By Kerryn Andrew Offord
The following article assumes an exchange rate of $50: 1 guilder.
The sweet crystals of sugar from sugar cane. They could call it “White Gold”. Sugar was extremely expensive up until the late nineteenth century. In the early modern period where Grantville finds itself refined sugar that could be bought up-time for as little as ten cents a pound could cost a least forty dollars a pound. In 1632 the average price per pound of Refined Sugar in Amsterdam (a major trading center) was about forty dollars. It will be more expensive in Grantville, being the cost of transport, handling and merchants’ mark-up, possibly in the sixty to eighty dollars a pound range.
What is this in terms we will understand? A pound of refined white sugar will cost Grantvillers at least $40.00. Two lumps of sugar in a cup of tea or coffee could cost $0.45, and each cookie $1.65 for the sugar alone. The cup of coffee itself: That will be a snip at $2.50 a cup (up-time it would be $0.08 – $0.30 a cup, the sugar, about a tenth of a cent, the sugar in the cookie, about half a cent.).
The people of Grantville will have to find substitutes or quickly lose their sweet tooth.
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Why is sugar so expensive? Well, there was a war on. Not just in Europe, but also in the primary sugar cane growing areas of Brazil. Looking at the Amsterdam price of Sugar in Figure 1 below, we can clearly see the impact of the war in Brazil, which the Dutch finally lost around 1654.
The other main reason for the high price was the level of inefficiency in the production. Table 1 shows the relative productivity per acre for the main sources of sugar that are available to the people of Europe and Grantville. The Sorghum reflects what might be possible in Grantville with up-time Sorghum breeds and modern farming techniques. Without adequate water (rain or irrigation) yields can drop to less than a third of the estimates on the table.
Table 1. Comparison of the three potential sources of sugar and the relative per acre yields of raw cane or beet and the expected yield of sugar. Sugar yield is as a percentage of plant mass.
Source of sugar
Plant mass (tons)
Sugar Yield (%)
Sugar recovered (pounds)
Down-time with modern techniques
Down-time existing techniques
Down-time with modern techniques
Up-time state of the art: Upper
Up-time state of the art: Lower
Down-time existing techniques
Down-time improved techniques
Up-time state of the art
There are maybe five major sources of sugar. They are Maple Sugar, Palm Sugar, Sorghum Sugar, Cane Sugar, and Sugar Beet.
Maple sugar was harvested in Grantville before the Ring of Fire. However, the weather conditions in Thuringia are not suitable for production of Maple Sugar. The trees growing in Grantville can be tapped, but the sap collected will not produce a suitable product.
Maple Sugar will still be available in North America, and could be collected by anybody in North America. However I wouldn’t recommend an expedition just for Maple Sugar as we are not sure what impact the Little Ice Age will have on the sap-collecting season.
Normally a tree will yield up to three gallons of juice a day, and would continue flowing for up to six weeks. Giving a yield of about four pounds of sugar. It is manpower intensive using the old spout and bucket technique of collecting and open evaporation tubs. Many modern ‘farmers’ feed directly from the spout to a hose that leads to a central collecting shed doing away with a lot of the labor requirements. The problem is there is not a lot of suitable hose. Certainly there will be other uses for any hose that might previously have been used to collect Maple sap.
The Palms suitable for this sugar are found in the Ganges valley to the north of Calcutta in India. Tapping is similar to that of the Maple and produces up to thirty-five pounds of sugar per tree. The tapping season is October to the middle of February. The longer season and warmer climate contributing to the higher yield.
As the people of Grantville are unlikely to have access to Calcutta, Palm Sugar can be ignored as a source of sugar for the near future.
Sugar From Cane.
Sugar cane can be divided into two similar crops. True Sugar Cane and Sorghum. Sorghum is similar to corn, while sugar cane has similarities with bamboo. From harvesting to milling the two types of cane undergo similar treatment. The main difference being that Sorghum is usually reduced to a syrup while sugar cane is taken all the way to sugar crystals.
Sugar Cane needs tropical conditions and can not be grown in Grantville or the surrounding area. Sorghum can be grown in Grantville in Thuringia.
