar cane processing, Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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.

Uitvlugt sugar factory, as seen from Uitvlugt distillery

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
.

Ruins of Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana. Sugar factory in background
Ruins of Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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.

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.

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.

Sugar cane punts arriving via canal to Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Sugar cane in punts at Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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.

Emptying sugar cane punts into a hopper at Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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.

Pressing cane through roller mills to extract juice; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Overview of cane crushing area at Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Heated cane juice; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Evaporators reduce the amount of water in the cane juice; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Rotating mud wash vacuum filter; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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.

Sugar crystals flowing down a ramp; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
Molasses! Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana
The boilers that make the steam used throughout the factory; Uitvlugt sugar factory, Guyana

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