So, this year I purchased some sugar beet seed to play with a bit. I have an area at our country acreage that I wanted to cultivate this year for weed control to establish an area of native tall grass prairie plants and we decided to broadcast the seed at one end of this section. This is nearly the culmination of that experiment.

First of all, the growing didn't go particularly well. Since we had broadcast the seed rather than planting in neat rows, we couldn't do any weeding until we could ascertain the beet plants and the weeds came up in full force before the beets did so there was a lot of weed pressure (Canada thistle a primary one). Secondly, since ideally this develops a root in the 2-5 lb range (a large long taproot), it was much too densely planted for the roots to develop properly.

That said, I was able to harvest a few reasonable size roots and many puny ones. When it comes to harvesting, it is recommended to wait until the first significant frost. This year, that came about a month later than average, so I was getting impatient.


As a cultivar of beta vulgaris (same as beetroot and Swiss chard), the leaves are edible.


After removing most of the tops and cleaning off some of the soil. I was happy to have come across many earthworms along the way. Some plants with puny roots were kept for leaves which were steamed with something else (kale or cabbage...I forget which).


The longest of the roots dug stood up to about my mid-thigh. I cut up and roasted the biggest one with other root vegetables for a nice side dish. The remaining two largest were over 9 oz, so a bit over half a pound (260 or so grams).

With small beets, preparation took considerably longer. The crown of the root has carbohydrates that can impact the sugar and create off flavours (according to what I've read online) and these smaller ones tended to have a spiral indentation making peeling / cleaning a challenge. I wound up doing it in three or four sessions on Friday. Then it got late, so I couldn't do the rest of the processing until Saturday. That was a learning process as I found out that the roots oxidize somewhat and get kind of grey...a little unappealing. I used a kitchen scale and we had about 6 lb 9 oz (about 3 kg). So, Saturday, with cut pieces of root, the process began. I used a food processor to chop them into fine bits.


Next step was to add water. The online instructions I was loosely following said to use three times the water as beets. In hindsight, that was a bit much. Another set of instructions suggested covering the beets with water. Then came the boiling to cook the beet mash and extract the sugar - modern cultivars of sugar beet range from 12-21% sucrose.


After cooking for something like 2 hours, it was time for straining. Between a strainer and a cheesecloth lined colander, we were able to remove the beet pulp. At that point, I boiled it down some more to reduce the volume.


I ladled through the strainer into baking pans and into the oven they went at 250 F.


About 11 hours later, the two on top were a greatly reduced syrup starting to crystallize. As it was late, I turned off the oven and left it for the morning.


It hadn't occurred to me that the two pans on the bottom were darker and I had only checked the ones on the upper rack. On the one hand, we were seeing some nice crystallization. On the other hand, it was stuck down and there was an inability to separate it from the pan. I ultimately decided to add some water, which loosened things back up and we were able to save the pans.

Preparing to bottle the "syrup".


While the newer lighter pans that had been on top resulted in a nicer colour, happily the older darker pans resulted in a syrup that did not taste burnt. Between scraping and pouring, we got the better part of 1 litre of liquid.


So, we now have a liquid sweetener that we grew and processed completely ourselves. If I put any sort of a dollar figure on my time, this is an expensive syrup. However, I have proven to myself that, if we wanted to, we could grow and process some of our own sugar. Since we don't do all the centrifuge and demineralization action that is done in commercial processing, we do not get the purely white sugar that one would get from a store.

Would I do this again? Certainly, but with applying some of the lessons learned. First, like making good wine, it starts in the field (or vineyard). If we seed at appropriate spacing into a reasonably prepared bed, and weeded more diligently through the year, we should be able to grow bigger beets, which would then be faster to prepare. Imagine if I could have done this with three beets, the digging and peeling would have gone much much faster. I would definitely use less water in the processing as well - in hindsight, it doesn't make sense to use so much water in the first place (which I filtered through the morning further delaying the cooking) just to boil it off. As it turns out, with this volume in the big tureen, it was a mistake to have the lid on initially and I did make a mess with it boiling over, which wouldn't have happened had I just covered the beets well instead of 3X the volume. Finally, to make sugar, one would want to use a flexible pan (I'm thinking silicone although I found another set of instructions today that suggested using parchment paper). After it has solidified, you separate it from the pan and you will have something like a sheet (or pieces) of a hard candy, which can then be put into a clean coffee grinder or flour mill to grind up.

I have the feeling I'm missing something in this writeup, but it isn't coming to mind. I'm not entirely certain whether we will leave it all as a syrup or try a bit more to dry it into actual sugar. What we are left with is sort of like a thin molasses.