Sorghum is a grass similar to sugar cane, in fact it is also known as Chinese Sugar Cane. High yield Sorghum corn (as it is called) is grown in the Grantville area and is known to exist within the Ring of Fire. Up-time Sorghum is usually only reduced to a sweet syrup, rather than being further refined to sugar. The low market price of sugar not justifying the additional effort required. However, things are different down-time. The high market price for sugar makes reducing Sorghum syrup to refined sugar (where they remove any “taste” leaving you with just a sweet product) an attractive option. Sugar specific Sorghum varieties need warmer conditions than are available in Grantville, WV. Therefore it is assumed that the Grantville farmers are growing fodder specific varieties that produce about half the sugar of the sugar specific varieties.
As the farmers in Grantville have been raising fodder Sorghum they are less likely to be sending their cut stalks to a central sugar mill. Therefore I am assuming that the Grantville Sorghum farmers do their own milling of the canes using the old mills their grandfather(s) used. These mills are motor driven hand fed sets of iron rollers and yield about half of the possible sugar content. This compares favorably with the little better than twenty-five percent yield of the large wooden sugar cane mills the down-timers are currently using. Up-timers will know that they can feed the crushed cane (bagasse) through the mill several times in an effort to improve the yield. With three passes through the mill yield can be increased to as much as eighty percent, or 240 gallons of syrup (2240 lbs of sugar). This is only practical as long as the amount of Sorghum being handled is small. The typical small farm mill takes one or two stalks at a time and hand feeding cane, especially the bagasse, is very labor intensive. If Sorghum becomes a major crop then larger mills will have to be designed and built.
Sorghum is an annual and seeds need to be planted every year. This is important. Up-time Sorghum production in the RoF area would be measured in tens of acres at the most, and we don’t know how much seed there will be available. Optimal sugar content occurs before seeds mature and drops off as seeds mature. For this reason farmers will have to accept lower yields if they wish to continue raising Sorghum from their high yield varieties. Yields will probably drop to less than half a ton per acre. Note though that seed can be planted with a standard seed drill.
The most important things to remember about Sorghum are that it is a sugar type crop that can be grown in Thuringia and that there are people in Grantville who are familiar with the crop.
Sorghum costs something like $7 per gallon to produce using existing small-scale production methods. That equates to about $0.77 per pound of sugar. Making multiple passes through the mill increases production while adding to labor costs, but estimated cost is $9 gallon or about $1.00 a pound (Up-time industrial level production of corn syrup costs about $0.14 per pound). With a market price of sugar in Grantville of somewhere between $40 and $80 a pound potential profits are enormous.
Sugar cane been harvested in North Africa and the southern regions of Europe for a couple of hundred years. By 1631 it has spread to South America, Central America, and several of the Caribbean islands. Sugar cane likes access to lots of water. The best yielding areas are tropical with over twenty-six inches of annual rainfall.
In 1630 the Portuguese produced some 22.4 million pounds of sugar on 137 plantations in the three north-eastern captaincies in Brazil. This suggests about 9,500 acres planted in sugar cane. Large plantations produced about 240,000 pounds from about 100 acres of sugar cane. Medium size plantations produced about 176,000 pounds on about 70 acres, and small plantations produced about 96,000 pounds of sugar. Other land had to be set aside in the plantations for housing, food, roads and paths, the sugar mill, and irrigation. In the Caribbean up to a third of a plantation could be given over to irrigation. Remember, without adequate water yields will drop dramatically.
Now for the down-side. Large plantations employed fifteen to twenty Portuguese and a hundred Negroes. Medium size plantations employed about twenty Portuguese and fifty Negroes. Five or six Portuguese and twenty Negroes worked the small plantations. Most of the Negroes would have been slaves. Sugar was the major contributor to the early cross Atlantic slave trade. Initially it was only the Portuguese. The Dutch resisted slave trading until 1637 when, having gained control of the sugar producing regions of Pernambuco (the area around Recife) they found they needed labor to work the plantations.
Sugar cane usually comes to maturity after twelve to eighteen months. This is the optimal time for harvesting. Planting or replanting is done using the top joints of growing canes. This is however, a labor intensive operation and therefore replanting is kept to a minimum. Normal practice is to allow the cut stump to throw out shoots or “ratoons”. However ratooning means progressively diminishing yields season by season so replanting will occur every few years.
Even up-time sugar cane is still often cut by hand. In up-time Florida cane cutters were expected to cut one ton per hour (however they effectively only cut 1,400 pounds per hour). Down-time cutters will be lucky to achieve this given the inferior quality steel used in their cane knives. If we include the fact that most of the cane cutters will be slave labor, cane cutters are unlikely to do better than five hundred pounds of cane per hour. Paid cutters could be about twice as productive. Cane cutters receiving a living wage and using improved steel cane knives and machetes should be capable of cutting cane at the same rate as up-time cane cutters.
After the cane is cut it must be crushed within twenty-four hours before the sucrose starts to invert (change into different products). The cut cane must then be collected and carried to the mill. This transport requirement is one reason down-time plantations tend to be small. If industrial sized sugar mills are to be introduced, then efficient transport from the fields to the mills is required. Until then, each plantation is likely to have it’s own mill.
The typical down-time sugar mill has three rollers arranged vertically and close together. Only one roller is directly powered, usually by draft animals walking around the mill on a long sweep. Interlocking gears turn the other rollers from the driven roller. The vertical orientation is probably used because it is the easiest rather than the most efficient arrangement. These mills could extract about twenty-five percent of the available juice. As an improved mill could double or triple sugar yield the one-off capital investment and slightly higher running costs should be easily recovered.
How to increase the extraction yield?
Arranging the mill rollers horizontally makes feeding the mills easier. Iron rather than iron hooped wooden rollers would be nice, but changing from smooth rollers to “toothed” rollers will produce a more aggressive crush. The closer together the rollers in the mill are, and the more aggressive the crush, the more juice that can be extracted. This should increase the yield to about fifty percent of the available juice per pass. Another advantage of the horizontal arrangement is that it is easier to transfer the crushed cane from one set of rollers to the next. With vertical rollers the cane has to be hand fed and the cane has to be supported until the roller has a firm grip on the stalks. A horizontal mill can utilize gravity, whereas gravity is the enemy of the feed mechanism in a vertical mill.
It should be remembered that there is a lot of inertia in the roller mills making them difficult to stop quickly. When hand feeding hands can easily get caught in the mill. For this reason down-time mills had a man standing with an axe or machete ready to cut off any limb that got caught. If we can do away with hand feeding then the risk of injury to workers is greatly reduced. It is easier to move away from hand feeding when using a horizontal arrangement. Horizontal rollers support hopper or chute loading which is not possible with vertical rollers. It is also possible to fill a hopper with small slices of cane and feed them through the horizontal rollers. Cane that has been cut into smaller pieces more readily gives up its juice. Offering a few percent more yield. Vertical rollers can not accommodate this improvement. However, the horizontal arrangement suffers from power transmission losses going from vertical rotation to horizontal rotation. Ideally an engine or water wheel should be used.
The next improvement follows on from something the Sorghum farmers know; additional passes through the mill improve total yield. If each pass extracts fifty percent of the juice remaining in the cane or bagasse, then two mills in series will extract seventy-five percent, and three mills, just under ninety percent. More than three mills could be used. However there is the problem of diminishing rates of return from each set while the cost of installing each extra mill is at best a fixed cost. Up-time sugar mills usually have three to five sets of rollers arranged in series, but remember that energy is cheaper and easier to deliver.
A side benefit of extracting more juice is that the bagasse comes out of the mill sufficiently dry to burn almost immediately. An additional inefficiency of the inferior down-time mills is that bagasse had to be moved to drying areas and then to the evaporation area where it was used as fuel. The new improved model saves in the handling and bagasse can go straight from the mill to the fires of the evaporation kettles.
Yields can be further improved by “washing” the bagasse as it passes from roller set to roller set. This is because, no matter how hard you crush the cane, it will soak up liquid as soon as you take the pressure off. By washing the cane between sets of rollers with hot water the sugar is dissolved out of the bagasse. This is worth another three percent of the available sugar content (or sixty pounds of sugar per ton of cane). Washing is much easier to do on the hoppers or chutes used in the horizontal arrangement. In fact washing of the cane or bagasse will be extremely difficult in the vertically arranged sugar mill.
There are problems with adding water. Unless the water is pure, you risk contaminating the product. Also, every gallon of water you add is another gallon of water that has to be evaporated off. Again modern methods rear their heads. Improved vacuum evaporation technology can drop energy needs by two thirds, and condensing the water from the evaporators gives safe water for washing the bagasse.
A side benefit of washing the bagasse with hot water is that the waxy coating of the plant can also be recovered. This wax makes up about a tenth of a percent of the mass of the cane. So from each ton of cane up to two pounds of wax can be recovered. As there is almost no additional cost in recovering this wax, it can be considered all profit.
Up-time it costs about $0.20 to produce a pound of sugar in mainland USA and about $0.09 per pound in Brazil. This compares with a world price for sugar of about $0.08-$0.10 per pound. Based on costs in 1840s Guyana I estimate that it costs about $1.50 per pound to produce sugar in Brazil using slave labor and the existing down-time techniques. Paying workers a living wage, with improved worker performance and the best up-time techniques that can be implemented I estimate a per pound production cost of about $0.50. We still have to add the almost $2.50 per pound freight cost. Making the pre-tax cost of Brazil sugar between $3.00 and $4.00 per pound landed in Amsterdam. The Dutch sugar tax was the lowest in Europe at $10,000 per chest—640 pounds—, but it still adds more than $15.50 to the cost of a pound of sugar. Total cost landed in Amsterdam would be about $19.50. Doubling this for planters and merchants margins plus the cost of refining gives us the almost $40 per pound Amsterdam price for refined sugar
Up-time, sugar beet is a major source of sugar. In fact Europe is a major producer of sugar up-time. All from sugar beet. However there are two things to remember before suggesting Grantville should be producing sugar from sugar beet. Firstly, the varieties used up-time yield about 17% of their weight in sugar using industrial extraction techniques (up to 94% extraction). In about 1760 the Berlin apothecary Marggraff obtained in his laboratory 6.2% of the beet’s weight in sugar from a white variety of beet. Marggraff probably extracted almost 100% of the available sugar. However, his laboratory techniques are not economic at the industrial level. Therefore, the extraction would drop to between 3.14% and 5.8% (See table 1). The other thing to remember is that up-time, it costs something like four times as much to produce sugar from beet as it does to produce sugar from cane. With an up-time world price for sugar of $0.08 per pound and a cost of production up around $0.35 cents per pound sugar beet is not really competitive with sugar cane.
To produce beet sugar down-time an investor is going to suffer a few problems. Firstly there is the choice of variety. Using modern techniques on the down-time beets a yield 5.80% sugar is possible; about a third of that possible from modern varieties. The investor can start selective breeding, but it is going to be a long time before the beets approach up-time yields.
Next the investor has to harvest the crop. There is no reason to think that tonnage of beet should be significantly less than up-time assuming reasonable use of available fertilizer. The real problem is that until resources are available to design and build harvesting machines, beets will be dug by hand. This will be more labor intensive than hand cutting sugar cane.
Having harvested the crop it must be cleaned. Sugar cane grows above the ground and so there is no need to wash off adherent soil. The down-time investor could wash beets by hand . . . However that will be slow, labor intensive, and therefore expensive. The up-time solution is to tumble wash the beets in water. The tumbling action causes beets to rub together removing most of the soil. This should be possible down-time.
Then the real fun begins. The investor can try to crush the whole beets, or they could slice them first. A lot of labor will be required to chop up the beets, and the percentage of juice yield will be about the same as existing sugar cane extraction techniques. The modern method of preference is “diffusion”. However this presents new problems as it depends on slicing the beets into thin slices giving the maximum surface area to extract sugar. The problem is not in the machinery. That can be made down-time. The problem is the quality of the steel used in the blades. Up-time the blades are changed at least four times a day to ensure they have the required edge to cleanly cut the beets. Down-time steels will lose their edge much faster.
The next problem is the actual diffusion process. This requires that the beet be finely sliced and soaked in hot water until the sugar dissolves out of the plant fibers. Diffusion can yield something like 94% of the available sugar, but it uses a lot of hot water. And here is the rub. Where as sugar cane can be processed without using any additional fuel, sugar beet needs the use of fuel to heat the diffusion water and to evaporate the water.
With the prevailing high price of sugar, Sugar beet might be attempted in Europe. As long as there is the high tax on sugar, sugar beet might be competitive with sugar cane from Brazil and the Caribbean. However, before starting a potential investor should consider that:
The capital investment required for processing sugar beets is enormous.
Sugar beet is only going to be processed for about 90 days per year compared with 300 days for Brazilian and Caribbean sugar cane. This means expensive capital equipment will stand idle for three-quarters of the year.
Sugar beet requires additional resources to heat water for diffusion and evaporating off the water content of the juice. Sugar cane producers can get away with using the spent stalk (bagasse) as fuel and need no additional fuel.
Historically Sugar beet has only prospered with government support in the form of taxes and duties on cane sugar.
No article on sugar and sweeteners can be truly complete without looking at honey (80% sucrose sugar).
Honey is well known down-time. However up-timers come bearing gifts. Firstly in the design of the man-made hives. Down-time beekeepers have been using something called a Straw Skep. This is a circular structure in which the bee colony makes its own honeycombs. The problem with this occurs when the beekeeper attempts to recover the honey. They are required to remove the whole comb and destroy it to remove the honey. The up-time Langstroth moveable frame design offers a number of advantages.
Firstly, a Langstroth moveable frame hive can be made up of more than one box of frames. This allows a hive to be increased in size as a colony grows. This is especially useful when the hive is placed in a highly productive environment. If for example, it is assumed that each box of frames in a Langstroth hive has the same capacity as the Straw Skep hive, Then the Langstroth hive can easily be enlarged four or five fold. Meanwhile the down-time beekeeper has to find a way to encourage the colony to spread out into another three or four Straw Skep hives. This usually requires that the colony send out virgin Queens to start new colonies. Something that is unlikely to occur right when you want it to. Also, the new colonies take most of a season to become net producers of honey. For this reason, in the right place, up-timer bee keeping techniques could dramatically increase honey production. And because increased bee activity implies increased fertilization of crops, local crop production would also increase as the bee population increases.
Secondly, where the Straw Skep combs are removed and destroyed to recover the honey and beeswax, the combs in the Langstroth hive are attached to moveable frames. These frames can be easily removed from the hive and after decapping the honey comb they honey can be spun out using a simple centrifuge. The frame with its honey removed but with the beeswax comb still in place can then be returned to the hive. This saves the bees from having to make so much wax and allows for honey production to be maximized.
The next place up-timers can contribute to increasing honey production is in the equipment and techniques for handling bees. The use of bee-smokers makes handling bees safer. The use of protective clothing or at least the use of veils to protect the head also makes bee handling safer.
One cannot forget disease when dealing with livestock, and bees are livestock. Up-time bee-keepers will be familiar with the variety of diseases that can afflict their bees. The various bacteria that kill off the brood (larva state bees), often called “foul brood” and their treatments will be known to up-timers. Unfortunately, knowing what the problem is might not be sufficient when they can no longer obtain the known solutions.
Wintering over a colony will be a problem. Up-timers will know how to winter over their colonies. However, they are used to feeding them cheap sugar to make up for the honey they have removed. Sugar is no longer cheap. For this reason it is unlikely that the Grantville bee keepers will come anywhere near the forty-seven pounds per colony that they were achieving up-time.
Counting only those colonies being run by people with five or more hives there were about seven thousand colonies in the state of West Virginia around the time of the Ring of Fire. Averaging this out, there are only twelve extra colonies in the Ring of Fire area. I’m not suggesting that there are only twelve bee colonies in the Ring of Fire area. Just that, if we ignore the individuals with one to four colonies, there are only one or two people running more than five colonies. Unless the Ring of Fire area is a nectar rich environment, it seems unlikely that there will be any really large-scale up-timer honey producer within the Ring of Fire.
In Grantville the sugar of choice will probably be Sorghum, probably in syrup form, but some will be reduced to refined white sugar. It will be significantly cheaper than imported sugar. The problem will be filling the demand. Freight costs alone make Sorghum economical even at the small farm level. If the Grantville producers don’t have to pay Sugar Tax, then the price differential continues to be enormous.
Sugar cane will grab the new innovations available from Grantville. There are simple changes that can double and even triple current yields. However, efforts will be made to remove or reduce the sugar tax, especially as competing sources of sugar are grown in Europe.
Sugar Beet is only going to be economical while there is the high tax on sugar. Without this price support, Sugar Beet will go nowhere.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition 1910-1911 (Sugar)
Alan H. Adamson (1972). Sugar without slaves: The political economy of British Guiana, 1838-1904. Yale University Press.
C.R. Boxer. (1957). The Dutch in Brazil 1624-1654. Clarendon Press. Oxford.